Wyoming residents will have to prepare for a different reality in a post-coronavirus world, Gov. Mark Gordon said Wednesday.
Gordon, speaking during a news conference just hours after the state confirmed its second death attributed to COVID-19, said state officials have already started discussing how the state will emerge from the restrictions that have forced the closures of schools and some businesses.
“We are going to emerge into a new reality, a new economy,” he said. “Social distancing is not going to go away. We need to start thinking about what our schools will look like next year. I’ve been talking with the judicial part of our government to make sure we understand what trials are going to look like. So we are all talking about what our new reality is going to look like.”
However, it is too early to consider lifting the public health orders that have restricted the movements of Wyoming residents since March, said Gordon and Dr. Alexia Harrist, the state health officer.
“It is critical that we continue to stay the course and adhere to the public health orders that are currently in place,” he said. “It still remains too early to see if we are near the peak of these illnesses yet. We must all follow the recommendations in place to reduce the likelihood of large clusters of new cases.”
Harrist said the state will base its decision on when to ease the restrictions on data proving the move will not threaten public health.
“As we consider our steps moving forward … we will continue to use data to inform our decisions,” Harrist said. “There is not one single data point that we can rely on, but rather we need to consider the entire picture. It’s important to remember that it takes more than a couple days worth of data to be able to draw conclusions about what is happening with the outbreak in Wyoming. We need to see sustained trends to make sure that we’re basing decision on reliable information.”
Gordon said the deaths caused by the virus show the state’s residents must continue to follow guidelines and the public health orders, which also prohibit gatherings of 10 people or more and require visitors from other states to self-quarantine for 14 days.
“These deaths are a reminder of why we must take the orders we have in place seriously,” he said. “I do not want to see anyone have the experience that these two families have had to endure.”
On Wednesday, the Wyoming Department of Health announced that six new cases of coronavirus were detected, bringing the total to 288.
The Health Department said new coronavirus cases were reported Wednesday in Crook, Laramie, Sweetwater and Teton counties.
As of Wednesday afternoon Laramie County had 64 cases; Teton County had 59; Fremont County had 42; Natrona County had 34; Campbell County had 13; Sheridan had 12; Johnson had 11; Sweetwater had 10; Converse had eight; Albany, Lincoln and Washakie had five; Carbon, Crook and and Uinta had four, and Goshen had three. Big Horn, Hot Springs, Niobrara, Park and Sublette counties had one case each.
The number of people to have recovered from the illness since it first surfaced in Wyoming also increased on Wednesday, growing by 12 to total 176. That means more than 60 percent of those diagnosed with the illness have recovered.
Full recovery is defined as occurring when a patient shows no symptoms of coronavirus for three days and has taken no medication for fever reduction.
In other developments:
Budget cuts: In the face of current and future revenue declines, Gordon on Wednesday directed state agencies to identify opportunities for immediate spending cuts during the current fiscal year, which ends on June 30, and for the next biennium, which runs from this July through June of 2022. Gordon ordered agencies to institute position freezes, halt contracts worth more than $100,000 and implement a “rigorous review” of spending on major maintenance. “It is imperative that spending slow while we continue to learn more about the full extent of this historic pandemic and economic decline,” he said in a news release.
Housing assistance: During his news conference, Gordon announced he had approached Wyoming Community Development Authority to determine if some program could be created to provide assistance for those who are having trouble making rent or mortgage payments in the face of business closures. Gordon said he would prefer to see some aid program over an order banning the collection of rents and mortgages for a time. “Our remedy here is designed at shoring up the entire system and making sure people who are facing evictions or foreclosures are somehow given relief,” he said. “We’re not shifting that burden to landlords. It’s important that our economy stand up in full.”
Falsely low: The state’s figures for coronavirus cases are falsely low and more deaths from the coronavirus can be expected in the near future, according to Natrona County’s health officer. Dr. Mark Dowell said he believes state figures indicating the spread of the disease might be slowing are misleading. “I don’t think it means anything,” he said during a news conference Wednesday. “We’re going to continue looking at trends, but if Wyoming follows every other area where there has been virus, we expect this to turn around and go up again.”
Grade changes: Several school districts around the state are looking at ways to adjust their grading systems to accommodate school closures forced by coronavirus. Laramie County’s two school districts are thinking of allowing students the option of taking a standard letter grade, a nonspecific passing grade or an “incomplete.” “Life circumstances beyond their control should not dictate students failing a course at this point,” said Stephen Newton, director of instruction for Cheyenne schools.
Changes have also been approved for the grading system of Lovell schools, where school board trustees this week adopted a “pass-fail” system of grading. “We’ll have teachers look at the quality of work and work with the kids to improve,” said interim Superintendent Nancy Cerroni. “But just submit the work, we will consider that as a pass, and then we will work with the student.”
