Protestors gather at state Capitol in opposition to mask mandate in schools

Jesse Guthrie, right, and J.D. Dockery hold up signs during an anti-mask protest Thursday outside the Capitol in downtown Cheyenne. The group wants statewide mask mandates for schoolchildren to be eliminated. Photo by Michael Cummo, Wyoming Tribune Eagle. Event organizer Laura Meeks Jorgensen speaks to the crowd while holding a sign that reads "Unmask Our Children! Let Them Be Kids!" during an anti-mask protest Thursday outside the Capitol in downtown Cheyenne. The group wants statewide mask mandates for schoolchildren to be eliminated. Photo by Michael Cummo, Wyoming Tribune Eagle.

CHEYENNE – Roughly 30 Wyomingites gathered on the grounds of the state Capitol at noon Thursday to protest against the requirements for children to wear masks in school.

The protestors came from across the state to demonstrate against school districts’ reopening plans, all of which require masks be worn when social distancing cannot be enforced. 

Laura Jorgensen, a main organizer of the protest, drove several hours from Fort Bridger to demonstrate.

“We just would like the freedom of choice for our own kids back, and we want our local control back,” Jorgensen said.

Jorgensen, along with a few others, organized the protest after forming an anti-mask Facebook group that has quickly grown to more than 4,000 members. She and several others at the rally questioned the usefulness of masks, despite many medical studies showing that wearing one can reduce the spread of COVID-19.

“We understand that they’re trying to keep people safe, but the data doesn’t support it in kids, who aren’t typically spreading this,” said Jorgensen, who has a child in high school. “Mandating kids to keep a very small portion of our population safe, it’s not showing effectiveness.”

Others insisted that masks are not just useless, but detrimental to the health of school children. 

Roxanne Freeman, a Cheyenne resident on hand for the protest, said she was afraid to send her child to kindergarten due to the precautions.

“My child comes back home saying, ‘Mommy, I don’t feel good,’ because she’s had to wear a mask all day,” Freeman said. “She’s respiratory-compromised, and she’s had to wear a mask all day because the principal won’t listen to me.”

Some protestors carried signs critical of State Public Health Officer Dr. Alexia Harrist, who has spearheaded the state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Yvonne Harris, a 70-year-old retired kindergarten teacher from Mountain View, said she’s been in communication with Harrist, but she wasn’t satisfied by her responses.

“Dr. Harrist has done research and believes in her research,” Harris said. “We have done research and believe in our research.”

Anti-mask sentiment has also been strong in sectors of the Wyoming Republican Party. During the Wyoming GOP’s State Central Committee meeting in Worland last weekend, party officials advanced a resolution supporting individuals’ freedom to make their own health-related decisions.

“The Wyoming Republican Party supports the right of parents to decide if their children will comply with requirements, such as mandatory masks, COVID-19 testing and COVID-19 vaccines, from the Wyoming Department of Health or local school board which have to do with COVID-19 measures in taxpayer-funded schools,” states the resolution.

However, not everyone in Wyoming shares the protestors’ frustrations. 

Roughly 62% of respondents to a study conducted last month by the University of Wyoming’s Survey and Analysis Center said they would strongly or somewhat support a mask requirement in indoor public spaces. 

The protest also came a day after the Wyoming Department of Health reported its largest increase in active COVID-19 cases since the pandemic began.

Yet the protestors, who eventually broke into chants of “No more masks!” and “My body! My choice!” on the Capitol grounds, preferred a move in the opposite direction, pushing for the elimination of all mask mandates and other public health orders.

Terra Ellison, who came from Douglas to join the protest, said she doesn’t want a government that can control families and school districts.

“It’s your choice. If you want to put a mask on, that’s fine, but this is scary,” Ellison said. “Do you really want these kids not learning to play and be social? How are you going to do that if you’re covering them all up?”

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