JACKSON — Every day, at some point, Brianna Moteberg has to tell someone to wear a mask.
It’s not a conversation she relishes, but the owner of Altitude, a boutique on Town Square, requires that masks be worn in her store, and every day a potential customer comes in and tries to shop without one. When she asks those customers to don one, which she provides, some do, others simply leave, and a few lay into her over the rule, sometimes using coarse language not fit for print in this newspaper.
Most people are civil, but “you do have the ones who come into the store and want to make a scene,” Moteberg said.
She and other business owners find themselves in the unenviable position of telling customers to cover their faces in part because Teton County doesn’t have a mask requirement. Not every shopkeeper requires face coverings, but those who do are forced to defend such decisions without the benefit of a government edict.
If that existed, Moteberg said, it would give business owners cover, allowing them to point to communitywide restrictions rather than a personal decision. Beyond the public health aspect of wearing masks, she sees it as a financial necessity.
Scientific literature increasingly shows masks — even those made of cloth — are effective at slowing or stopping transmission of the coronavirus as long as the majority of a community uses them. So if tourists and locals alike wore them, Moteberg projects businesses could stay open and serve customers without fear the virus would spread rapidly.
Without a mask order in place, the potential for a second spike in cases and a second economic downturn could be higher.
“It’ll be detrimental,” she said. “There’s not enough government funding that is going to help a business be able to get out of the loss that they will incur if we are shut down during the height of our season of June through October.”
Teton County elected officials have expressed multitudinous support for mask wearing but have been hesitant to enact an enforceable order, which Moteberg and others want. In public comment on masks sent to the Town Council in the past couple of weeks since active COVID cases started rising, roughly 80% have pushed for an official order.
Moteberg wants the Town Council to at least make a strong statement, but Mayor Pete Muldoon isn’t sure the council can say anything beyond the public health recommendation already in place that encourages it.
“That seems to be, you know, as far as an official recognition of what we ought to be doing as good as anything we can do,” he said.
In looking for support for a mask order, business owners aren’t seeing any official backing from the Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce. The chamber worked closely with the Teton County Health Department on the reopening plan that jump-started the economy, which doesn’t include any specific restrictions on masks.
With basically every sector of the economy and government recommending masks, including the chamber, Vice President Rick Howe doesn’t see it as his organization’s place to step into the political arena and take a side on the debate.
“It’s up for the politicians to decide if it’s a mandatory order,” Howe said. “You know, if that’s something that businesses or people in the valley think would help, then certainly it’s something they should consider.”
That leaves business owners like Moteberg looking at politicians as their best recourse, but without advanced degrees in public health, elected officials don’t feel they are the best option to decide. Basically, the order boils down to one man, Teton District Health Officer Dr. Travis Riddell.
Riddell has the power to enact a public health order, with the blessing of State Health Officer Dr. Alexia Harrist, that would require masks countywide. So far, he hasn’t taken that step, but Muldoon has said in Town Council meetings that if Riddell thought it was necessary and couldn’t obtain approval at the state level, the council could authorize an order that applied only in the town.
That isn’t the best option, officials say.
“It’s far better to have Travis do something than it is to have the town alone do something, because he can mandate it for the entire county,” Town Councilor Jonathan Schechter said.
At the beginning of the outbreak, the scientific literature was not clear on masks’ effectiveness at slowing the transmission of COVID-19. In recent weeks, however, the science has solidified around their effectiveness.
Though cloth masks do not stop all viral particles because their weave is too loose, they can still stop a majority of viral particles from a contagious individual. One model from the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology found that if 80% of a population wore masks, transmission would be halted.
In his late May recommendation that people wear masks anytime they interact with people outside their immediate families and cannot socially distance, Riddell cited dozens of sources as evidence. Even so, he has refrained from instating an order in part because of political considerations and in part because he doubts an order would be more effective.
“That’s something that we just have to face as a community, that if we ever were to do a mask mandate there would be significant blowback,” Riddell said.
A vocal faction both locally and nationally has taken issue with mask wearing, arguing they are ineffective and an infringement on personal liberties. Gloria Courser, a 22-year Jackson resident, has become a de facto face of the resistance to mask wearing.
Courser, who calls herself “not anti-mask but pro-liberty,” wrote an opinion piece that published June 21 on the Daily Caller website.
Outside of the mask controversy, publishing on the Daily Caller drew fire, including from Muldoon, because the conservative news source has in the past published authors with white supremacist views. Those authors have included Jason Kessler, who organized a 2017 white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.
In a letter to officials and the media Tuesday, Courser said that she didn’t know of the publication’s history when she wrote the article and that co-founder Neil Patel told her the Daily Caller had not published articles with those views and now vets its authors more thoroughly.
As for masks, her article took issue with what she saw as a fear response in Jackson to the virus and lambasted the idea of a mask requirement, saying Riddell hadn’t thought it through well enough.
“He wanted to create a law that had no enforcement, no plans for medical exemptions,” she told the News&Guide. “There was no plan.”
In her opinion piece she described making a public records request for the research behind a potential order and a petition that garnered 1,200 signatures of locals and visitors. She credits those actions with being part of the process that convinced Riddell and elected officials to instead settle on a recommendation.
Muldoon said he was “disappointed someone from our community would support a website like that by writing for them.” He also pointed to other questions elected officials have yet to answer on the issue.
“Are we inviting, you know, more armed protesters down to Town Square?” he said of enacting an order. “Do we want to put shop owners in the position of having to enforce that?”
Courser emphatically denied that resistance to a mask order would be violent or intimidating. Faced with the same questions, other communities have decided that, yes, they put business owners in charge of enforcement, obviously with backing from law enforcement. Counties across Texas have started requiring masks in public places, sometimes even in restaurants.
Courser said part of the problem with the local potential mask order was that it would have been “arbitrary and capricious.” She pointed to a lack of medical exemptions as one example, but officials in Texas have seemingly figured out a lawful solution.
“Government cannot require individuals to wear masks,” Republican Gov. Greg Abbott told The Texas Tribune. “Local governments can require stores and business to require masks. That’s what was authorized in my plan.”
Enforcement may be the most difficult piece of any mask order. Determining if it carries a penalty or whether business owners can just ask customers to leave is still an open question.
Even for the Town Council, it can be tough. Jackson Hole Tea Party member Bob Culver went to a recent council meeting without wearing a mask, even though Muldoon said there is a requirement to wear one. Culver said that he didn’t see any signs notifying attendees of the requirement and that he would have donned one had someone asked him to.
Courser and Culver both said it was OK for businesses to ask customers to wear masks, but the same can’t be said for local government. Culver said the town could be more vocal in its encouragement of masks and should provide them to businesses if it wants people to wear them: “It’s better to approach with a carrot than a stick,” he said.
Since the chamber is providing thousands of masks to businesses and tourists, that is pretty close to the state of affairs for businesses now. Should it stay that way, shopkeepers like Moteberg will continue to decide how to enforce mask requirements in their establishments.
They’ll have to do so against a backdrop of rising cases and worry about a second economic shutdown. If history holds true, they might have to contend with some coarse language from customers.