Coronavirus refugees: Officials in Park and Johnson counties are reporting that out-of-state residents appear to be traveling to Wyoming to take refuge from the coronavirus. Wyoming Highway Patrol trooper Lt. Lee Pence said he has seen an increase of cars bearing out-of-state license plates in the Cody area. Johnson County Sheriff Rod Odenbach said he and his deputies are seeing license plates from other states as well, including Utah, Pennsylvania and Colorado. Odenbach said he had heard of one group of South Carolina travelers saying they wanted to stay in Johnson County to avoid the coronavirus. “There’s definitely nonresident traffic that we’ve not had before, not this time of year,” he said. “You’re used to seeing those people, but not in April; the snow’s not even off the mountain yet.”
Protesting shutdown: A group of protestors gathered outside the Capitol on Wednesday to urge Gordon to ease the statewide restrictions that have closed some businesses. The five protestors asked Gordon to allow workers across the state to return to their jobs. “The numbers seem to me to be flattened,” said Ed Burns, a Laramie resident who traveled to Cheyenne for the protest. “I don’t want it to flare up, but there are just a lot of questions that aren’t being answered.”
Infected party-goer: Casper Mayor Steve Freel announced Wednesday that a person who later tested positive for the coronavirus attended multiple parties in private homes last weekend. Freel, during a news conference, said the person was a roommate of a Wyoming Behavioral Institute employee who tested positive for coronavirus. The roommate was tested Friday, but before the results could be returned on Monday, the roommate went to multiple parties over the weekend. Freel said those who were attending the parties were “flat out thumbing their nose” at public health concerns.
Airport assistance: Airports across Wyoming will be receiving assistance as a result of the coronavirus relief package approved by Congress. The Yellowstone Regional Airport is set to receive $18 million, which surprised officials at the airport, which has an annual operating budget of $3 million. “It’s just, it’s amazing we got this much money,” said airport Manager Bob Hooper.
The Jackson Hole airport will receive almost $16.9 million; Cheyenne’s airport will receive $4.7 million; the Sheridan airport will receive $4 million, the Natrona County International Airport in Casper will receive $1.5 million; Gillette’s airport will get $1.1 million, and the Rock Springs, Laramie and Riverton airports will each receive almost $1.1 million.
Partying: Lovell police reported that about 25 young adults gathered for a party last week in what Lovell Police Chief Dan Laffin called a blatant and disgusting disregard for public safety. Laffin said his officers found a large group of teenagers and young adults inside a garage having a party. “This is not a simple matter of ignorance or young people blowing off steam or trying to cope with this social isolation situation,” he said. “This is an arrogant and blatant disregard for the safety of our citizens. The behavior is not excusable and is outright disgusting.”
Flights reduced: The number of flights in and out of Yellowstone Regional Airport in Cody has been reduced in the face of travel declines caused by the coronavirus. Skywest Airlines last month told airport officials they would pull out of Cody and offer no connections to Salt Lake City this year. United has cut its service from two flights to Denver daily to one.
Virtual happy hour: Two Saratoga bartenders have been featured on an online “happy hour” designed to support restaurant and bar workers. Danny Burau and Emily Luparia of Saratoga’s Firewater Public House have been featured on the show “Tip Your Bartender.” The “virtual happy hour” showcases a different bartender every day. The bartender goes on the program to make a cocktail. Each participating bar receives $1,000 and viewers are encouraged to tip the bartender’s Venmo account. Bacardi, the rum distiller, will match all tips in a contribution to the Restaurant Workers’ Community Foundation.
Adoptions: Two Gillette mothers are encouraging residents of the area to “adopt” high school seniors to provide them with encouragement as they near the end of their high school careers. Brandi Brockmoller and Beth Raab have set up a program by which adults can “adopt” high school seniors in Gillette, Wright, Rozet and Moorcroft. The adults adopting seniors are encouraged to send them items such as letters of encouragement, gift cards, momentos, cards or gift baskets. “We both have a senior and so our hearts are kind of broken for them that their senior year has kind of been squashed,” Brockmoller said. “We’re hoping to spread the word and get some more people to post their kiddos and let somebody adopt them and show them some joy.”
Arts grants: The Wyoming Arts Council is awarding $500 grants for individual Wyoming artists who have lost income due to the coronavirus. “Folks everywhere are turning to the arts for comfort, solace and entertainment now more than ever,” said Michael Lange, the Arts Council’s executive director. “The Wyoming Arts Council believes that artists must be able to maintain their livelihood during this time in order to continue to create and contribute to the creative economy in our state, and this is one way in which that livelihood can be maintained.”