Health officials brace for COVID-19 uptick in Laramie County after weekend gatherings downtown

CHEYENNE - Local health officials worry that crowded gatherings in downtown Cheyenne this past weekend will lead to an increase in COVID-19 cases in Laramie County.

Cheyenne-Laramie County Health Department Executive Director Kathy Emmons, in an interview with the Wyoming Tribune Eagle on Monday, said she was worried about a potential increase following Saturday's "Summertime On The Streets" event, which drew hundreds of people to shop at local businesses in downtown Cheyenne.

"We're really concerned about the potential spread from the events this weekend, because it doesn't appear like a lot of people were wearing masks," Emmons said. "If people weren't practicing social distancing - which, from the pictures I saw, I didn't see that - that's going to most likely lead to increased numbers in the county."

Recently, for a roughly two-week period, Laramie County either reported no new or zero active COVID-19 cases, but that trend has changed in the past week.

The county health department announced Monday afternoon that 15 individuals had tested positive for COVID-19 in Laramie County over the last seven days, and three more positive cases in Laramie County were announced Tuesday afternoon. Those cases, which would not yet reflect any potential outbreak from this weekend, were largely in people between 20 and 30 years old.

Statewide numbers have also risen this week, with the Wyoming Department of Health reporting Monday its highest daily increase in COVID-19 cases since early May.

There are signs that those numbers, which would not reflect any spread from last weekend, could continue to rise in coming weeks. 

The Laramie County health department, in its Tuesday release, also confirmed employees had tested positive or were deemed likely to have COVID-19 at five local restaurants: the Accomplice Beer Company, Rib and Chop House, Buffalo Wild Wings, the Tortilla Factory on South Greeley Highway and Red Lobster.

"All the facilities impacted are working closely with the Health Department to identify potentially impacted staff," Emmons said in a statement Tuesday. "They are committed to public safety and are also completing deep cleaning of their establishments."

At Accomplice, which was so busy Saturday that the head brewer called the scene at the historic train depot a "zoo," all employees were informed Sunday night that a few workers had tested positive for COVID-19, owner Roy Sandoval confirmed to the Wyoming Tribune Eagle on Monday morning.

The brewery, whose dining room and patio have been reopened at limited capacity for a month, shut down Monday and Tuesday to sanitize the facility and give local health officials time to conduct an investigation.

"Our hope is that we're only closed for one day, but it depends on how much of our staff is able to return from work, which will depend on guidance from health officials and who they release to come back to work," Sandoval said Monday.

The county health department, in tandem with the state's public health officer, has the ability to shut down businesses that completely refuse to comply with protocols, but Emmons said the department has not yet needed to pursue that option.

"Our goal is always going to be to work with the owner as much as possible to try to get them to suspend services until we can do enough contact tracing to have a good idea of what's going on with their organization," Emmons said.

The county health department has 12 nurses, all of whom have added contact tracing to their lengthy list of responsibilities. Emmons said they are currently at maximum capacity trying to help contain community spread.

Containing community spread requires commitment from both businesses and customers. Laramie County Health Officer Dr. Stan Hartman told the Tribune Eagle the department has heard from several business owners who have encountered patrons who refused to follow any health-related requests.

"(The requests) are not an infringement on anyone's personal liberty. This is just being courteous enough to not want to spread the virus in case you happen to have it," Hartman said. "It's been politicized, unfortunately, but if you take the politics out and just look at the medical aspects, whenever anyone goes into a business that requests them to wear a face mask, they should comply."

Hartman pointed to recent research that has found as much as 40% of new COVID-19 cases could be asymptomatic - evidence that he said underscores the importance of wearing a mask.

"The coronavirus is here, and it's not going away any time soon," Hartman said. "Even though people are tired of dealing with it, they still have to deal with it."