Up until this week, Wyoming’s Republican governor had taken a fairly light approach to restrictions despite his state’s recent struggle with the coronavirus pandemic.
Gov. Mark Gordon had avoided making a statewide mask mandate for the public at large, though some restrictions remained on places like restaurants and movie theaters. But even that was too much for the GOP faithful in the western state. Amid the relatively lax restrictions, the Wyoming Republican Party’s state central committee passed a resolution in November pushing the governor “to immediately rescind” the state of emergency he had signed back in March.
Instead of going the route his party wanted, this week Gordon embraced a new round of measures. He finally announced a statewide mask order in Wyoming and other restrictions after calls by health experts for the stronger action on face coverings.
For Christine Porter, the Wyoming excellence chair in community and public health at the University of Wyoming, it showed the governor was moving in the right direction “in spite of being forced to do so in an environment where people are systematically misinformed about the science, leading them to make misinformed recommendations.”
Still, she said, it still could have come sooner.
“This would have been a lot more effective and helpful earlier, but it will still prevent further damage to our lives and livelihoods, so better late than never,” Porter told The Daily Beast.
Elsewhere in the state the actions, which came in the form of orders signed by the state health officer Dr. Alexia Harrist, were greeted with discontent from some local Republicans in Wyoming.
Karl Allred, a state official for the Wyoming GOP in Uinta County, said Republicans are “very pissed off at [Gordon].”
“He’s pushing these mandates when the clear majority of people here in the state don’t believe in masks, they don’t want ’em,” said Allred, who said he would not follow the new mask order and falsely said that masks do not work as he described Gordon as “acting more like a dictator than as an elected governor.”
And he wasn’t alone among Republicans in the state willing to split from the governor over the pandemic, as others also painted a picture filled with false notions of the pandemic that further alarmed health experts.
“I feel that this virus exists, but it’s being exaggerated by the media and our governor, in my opinion, hasn’t done his research and his response is going to effectively harm the communities worse than the virus itself,” said Rick Martin, the chairman of the Republican Party of Washakie County, who described the restrictions as unnecessary.
One local Republican leader, Mike Lundgren, who serves as the chairman of the Lincoln County Republican Party, said the state needs “someone who’s more willing to keep our freedoms intact.”
“I’m looking at gathering signatures to try to get our legislature to impeach him and have him removed because I think that we’re to that point,” Lundgren said the day after the restrictions were announced.
Gordon, who tested positive for the virus last month, has now recovered and is back at work in the office while the state’s first lady also tested positive days after the governor, according to the governor’s office. A spokesman for Gordon declined to respond to the criticism lobbed at him by some Republicans in the state when contacted by The Daily Beast, saying in an email, “the health orders announced this week were in response to serious concerns about hospital capacity and to prevent the state’s health-care system from becoming overwhelmed.”
The governor did receive a strong show of support from the state’s congressional delegation, despite the pushback on him from party officials on the local level. In a joint statement released Monday, Rep. Liz Cheney (R-WY) and the state’s two Senators John Barrasso and Mike Enzi said “Governor Gordon is committed to protecting Wyoming and his health orders reflect that.”
Data gathered by the state’s health department shows COVID-19 hospitalizations in the state started spiking this fall and hit a peak of 247 patients on Nov. 30, which has caused alarm in a rural and sparse state with a small population but plenty of ground to cover. Melissa Ballengee Alexander, a public health law expert at the University of Wyoming, said in an email to The Daily Beast, that “while improving recently, in November, Wyoming struggled with one of the highest per capita rates of COVID in the country.”
Back in April, a spokesman for the governor proudly touted in an email to The Daily Beast that “the Governor never “‘closed’ Wyoming’s economy,” adding that “the public health orders we implemented (limiting gatherings to 10 or fewer, closure of schools, bars, restaurants and personal services businesses) were limited in scope and critical to protect public health in Wyoming.”
Republicans in Wyoming had already shown they were upset with Gordon’s handling of the pandemic even before the latest restrictions were announced. In mid-November, members of the Wyoming Republican Party’s state central committee passed a resolution pushing the governor “to immediately rescind” the state of emergency because it “has proved to be worse than the cure which that has been imposed by the state’s restrictions on the right of individuals and business owners to make a living in support themselves and their families continues to greatly damage the citizens and economy of the Great State of Wyoming,” according to the text order provided by the state party.
The idea raised by the state GOP’s central committee was panned by health experts who warned about the severe situation Wyoming has faced as the pandemic has worn on.
“Our hospital workers are over-burdened and cannot sustain the current rate of hospitalizations long-term,” Alexander, the public health law expert, said in the email. “Everyone is (understandably) tired of COVID restrictions, but we need to be doing more, not less, until the crisis passes.”
Dr. David Wheeler, a neurologist in Casper and the president of the Wyoming Medical Society, said he’d “like to see more stringent orders in place,” adding that “it’s irrefutable that lives would be saved.”
“The folks who are loudly proclaiming that this is a hoax or that the media is blowing this out of proportion, I’m frankly astonished by their gullibility to ignore the evidence in front of their eyes,” said Wheeler, who has been involved in aiding the governor’s coronavirus response.
The resolution’s passage last month did little to publicly change Gordon’s mind. “I just think it was an unfortunate resolution, but it’s perhaps a sign of the times of how far apart this country has become,” Gordon later told the editorial board of The Wyoming Tribune Eagle, according to the newspaper. “I certainly hope to work with GOP leadership to try to find a way to sort of rethink what that resolution was.”
Additional restrictions announced by the governor and the state health department this week along with the mask requirement included requiring venues such as restaurants and bars to close by 10 p.m. for in-person service and gathering limits with exceptions, according to the orders. According to the governor’s spokesman, “counties can opt-out, but their county-level metrics would need to improve before our State Health Officer would consider granting a county-level variance to the mask order, gathering limits and businesses restrictions.”
In announcing the mask order, the state noted in a press release that “16 Wyoming counties already have county-level orders requiring face coverings,” out of the state’s 23 counties.
In stressing their disappointment with Gordon’s latest approach, some also evoked South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, who has become a star on the right for avoiding coronavirus restrictions even as her state has been hit hard by the pandemic.
“I think he should do more like what South Dakota’s doing and open this up and have a little confidence in people’s common sense,” said Martin Kimmet, the chairman of the Park County Republican Party.