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Casper College's Natalia Otkhmezuri shoots a jumper in the T-Birds' game against Central Wyoming College on Jan. 29 at Swede Erickson Thunderbird Gym in Casper.

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Walmart, Smith's, Kohl's among major retailers in Wyoming to require face masks

The number of retailers requiring customers to wear face masks continues to grow in Wyoming, while state officials have voiced support for the practice but have not backed creating such a mandate themselves.

Wednesday, Walmart announced it will will require customers to wear face coverings at all of its namesake and Sam’s Club stores, making it the largest retailer to introduce such a policy that has otherwise proven difficult to enforce without state and federal requirements.

A number of other national corporations with locations in Wyoming, including Starbucks, Best Buy, Menards, Kohl’s and Kroger (which owns Smith’s Food and Drug), are also requiring face coverings.

Walmart said its policy will go into effect on Monday to allow time to inform customers. Currently, about 65% of its more than 5,000 stores and clubs are located in areas where there is already some form of government mandate on face coverings.

Wyoming, however, has not implemented a mandate, outside of Teton County.

In a news conference Wednesday, Gov. Mark Gordon addressed the increasing trend of businesses requiring masks.

“We are seeing private employers — and I congratulate them; this is their prerogative, this is their constitutional right — if they say, ‘No shirt, no shoes, no mask, no service,’ by god, I’m going to respect that,” Gordon said. “... I support the rights of private businesses taking (steps) to protect the safety of their employees. And I respect the courage of the employees to go to work, and I think people in Wyoming generally will respect those rights.”

Gordon said he was “certainly not inclined to do a statewide order” but that he would work with counties that wanted to pass those requirements on a local level.

The governor said he found it “upsetting” that some Wyoming businesses have received pushback for requiring their customers to wear masks.

“There have been some obnoxious individuals who have gone in and tried to argue the constitutionality of it,” he said. “And I think that those people ought to read Federalist No. 10 or Federalist No. 84 and understand really what the damn Constitution said. The Constitution said if it’s my property and I don’t want you coming in without a mask on, by god we’ll fix that. So I think those Republican principles that we count on are ones that ought to be respected.”

Multiple retailers require masks

Also on Wednesday, hours after Walmart’s announcement, supermarket chain Kroger, based in Cincinnati, and department store Kohl’s, based in Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin, followed suit. Kohl’s policy will go into effect on Monday, while Kroger’s mask protocol will go into effect July 22.

Bentonville, Arkansas-based Walmart, Kohl’s and Kroger join a growing but still small list of retailers to require masks at all of its stores, filling the role of states and the federal government that have failed to issue such mandates on an issue that has been highly politicized by President Donald Trump and many of his ardent supporters. Given Walmart’s clout as the largest retailer in the U.S., its decision is expected to push many others to issue similar mandates.

Last week, Starbucks announced that customers who visit its company-owned café locations in the U.S. will be required to wear face coverings. The policies at Starbucks and Best Buy went into effect Wednesday.

Only a handful of major retailers, including teen clothing chain American Eagle Outfitters and Apple, has a mask mandate for customers for all of its stores. Costco Wholesale Club was one of the first major retailers to require face coverings for customers at all of its stores. The policy went into effect in early May.

The National Retail Federation, the nation’s largest retail trade group, said in a statement that it hopes Walmart’s move will be a “tipping point in this public health debate.”

Retailers had been hesitant to issue chain-wide mandates for fear of angering some customers. They also didn’t want to have their workers play the role of enforcers of the protocols. It was already hard enough to get some customers to comply even in the states that had the mandates. However, the recent surge of new virus cases — particularly in Florida, California, Texas and Arizona — has left them with no choice, retail experts say.

“I think Walmart’s decision will give cover to other retailers to require masks,” said Michael J. Hicks, an economist at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana. “I applaud Walmart and others for stepping in.”

Bryan Eshelman, a managing director in the retail practice at consultancy AlixPartners, noted that retailers needed to step in to reduce their own health risks and that having a virus case is disruptive.

“It is a business risk that they need to manage for the safety of employees and customers,” he said.

