ROCK SPRINGS — Sweetwater County commissioners decided not to approve a resolution against county-level health orders in light of COVID-19 during their regular meeting Tuesday morning.
The resolution would have encouraged the public to make virus-related health decisions for themselves in accordance with the Wyoming Constitution and to “refrain from any county-level virus-related mandates concerning individual health care decisions.”
Commissioner Wally Johnson made a motion to approve the resolution, but it failed when no other commissioner stepped forward to second the motion.
Prior to the meeting, commissioners listened to more than 10 public comments in relation to the resolution. As Commissioner Roy Lloyd noted later, comments were just about evenly split between those for and against the resolution.
A similar resolution was approved by the Goshen County Commission early in August, and Goshen County was mentioned in the resolution brought before Sweetwater County commissioners by Wyoming Sen. Tom James, R-Rock Springs, and Rock Springs resident Harold Bjork.
The proposed resolution stated that government policies across the nation concerning the SARS-Cov-2 pandemic have “arguably resulted in social ills including increased unemployment, business closures, suicides, poverty, domestic abuse, homelessness, and alcohol and drug abuse.”
It also referred to a section of the Wyoming Constitution that states that adults have the right to make their own health decisions.
During the public comment period, several of those in support of the resolution questioned the efficiency of masks.
In support of the resolution, Clairice Still said, “It is time we move past all the fear mongering and destruction of our economy and our rights in the name of COVID-19.”
Ted Barney spoke against the resolution, saying COVID-19 mandates aren’t just about individuals; they are about protecting the community.
“If we want to do away with COVID mandates that protect the health of the community, we might as well do away with speed limits and a variety of other laws,” Barney said.
At the end of the public comment period, Bjork said that he was brought in as an expert on the issue. When asked by Commission Chairman Randy “Doc” Wendling what made him an expert, he replied by sharing some information about himself.
Bjork said he is a retired engineer and scientist who used to work at the Los Alamos National Laboratories. Although retired, he currently serves on a federal incident management organizational team. Bjork said he has a background in nuclear engineering and data analysis and has taught statistics and mathematics at universities.
“This thing has grown; it has peaked; it has come back down,” Bjork said of COVID-19. He offered to share graphs with commissioners that show, among other things, how cases per capita in the county have decreased tremendously.
Bjork noted that Wyoming’s governor has not mandated mask wearing. He said it is a recommendation. All of the business regulations and health orders have come from the state health officer, Dr. Alexia Harrist. He said there are statutes that allow health officials to do their jobs and issue these orders, and those orders can only be turned over or stopped by state legislators.
“We’re doing this because of an order from our health officials,” he said, noting those health officials are putting orders down to the county level as well.
“It’s up to us as a government to make a decision to say, ‘Hey, we’ve had enough,’” Bjork said. “We need to let the state know we’ve had enough.”
He encouraged commissioners to look at all the facts to see what was needed to move forward as a county.
At the beginning of his presentation, Sen. James told commissioners the resolution acknowledged the social ills that are a result of the government health orders. He said signing the resolution would defend people’s constitutional rights.
Commissioner Roy Lloyd said the county has already taken a similar stance by making recommendations instead of mandates on issues such as mask wearing. He questioned whether the county would gain any positive ground by moving forward with the resolution. He also asked James if he had talked to other local legislators about their stance on the issue. James said he had not yet.
Bjork said he was asked by state legislators to put together the information. He said the legislators he spoke with agreed with Senator James about the resolution. When asked which legislators he had been in contact with, Bjork said he could look back through his emails to get the actual names to share with commissioners.
County residents have been bombarded with rhetoric on the federal and state level as well as from the press and mass media, according to Bjork. He said people are confused right now. He noted the resolution is not legally binding, but would show that county officials believe in the resolution’s values, and that would reassure residents. He said it didn’t circumnavigate state laws in place, acknowledging there are state mandates that need to be followed.
During commission comments, Commissioner Johnson acknowledged that the issue is somewhat controversial and said people need to know where the commissioners stand. He expressed his support of the resolution.
Commissioner Lauren Schoenfeld said she received feedback from three legislators on Saturday as well a private business person who all expressed concerns about the resolution.
Schoenfeld asked if other counties besides Goshen had considered the resolution. James said he didn’t know of any other counties. Lloyd noted that something similar was brought up in Campbell County and failed. He said some of the reasons they cited were concerns about FEMA and C.A.R.E.S. Act funding.
“So, funding is more important than people’s constitutional rights. Got it,” James remarked.
There was some discussion about the last part of the final clause in the resolution stating that “it is the intent of this Board to both encourage the public to make appropriate virus-related health care decisions for themselves and their families pursuant to the Wyoming constitution; and to refrain from any county-level virus-related mandates concerning individual health care decisions.”
Deputy County Attorney John DeLeon said the very last phrase “to refrain from any county-level virus-related mandates” could be interpreted in different ways. He said it would be possible to reword it or remove the phrase.
Schoenfeld said she supports allowing people to make their own decisions, but that she doesn’t want to create any more divide or any more issues.
Johnson said he supported the entire resolution, including the last phrase, but would be willing to take it off if the other commissioners would support it that way. Still, he made a motion to approve the resolution as written. When no other commissioner seconded his motion, the motion failed.