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Casper College's Natalia Otkhmezuri drives to the basket in the T-Birds' game against Central Wyoming College on March 24 at Swede Erickson Thunderbird Gym.


State-and-regional
breaking featured
Cheyenne Frontier Days set to return in full in 2021
  • Updated

Cheyenne Frontier Days will host its 125th anniversary celebration in full at Frontier Park from July 23 to Aug. 1, according to a Wednesday announcement.

The rodeo and surrounding entertainment events were canceled last year for the first time in Frontier Days history due to the coronavirus pandemic. An annual report from February showed the cancellation netted a $3.34 million loss in 2020.

In conjunction with the governor’s office and public health officials from the Global Center for Health Security at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, organizers plan to implement COVID-19 procedures to ensure cleanliness and sanitation.

However, there will be no limitations on crowd sizes for concerts, rodeo or other outdoor events, and masks will not be required, according to Tom Hirsig, CEO of Cheyenne Frontier Days. Hirsig and Gov. Mark Gordon spoke Wednesday afternoon at a news conference in Cheyenne.

A lineup announcement is expected Thursday evening, but a few performers have already been announced, including Garth Brooks. Thomas Rhett, Eric Church and Blake Shelton are also set to return this year after originally being scheduled for the 2020 lineup.

Songs about Wyoming you should listen to, at least once

The rodeo previously announced that it will dedicate the 2021 event to to late Wyoming country music star and world rodeo champion Chris LeDoux.

Hirsig has taken note of college and professional sports and entertainment venues that have resumed playing to crowds and believes Cheyenne Frontier Days can follow a similar protocol.

“We are working continuously to safely and responsibly entertain our fans and put on a 125th “Daddy of ‘em All” that they will never forget,” Hirsig said.

The governor believes the state can do Cheyenne Frontier Days safely due to the low COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations.

“This is welcome news for Wyoming, and people from around the country and the world, who have a trip to Cheyenne Frontier Days on their bucket list,” Gordon said in a statement. “Our big message that we want people to hear loud and clear today is that Wyoming is back and we are open for business.”

A number of other major rodeos canceled in 2020 because of the pandemic, including the Central Wyoming Fair & Rodeo in Casper. Rodeo committee members from rodeos in Cody, Sheridan, Thermopolis, Casper, Laramie and Cheyenne spoke with Gordon last summer in a joint announcement that the events would be canceled. The leaders of the Cody Stampede, however, changed course and decided to ultimately hold their event. No known coronavirus outbreaks were tied to the Stampede.


Casper
top story
With Casper's vaccine clinic open, some residents are eager to get their shots. Will enough opt in to make it count?
  • Updated

“I’m going to go to the movies. I’m going to eat out,” Casper attorney Lucketta McMahon says, her eyes revealing a grin beneath her mask.

Today, McMahon is fully vaccinated. Her 86-year-old mother in Missouri gets the second dose today, too. They saw each other for the first time in a year last weekend.

When the pandemic arrived, McMahon had been in remission from cancer for a year. Her mother was in delicate health as well.

She remembers watching the virus’s death toll grow, day by day. She considered the chances she or a loved one would be among them before the end. She was scared for her mother.

“I worried all year I wouldn’t get a chance to see her again,” McMahon says.

But this day is one for joy. McMahon is triumphant, walking out of the abandoned-Macy’s-turned-vaccine-clinic in Casper’s Eastridge Mall. She has a granddaughter she’s never held. Friends she’s eager to see.

She’s among more than 114,000 Wyomingites who are now fully inoculated against COVID-19, a virus that has killed half a million people in the U.S. and left many more chronically ill.

She’s also among the first to receive a shot at the newly opened Casper Vaccination Center — a mass vaccination clinic set up by the Casper-Natrona County Health Department.

By 3:30 p.m. on its first day, the clinic will have administered 600 doses. Spokesperson Hailey Bloom expected that number to reach nearly 700 by the end of the day.

It’s not quite the 1,500 appointments Bloom says the clinic has the capacity for, but as word spreads, more appointments will fill up. Vaccine hesitancy is now a primary concern for national leaders working to end the pandemic and return life to normal.

