Wyoming’s Republican governor isn’t in a race to be among the first to re-open during the coronavirus pandemic because, according to his office, the state’s economy was never really “closed” to begin with.
After previously—and falsely—claiming authority over states’ ability to move on from COVID-19 lockdowns, President Trump has since come around to the reality that they will be making their own decisions. The White House unveiled guidelines last week that the president said would let governors “take a phased and deliberate approach,” to their respective outbreaks.
Wyoming, North Dakota and Montana were among the states Trump mentioned as contrasts to more severe crises in states like New York. The president said he thought “29 states are in that ballgame, not open, not for opening, but I think they’ll be able to open relatively soon.”
But a spokesman for Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon played down any sense of a rush for the deeply conservative state, even if its restrictions paled in comparison to those put in place by a slew of others.
“Governor Gordon is not focused on being one of the first states to ‘re-open,’” spokesperson Michael Pearlman said in an email Friday, noting the governor has avoided issuing a statewide stay-at-home order and “never ‘closed’ Wyoming’s economy.”
In some states, it’s safe to say, reopening won’t be as stark as it is in others. But even in Wyoming, the governor’s office acknowledged Friday continued challenges from “a lack of available testing supplies,” a testament to what public officials and health experts described as a potentially disastrous push to end the worst of the COVID-19 shutdown.
“If Wyoming does not proceed carefully, and in alignment with our neighbors, we open up the possibility of our state being overrun with new cases being introduced from neighboring states where the virus is more prevalent,” Gordon’s office said in the email.
Proceeding carefully, public health experts have said in recent weeks, will generally require states provide several key tools before sending their citizens back to work: millions more diagnostic tests and antibody tests, and enough health workers and infrastructure to conduct meticulous “contact-tracing” of anyone who might have the virus.
As Dr. Adrian Hyzler, the chief medical officer for Healix International—which provides medical information to organizations whose clients travel internationally—explained to The Daily Beast on Friday, these measures are not “revolutionary ideas.”
“They are the basic requirements to ensure the safety of citizens and health-care workers as we slowly step out of lockdown/shelter in place orders,” Hyzler said, adding that without “the ability for widespread screening of all people with symptoms—and then the ability to contact trace and test all those contacts—then there is every possibility that there will be another surge, leading to a cluster of cases requiring further lockdown measures.”
Authorities in some states that hesitated to implement aggressive social distancing guidelines—like Texas and Florida—were already making announcements about plans to reopen spaces like parks by Friday. Residents flocked to beaches in Jacksonville on Saturday, to the dismay of some local officials.
But Dr. David Larsen, an associate professor in the Department of Public Health at Syracuse University who specializes in global health and infectious disease epidemiology, said the biggest concern—in every state—“is that this whole social distancing month” could be “wasted by opening too early.”
“We have a very large country, and the dynamics of the epidemic are going to differ based on a lot of factors—connectivity between citizens and activity between communities,” said Larsen. “It makes sense to have a locally tailored approach.”
Even the areas that haven’t been hard-hit should be cautious, according to Larsen.
“Just because a community opens up doesn’t mean it’s not at risk,” he continued, noting that rural enclaves may see outbreaks as time goes on, positing that ultimately “it’s just a matter of timing when the epidemic comes through their location.”
In Montana, Al Olszewski, a Republican state senator and orthopedic surgeon, said Friday he felt the state was ready to re-open. He called on hospitals to perform elective treatments and high schools to reintroduce seniors first, along with special education students, before adding on grades in phases.
But his optimism was tempered by acknowledgment that even in Montana, the return to normalcy would come in phases. And the state may still “have to put the brakes on,” if issues arise, he said.
“We'll probably be the first state that's fully open,” Olszewski told The Daily Beast. “And I think that we can be fully open by the end of the summer.”
Olszewski, who is competing for the Republican nomination for governor, participated in a rally Sunday around the capitol calling on Gov. Steve Bullock, the state’s Democratic governor, to open things up again. (The president on Saturday seemed to indicate that Montana was set to ease its shutdown this coming Friday, only for Bullock’s office to tell local television station Q2 it was still plotting the best way forward.)
"It was not a protest, it was a rally," Olszewski said Sunday. "And it was not to resist, but to encourage and promote the opening of our state and to pray for the safe opening of our state."
On Friday in Natrona County, home to one of Wyoming’s largest cities of Casper, Sean Ellis, an official with the area’s joint information center, said officials had “started to look at what reopening is and the definition of it and everything like that.”
“The biggest thing however is, is it can't be just, 'Open the doors,’” he said. “And it can't be, ‘Keep 'em all closed.’ And so we're just trying to find the middle ground of what makes sense.”
Other local power players, like Foster Friess, a prominent Wyoming GOP donor who ran for governor in 2018, appeared energized about the idea of being one of the more open states during the pandemic—while also suggesting the state had been ahead of the curve.
“Wyoming is much like South Dakota, which under leadership of a true American Patriot, Kristi Noem, was pretty much open from the beginning,” Friess said in an email. “Wyoming was into social distancing before it was popular, so it’s no surprise it’ll be one of the first to reopen.”
In an email to The Daily Beast, the Wyoming governor’s office said their restrictions—which included “limiting gatherings to 10 or fewer, closure of schools, bars, restaurants and personal services businesses”—meant that “most of our states businesses have continued to operate during this pandemic.”
Dr. Mark Rupp, chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases in the Department of Internal Medicine at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, acknowledged that his own state—and others with large rural populations—“may be able to be much more liberal about how they can open things.”
But Rupp cautioned that those areas will still need all of the testing and contact-tracing that large metropolitan areas are seeking. In fact, a recent surge in cases in Rupp’s state—even as Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts has resisted calls for a stay-at-home order—left some residents panicked about their exposure to the virus. Cases spiked up again over the weekend, according to the Associated Press.
“Small towns in Nebraska are not immune from this,” Rupp said Friday. “This infection can rip right through a small town or manufacturing plant, just as it does in a big city.”
As Hyzler—who is based in the U.K.—put it: “I would rather be in a state that is a week or two behind and can monitor developments and take steps accordingly.”
Several states, including North Dakota and California, have already released plans for a path to reopening with some of these key preparation factors in mind. But North Dakota, like Wyoming and Nebraska, is one of the few states that has resisted a stay-at-home order.
Still, North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum’s plan notes that a gradual reopening process, sometime after April 30, would require everything from “robust, widespread rapid testing capacity and “robust contact tracing and infrastructure” to “plans for dealing with a resurgence or additional waves of COVID-19,” among other measures.
Without the appropriate tools, warned Prof. Eyal Leshem, a global expert on infectious diseases and director of the Institute for Travel and Tropical Medicine at Israel’s Sheba Medical Center, Tel HaShomer, “There is actual risk of a substantial increase in the number of cases if social distancing measures are relieved.”
“The basic characteristics of COVID-19—including its highly contagious nature and relatively high proportion of severe cases—remain unchanged,” Leshem added.
The contagious nature of the virus continues to trouble Dave Carlsrud.
As president of the city commission of Valley City, North Dakota, Carlsrud acknowledged there had to be "continued vigilance, or it will overtake us." He didn’t think his state was ready to re-open, arguing it was “still on the front of the curve.”
As of Sunday morning, North Dakota’s health department reported 585 positive COVID-19 cases.
"It started later here, so those other regions may be ready," he said. "I just don't believe that we are at this point."
But, Carlsrud added, he was pleased with the state's Republican governor and planned to follow his lead.
"When our governor says it's time to re-open, I will trust him because of the team that is working here,” he said.