County officials react to state mask mandate

By Ryan Fitzmaurice

The Big Horn County Sheriff’s Office will not enforce Gov. Mark Gordon’s statewide mask mandate. Still, county officials are hopeful the order will help mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

Monday’s updated public health orders include a statewide mask mandate, tighter restrictions on gathering sizes and fewer hours for certain businesses.

The orders took effect on Wednesday, Dec. 9. 

The order requires people to wear masks when inside or in line to enter any retail or commercial business, when obtaining health care and during public transit. Staff members of businesses will be required to wear masks when interacting with the public. 

According to the order, all businesses must post notices in a visible location at or near their entrance that face coverings are required. The order lists the same requirement for state, county and municipal buildings. 

Several exemptions are listed, including when a person is seated at a restaurant or food service venue, when a person is actively exercising in a gym or has a medical condition, mental health condition or disability that prevents them from wearing a face covering. 

The state order closely mirrors the county mask orders that are already active in 16 counties in Wyoming. 

“Our state and those surrounding us are facing a hospital capacity crisis that now compels us to take additional action,” Gordon said in a statement Monday afternoon. “All through the fall, Wyoming has seen a rise in serious cases of COVID-19, to a point where every county is facing critical and dangerous levels of spread of the virus. Too many people have died.”

In a Monday press briefing, State Health Officer Dr. Alexia Harrist stated that the existing health orders before the mask order were not enough to stem the virus’ spread. 

“We are always trying to balance the impact of all of our actions, and it has become clear, at this point, that the previous steps have not been sufficient.”

The updated orders will also limit many indoor and outdoor gatherings to 10 people, decreasing the 25-person limit enacted in November. The new orders still allow indoor venues to hold up to 100 people, or 25 percent of a venue’s capacity. Outdoor venues can hold up to 250 people, or 50 percent of capacity. 

The orders also restrict the hours of operation of bars, restaurants and cafes, prohibiting them from serving customers from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. Only six
are allowed per table in restaurants decreased from the eight allowed before. 

Local response

Sheriff Ken Blackburn said the Big Horn Sheriff’s Office supports Gordon’s decision but considers the new mask order “unenforceable.”

“I will adopt the same opinion most of the sheriffs across the state have adopted,” Blackburn said. “We think that masks are important, but, after consultation, I do not feel this is an enforceable mandate. We are on the same page as other law enforcement officers within the state.”

Blackburn said the exemptions in the state health order are what makes the mandate unenforceable. It is an unreasonable burden to ask law enforcement officers to prove if someone has a disability that prevents them from wearing a mask, Blackburn said. 

“We have other matters that need serious attention,” Blackburn said. “And overall, it’s something that I don’t have the manpower to do.”

Blackburn said the exception is if a business or event requires masks and individuals refuse to comply.

“If a business or event is having a problem with someone complying at an event, we will enforce the criminal trespass statute,” Blackburn said. “We’ve long held that compliance falls back to the event holder or business owner.”

Schools, as well, are operated under school rules, and deputies will enforce the rules within a school, Blackburn said. 

Blackburn said the sheriff’s department will still proceed under the guidance that wearing a mask is first and foremost a personal decision. 

“The decision to wear a mask is about personal responsibility,” Blackburn said. 

Deputies will wear a mask when reasonable, Blackburn said.

“I will emphasize that we in the sheriff’s department will be wearing our masks within reason because it’s the right thing to do,” Blackburn said. “We do support the science, and if there’s anything we can do to help protect those around us, that’s what we’re going to do.”

Big Horn County Public Health Officer David Fairbanks was among 21 county health officers, out of a total of 23, who signed a letter to Governor Gordon recommending a statewide mask ordinance in early November. 

Fairbanks said that county officials elected not to implement a mandate themselves because they felt the potential backlash could lead to less mask-wearing and not more by the public.

“We didn’t want any actions by our county to hinder the improvement that we’ve seen,” Fairbanks said. 

The county’s health department prevention specialist, Chad Lindsay, said he believes the order is better from the state level.

“I think it will be better received from the governor than from people at the local level,” Lindsay said. “I think people will realize how dire the situation is. It’s not just local officials on some type of power trip.”

Lindsay pointed to diminishing hospital capacity, along with local school districts who are having their resources taxed due to absences from COVID-19. 

Fairbanks said that, overall, cases in Wyoming continue to increase. Big Horn County was down one active case this week, with 68 cases reported Monday, but two more deaths were reported in the county. 

“I hope the people will see that this is something that we want to have so people will continue to enjoy the holidays,” Fairbanks said. “Several families were completely disrupted during Thanksgiving because people were exposed and quarantined. Hopefully, we won’t see that as much in the days leading up to Christmas and New Year’s because of this.”

Until a vaccine is available, Fairbanks said, masks will continue to be one of the best tools we have against the virus. 

“It’s something I used to tell my Boy Scouts,” Fairbanks said. “A hatchet may not be as good as a chainsaw when it comes to collecting firewood. It doesn’t mean you throw the hatchet out. This is the best we can do right now.”