The Biden administration is spending $10 million on a campaign encouraging people to get their shots and establishing a coalition of local organizations to promote the vaccines to their members.

Locally, Natrona County Health Officer Dr. Mark Dowell has said that while he’s optimistic, if not enough people are vaccinated the virus could rebound in the fall.

That fact is concerning to some. Several residents at the clinic say the hesitation toward the shots made them nervous. But they all say getting their own vaccine was the most they could do. The rest is out of their control.

“At this point, it’s to each their own,” says 28-year-old Robert Stover, who has altered much of his life to keep the virus at bay and who received his first dose of a vaccine Wednesday.

His parents are older and at risk of severe infection, and that has kept him and his 8-year-old daughter extremely isolated during the last year. Formerly a property manager, Stover left that job and got his real estate license instead. The switch allowed him to work from home.

He kept his daughter home from school as many of her friends returned to the classroom in September. “The only thing she’s been able to do is some athletics,” he adds.

The vaccines give him hope she’ll be able to return to her normal life soon, without the risk of getting her grandparents sick.

Derrell Wagner has been sick. He’s lost loved ones. In September he developed COVID-19 and was sick for a month. He never went to the hospital, but he came close enough that the local emergency room was expecting him, he says.

“To have the opportunity to not get sick again, I’m going to take it,” he says as he leaves his appointment.

For some getting vaccinated Wednesday, the pandemic came in the midst of other life transitions. The virus put things on pause. The vaccines are a way to resume those plans.

Julie Kuhlman had just moved her parents into an assisted living facility in Kearney, Nebraska, when COVID-19 arrived in Wyoming.

“I just thought I’d be going down quite a bit to see them,” she says.

But a few months after the move, the pandemic began. They’ve been making up the lost time through phone calls and email. Kuhlman even started a book study for her mother to stave off boredom. As cases have dipped, things have gotten more hopeful.

She saw her parents for the first time in a year on Easter.

Many health officials say they are optimistic, too. Wyoming has lifted nearly all public health orders as cases have dropped and experts believe the world could look more like normal this summer.

But vaccinations are key, epidemiologists say. Physicians from Casper’s own Dowell to national infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci have said at least 70% of the population needs to have been vaccinated or infected to reach herd immunity, leaving the virus without enough vulnerable hosts for it to spread.

National surveys suggest as much as 70% of unvaccinated Wyomingites are unlikely to get a shot. A state-led survey puts reluctance closer to 40%.

Currently, about 20% of the state is fully vaccinated, and more than 25% has had at least one shot. For now, officials hope the skeptical will find comfort as more people get vaccinated.

The Casper Vaccination Center will host three clinics a week: Mondays, Wednesdays, and alternating Fridays and Saturdays. Clinics will run from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., and residents can sign up for an appointment online at CasperVCovid.com.

Photos: Casper-Natrona County Health Department tours new mall vaccination clinic

Photos: Casper-Natrona County Health Department tours new mall vaccination clinic

Washington
AP
Biden to unveil actions on guns
  • Updated

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden will unveil a series of executive actions aimed at addressing gun violence on Thursday, according to a person familiar with the plans, delivering his first major action on gun control since taking office.

He’s also expected to nominate David Chipman, a former federal agent and adviser at the gun control group Giffords, to be director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

Two people familiar with the matter told The Associated Press that Chipman’s nomination is expected to be announced Thursday. The people could not discuss the matter publicly ahead of an official announcement and spoke to The AP on condition of anonymity. If confirmed, Chipman would be the agency’s first permanent director since 2015.

Biden has faced increasing pressure to act on gun control after a spate of mass shootings across the U.S. in recent weeks, but the White House has repeatedly emphasized the need for legislative action on guns. While the House passed a background check bill last month, gun control measures face slim prospects in an evenly divided Senate, where Republicans remain near-unified against most proposals.