Eshelman added that he believes making shoppers comply with the mask protocols will be easier now that wearing masks are becoming more of the norm.

Marc Perrone, president of the United Food & Commercial Workers International union, which counts 1.3 members who work in grocery stores, food packaging plants and other locations, says he feels “vindicated” after pushing food companies and retailers to require customers to wear masks. But he says that stores need to train employees in how to de-escalate situations with shoppers.

Walmart is taking no chances, making sure to have a new strategy in place to enforce the mask protocols. It said Wednesday that it will create the role of health ambassador at its Walmart stores and will station them near the entrance to remind customers without masks of its new requirements. These workers, who will be wearing black polo shirts, will receive special training to “help make the process as smooth as possible for customers.”

Walmart said that it’s currently working on different options for customers who don’t show up with a face mask.

As for Sam’s Club, employees at the entrance will follow the same process with its members, politely reminding them of its requirements to wear a face covering when shopping. Complimentary masks will be provided if the member doesn’t have one or a member can buy one at the club.

Retailers have been challenged with striking a balance between keeping shoppers safe while making them feel comfortable.

Last week, the Retail Industry Leaders Association, which represents Walmart, Best Buy and other major chains, publicized a letter it sent to state governors to mandate store customers to wear face coverings. It said the hodgepodge of rules around the country have created confusion for shoppers and that has led to conflict between customers and workers trying to enforce store rules.

The National Governors Association said last week that its members are discussing the letter and others like it from different retail groups.

Social media is full of videos capturing clashes between those who are asked to wear masks, and employees who are under orders to make sure people wear them.

About half of U.S. states require masks in public places, according to the RILA. In recent days, Kentucky and Michigan have passed nationwide mandates.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has been consistent about recommending people cover their mouth and nose when around others to help reduce the spread of the virus that causes COVID-19. But at the beginning of the lockdowns, it had discouraged people who were not sick from buying masks for fear of taking away what was then a limited supply for health care workers.

“We know some people have differing opinions on this topic,” wrote Dacona Smith, chief operating officer at Walmart U.S. and Lance de la Rosa, chief operating officer at Sam’s Club in a blog posted Wednesday. “We also recognize the role we can play to help protect the health and well-being of the communities we serve by following the evolving guidance of health officials like the CDC.”

The Associated Press and staff writer Brandon Foster contributed to this report.

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Watch now: Gordon delivers bleak warning on state budget

Gov. Mark Gordon delivered a bleak warning about the state’s financial situation in a press conference Wednesday as he prepares to make major budget cuts to address an anticipated $1.5 billion shortfall over the next two years.

Gordon, who signed off on roughly $250 million in budget cuts earlier this week, has repeatedly emphasized over the past several weeks that the state’s fiscal situation would require numerous reductions and the layoff of state workers. In recent days, the governor announced he would be looking to cut government by an additional 10 percent over the coming weeks, and has hinted that a fundamental rethinking of state government is likely heading into the coming year.

On Wednesday, however, the governor seemed to break character, shedding his often reserved demeanor at the podium to forcefully underscore that with no means to unilaterally increase state revenues, budget cuts – particularly painful ones – were the only tool left at his disposal amid a bleak economic future. While sales tax has seen an uptick amid the COVID-19 pandemic, it remains depressed as traditional sectors like coal, oil and gas have continued to wane.

New oil production, a normally reliable source of revenue for the state, now comes from just one rig in the state while coal production has fallen 36 percent from this time last year, according to a new report from the Wyoming Division of Economic Analysis released Wednesday. Without any new sources of revenue and no cuts, state analysts have said that the state will burn through its entire savings within the year, a fact Gordon stressed Wednesday afternoon.

“As governor, it is my duty to balance that budget,” Gordon said. “One-third of our income is gone, and I have to reduce what our expenditures are. I have to cut the budget to make sure we have a balanced budget.”

While Gordon already alluded to budget cuts amid a declining energy sector earlier this year, the situation has only been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, forcing him to phase in numerous cuts over the coming months to areas like mental health and substance abuse programs.

While nobody except the governor and the Division of Budget knows what those cuts will be yet, Gordon committed Wednesday to posting those on the state’s budget transparency website for review and public comment at a later date.

“The people of Wyoming need to weigh in on the cuts we’re going to make,” he said.

While the executive branch is leading the charge for the lion’s share of cuts, it will be up to the Legislature to ultimately make up the difference, either through additional budget cuts or the introduction of new revenues. While the governor has remained reluctant to support new taxes, he has publicly endorsed eliminating all current exemptions in the state’s current tax code and has continuously urged voters to support candidates who understand the dire nature of Wyoming’s economy.

“Anyone who is running for office this year should be able to speak to that very large concern,” he told lawmakers Monday.

That announcement comes at a time where Wyoming’s politics are at a crossroads. According to an analysis of House and Senate races by the Star-Tribune, 29 incumbent Republican lawmakers across the state are currently facing a primary challenge this election cycle. Many of the challengers say they are opposed to any form of tax increases.

The primary election takes place Aug. 18.

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Powered by PAC funding, Lummis outraises entire US Senate field

U.S. Senate candidate Cynthia Lummis remains significantly ahead of her rivals in fundraising heading into the final weeks of Republican primary campaign season, according to numbers filed with the Federal Elections Commission this week.

Between the months of April and July, the former U.S. representative’s campaign did some of its best fundraising yet, raising roughly $360,000 — or 22% of her total fundraising haul this cycle — amid a slew of endorsements from organizations like the United States Chamber of Commerce and the Club for Growth.

Now with nearly $964,000 in cash on hand, Lummis’ total war chest dwarfs the entire field of candidates — Republican or Democrat — in the 2020 election 5 to 1. The only other candidate to come close to that total this quarter was Republican challenger Robert Short, whose $187,000 in funds raised this cycle was largely fueled by more than $155,000 in loans from the candidate himself.

While fundraising efforts from many of the candidates for federal office have been anemic this past quarter, much of Lummis’ success can be chalked up to what her campaign described as a broad network of grassroots support.

“Cynthia has been humbled by the incredible support she has received from people across Wyoming and around the country,” Lummis’ campaign manager, Kristin Walker, wrote in a statement to the Star-Tribune. “From day one, Cynthia has been focused on a people-powered campaign. She is proud to have received donations from over 8,000 people around Wyoming and the country. And she has a robust team of statewide and county chairs, which now includes well over 100 Wyoming leaders.”

While that holds true, much of that success can also be attributed to what campaign filings show to be massive sums of money from a number of major industry groups as well as strong support from big oil.

According to Lummis’ financial disclosures submitted to the FEC this week, the candidate raked in tens of thousands of dollars in contributions from major donors like Koch Industries, the National Association of Realtors and several political action committees representing big oil, including Marathon Petroleum, Exxon, Halliburton and Chevron. She also received thousands of dollars in funds from a number of national conservative organizations.

In all, Lummis took in nearly $203,000 in donations from political action committees this quarter, a strong return on the more than $134,000 the campaign has spent on fundraising assistance since last July.

Lummis — who has already racked up endorsements from a number of national conservative organizations as well as the support of Sens. John Barrasso and Mike Enzi — said in a statement through her campaign that the high density of large donations signified her record as a staunch conservative voice for Wyoming and should be seen as signifying what she could do for the state and its economy once reelected to Congress.

“The industries that power Wyoming’s economy, now and into the future, support Cynthia,” Walker wrote. “She is the pro-jobs, pro-gun, liberty-minded candidate putting our state’s economic future first. Her strong fundraising is a reflection of people’s confidence in her deeply held conservative principles.”

Bill Novotny, Short’s campaign manager, defended the campaign’s slow fundraising efforts this quarter, blaming the conditions of the COVID-19 pandemic and the challenges of facing off against a well-financed and well-connected opponent in Lummis.

“Fundraising in the COVID environment has been difficult,” Novotny wrote in a statement. “We’ve avoided the incessant emails and hyper partisan fundraising letters like the other campaign. Robert realizes people across Wyoming are struggling. He has been willing to invest in his campaign, with money he earned as a small business owner, to share his vision and message. It is a message of new blood and positive results not politics as usual. And it is resonating.”