Biden is expected to announce tighter regulations requiring buyers of so-called ghost guns to undergo background checks. The homemade firearms — often assembled from parts and milled with a metal-cutting machine — often lack serial numbers used to trace them. It’s legal to build a gun in a home or a workshop and there is no federal requirement for a background check.

The president’s plans were previewed by a person familiar with the expected actions who was not authorized to publicly discuss them. Biden will be joined by Attorney General Merrick Garland at the event.

The ATF is currently run by Acting Director Regina Lombardo. Gun-control advocates have emphasized the significance of the ATF director in enforcing the nation’s gun laws, and Chipman is certain to win praise from them. During his time as a senior policy adviser with Giffords, he spent considerable effort pushing for greater regulation and enforcement on “ghost guns,” reforms of the background check system and measures to reduce the trafficking of illegal firearms.

Prior to that, Chipman spent 25 years as an agent at the ATF, where he worked on stopping a trafficking ring that sent illegal firearms from Virginia to New York, and served on the ATF’s SWAT team. Chipman is a gun owner himself.

Chipman and a White House spokesman both declined to comment.

During his campaign, Biden promised to prioritize new gun control measures as president, including enacting universal background check legislation, banning online sales of firearms and the manufacture and sale of assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. But gun-control advocates have said that while they were heartened by signs from the White House that they took the issue seriously, they’ve been disappointed by the lack of early action.

Biden himself expressed uncertainty late last month when asked if he had the political capital to pass new gun control proposals, telling reporters, “I haven’t done any counting yet.”

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said last month, however, that executive actions on guns were coming as well, calling them “one of the levers that we can use” to address gun violence.

For years, federal officials have been sounding the alarm about an increasing black market for homemade, military-style semi-automatic rifles and handguns. Ghost guns have increasingly turned up at crime scenes and in recent years have been turning up more and more when federal agents are purchasing guns in undercover operations from gang members and other criminals.

It is hard to say how many are circulating on the streets, in part because in many cases police departments don’t even contact the federal government about the guns because they can’t be traced.

Some states, like California, have enacted laws in recent years to require serial numbers be stamped on ghost guns.

The critical component in building an untraceable gun is what is known as the lower receiver, a part typically made of metal or polymer. An unfinished receiver — sometimes referred to as an “80-percent receiver” — can be legally bought online with no serial numbers or other markings on it, no license required.

A gunman who killed his wife and four others in Northern California in 2017 who had been prohibited from owning firearms built his own to skirt the court order before his rampage. And in 2019, a teenager used a homemade handgun to fatally shoot two classmates and wound three others at a school in suburban Los Angeles.

Plans for Biden’s announcement Thursday were first reported by Politico.


Education
breaking top story
Education funding bill dies in Wyoming Legislature with chambers unable to agree on deficit solution
  • Updated

A bill that would have found slight cuts to Wyoming’s $300 million education funding shortfall died Wednesday, after Senate leadership declined to continue negotiating with the House of Representatives.

The two sides disagreed on a few points: where cuts should occur, how to spend federal money and whether to write in a conditional 0.5% sales tax if reserves fall below a certain point.

A proposal to cut about $80 million over three years in mostly administrative costs while imposing a conditional sales tax made it through the House of Representatives. The Senate balked at the proposal, stripping the tax and changing how districts could spend on teacher salaries.

Because the Senate changed the House bill, the discussion then went to a conference committee, where appointed members of each chamber attempt to negotiate a compromise. That committee met for several hours Wednesday, but Senate members declined to return to the table when it appeared no agreement could be met, Sen. Charles Scott, R-Casper, explained.

Scott rebuked the House, calling members “tax-and-spend liberals,” who did not want to reign in government spending.

In a message to school districts, Scott said “they better take that federal stimulus money ... and put it in reserves, because you’re going to need it,” he said. “We’re going to have a disaster” with the budget, he added. “The districts are going to need to have some reserves to live through that.”

Without an agreement, education funding will remain unchanged, leaving no answer to a $300 million deficit in the state’s education budget.

Lawmakers have been grappling with the state’s budget amid a decline in the energy sector that’s been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. State government has already weathered multiple rounds of budget cuts.


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