“‘All Wyoming all the time,’ kind of takes on a new meaning when you are bought and paid for by corporations and out of state political action committees,” Novotny added, in an apparent jab to Lummis and her campaign slogan. “I guess we shouldn’t be surprised that the career politician dusted off the Rolodex of favors curried after all that time in government.”

The Wyoming primary takes place Aug. 18.

Chris Sikes poses for a portrait while wearing a Marvel character Deadpool costume Saturday at their home in Casper. Sikes and his roommate Stephanie Hager plan on attending Wyoming’s first Comic Con in Cheyenne next weekend.

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State furloughs will impact lab staff processing coronavirus samples, employee says

Staff members at the the Wyoming Public Health Laboratory, who have been processing hundreds of coronavirus samples each day, are set to be part of the government-wide furloughs that will begin next month, an employee said on social media this week.

Noah Hull, who works in the lab, tweeted Tuesday that he and others will be furloughed starting in August.

“We were notified (Monday) that employees making $65K/year or higher, ... which is a handful of lab folks and (epidemiology) folks, will be furloughed,” he tweeted to the Star-Tribune. “It will be 1 day/month ... and is set to last for a minimum of 6 months.”

Hull, who declined to comment further Wednesday, added that the furloughs were “not huge, but (staff are) still not getting work done.”

Michael Pearlman, a spokesman for Gov. Mark Gordon, told the Star-Tribune that state furloughs “could include some employees at the public health lab.”

“The furloughs will be implemented in a manner that should have minimal impact on the operations of the lab or the State’s COVID-19 testing capacity,” he said in an email.

Gordon announced earlier this week that he was instituting “a mandatory furlough day for six months ... for those executive branch employees on the higher end of the pay scale.” He also moved to consolidate human resources personnel under the umbrella of the Department of Administration and Information.

Gordon indicated that cuts, necessary to chip away at a massive funding deficit the state is facing, “will include state employees losing their jobs.” The Department of Health is preparing plans to cut at least $90 million. It’s unclear what exactly in the agency will be slashed; while Gordon has mentioned a few proposed reductions, the department has yet to release its own list.

At a press conference Wednesday, Gordon said the state is “evaluating the continuity of various programs” and that he didn’t “want to compromise the public health lab.” But he said that he’s asked everyone in government to “pull our own weight in the boat” and to “respectfully to try to contribute to the process.”

He added that he “certainly” didn’t want the state to fall behind in addressing the pandemic or testing samples and fall behind other states that are facing surges in caseloads.

A Health Department spokeswoman declined to comment Wednesday on the furloughs to lab workers. It’s unclear if the furloughs will apply to contact tracers, who work to map the spread of the coronavirus across communities and groups. Nor is it clear if it will apply to Dr. Alexia Harrist, the state health officer, and to what extent it will affect the epidemiology unit at the department.

The spokeswoman said she had no additional information beyond what the governor had released.

The state health lab, together with private labs, has processed tens of thousands of samples since mid-March. The lab has significantly grown its testing capabilities, and it’s pulled in more staff from the University of Wyoming. UW spokesman Chad Baldwin said there were still university employees at the lab but that they likely wouldn’t be subject to the furloughs because they’re on the university, not the state, payroll.

Still, the trimming of hours at the lab comes as Wyoming continues to see a spike in cases and the lab regularly processes hundreds of samples each day. The state recently signed a contract with a California-based startup to process another 50,000 tests, a few thousand fewer than the state and private labs have processed since mid-March. Health officials indicated that the contract would be used to supplement the state lab.

The overall cuts to the Health Department come just a few years after the agency had to cut $90 million as part of the last revenue debacle. Reductions in the department have aftershocks: The agency’s budget is boosted by matching funds from the federal government, so when state money drops, so, too, does the matching funds from the feds.

Health Department spokeswoman Kim Deti said that the last round of cuts cost the agency an additional $40 million in matching funds from the feds.

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Wyoming governor delivers emotional message: Care about your neighbor

A visibly angry Gov. Mark Gordon urged Wyomingites on Wednesday to wear face masks and to not minimize the deaths and dangers facing the state’s most vulnerable residents from the coronavirus.

“When somebody sends me a note that says, ‘Well these people are gonna die anyway, they’re just dying sooner,’ I gotta say, I’m offended,” he said at a news conference. “And as an American, I think most people are going to be offended by the notion that people should just get this COVID-19 and get out of the way. I’m sick and tired of that.”

Gordon then urged people to be “conscientious” and to be “mindful of our neighbors.” His emotional speech came a week after a member of the Natrona County school board uttered a comment nearly identical to the email Gordon quoted: “Most of (Wyoming’s coronavirus fatalities) were people with preexisting conditions or in old folks homes. They were going to die. They just died sooner.”

Gordon said later that he was referencing emails he’d received, not board member Kevin Christopherson’s comments. (Christopherson apologized in an interview Monday.) But the governor repeatedly became more animated and frustrated as he talked about Wyomingites dismissing as trivial the deaths of older Wyomingites. It was his most emotional press conference — briefings that he’s held almost weekly for months — in weeks; in early April, he chastised the media for covering the medical community’s desire for a shelter-in-place order. A week later, after a Johnson County man became the first coronavirus fatality in the state, Gordon grew emotional and said the deceased was a friend.

On Wednesday, his voice rose as he talked about people risking the lives of their neighbors and residents arguing with businesses that require all customers wear masks.

“It’s just amazing to me, if somebody has diabetes, does another individual have the constitutional right to make sure they die prematurely? I don’t see that,” Gordon said.

He referenced another email, in which the writer told him that people needed to be ready “to meet the Lord.”

“I’m not sure you need to assist me meeting the Lord,” the governor said.

“Our Constitution was designed to make sure that we ensure the common good, and that’s been tested time and time again,” he said as he began to hit his hand on the podium to emphasize his words. “Rights do not mean that I don’t have any responsibilities. Rights — you can see this in the Federalist Papers, you can see that in the writings of the founders — rights imply responsibilities, and people need to take responsibility.”

Christopherson’s comments, which drew significant heat from within the county and on social media, were made during a school board meeting in which board members and health officials were discussing the reopening plan for Natrona County schools. The majority of that meeting was focused on the reopening plan’s call for students and staff to wear masks when they couldn’t maintain a 6-foot distance. Christopherson and others expressed opposition to the masks.

But at his news conference Wednesday, Gordon said masks would be an important part in keeping schools open. He noted that the virus would not disappear by the fall and that the situation had changed so rapidly in other states that predicting the situation even six weeks from now is impossible.

“I will say that masks probably have a place in schools’ reopening,” he said. “I just want to make that clear. Masks will help those schools stay open. Masks will help our kids get back to those classrooms where they need to be. And masks will help them get back to education.”

Gordon said he wasn’t considering a statewide face coverings order, as other states — including Colorado — have instituted. As he has said since the beginning of the pandemic four months ago, the governor repeatedly called on Wyomingites to take responsibility for themselves and don masks without being ordered to.

“Last week I got a question that said, ‘Well, we’ve seen pictures of you not wearing a mask,’” Gordon said. “And I have occasionally not worn a mask. And I have occasionally worn a mask. I am wearing a mask much more conscientiously now, especially as I see these cases tick up.”

He defended the businesses who have mask requirements and the businesses’ constitutional rights in enforcing them.

“There is no constitutional right to go infect somebody else,” he said. “There is no constitutional right that says you can put others in harm’s way. Let’s behave and let’s be mindful of our neighbors. That’s the country I grew up in. That’s the neighborhood I grew up in.”

The number of confirmed coronavirus cases has climbed steadily throughout July; 700 new cases have been identified in the past month alone, Gordon said. Dr. Alexia Harrist, the state’s health officer, noted that one night at a Uinta County bar where social distancing guidelines weren’t followed led to scores of cases, businesses and health care centers closing, and those infected becoming ill.

As of Wednesday afternoon, there have been 1,605 confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus in Wyoming, alongside 380 probable cases. Of the confirmed patients, 1,211 have recovered; of probable patients, 295 have recovered.

Twenty-two Wyomingites have died from the virus, including two in recent days.