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Wyoming defensive linemen Mario Mora, left, and Garrett Crall celebrate against Idaho as fans look on at War Memorial Stadium on Sept. 14 in Laramie. Fans will be allowed to watch Cowboy home games this fall, though the exact number has yet to be decided.


Govt-and-politics
breaking top story
Legislative committee backs bill limiting vaccine mandates in Wyoming
  • Updated

A bill that forbids employers from requiring staff to show proof of vaccination in most cases gained near-unanimous support from a Wyoming legislative committee Thursday.

The bill, now sponsored by the Legislature’s Joint Labor, Health and Social Services Committee, has three primary actions:

  • It requires health care facilities, essential businesses and government entities to accommodate unvaccinated people who require their services;
  • It allows students to apply for waivers to K-12 vaccination requirements based on “personal objection,” rather than only on religious objections;
  • And it forbids employers from requiring would-be employees to show proof that they’ve been vaccinated “unless the employer can demonstrate that an unimmunized employee would create an undue hardship or pose a direct threat to the health or safety of persons in the workplace that cannot be eliminated or reduced by means of a reasonable accommodation.”

Committee Co-chair Sue Wilson, R-Cheyenne, authored the bill and explained the initial goal was to have something prepared for the anticipated special session previously scheduled for July. That session has now been called off, so it’s unlikely lawmakers will have an opportunity to act on the issue until the next legislative session in February 2022.

Wilson added she didn’t think this was an issue in Wyoming right now, but said, “I think there’s a real advantage to the committee taking some action on this before it becomes a problem.”

Twelve of the committee’s 14 members voted to support the bill at an upcoming session. One member was absent Thursday, and Rep. Cathy Connolly, D-Laramie, was the sole “no” vote.

The bill intends to assuage concerns about “vaccine passports” and other mandates while still creating an avenue for employers to impose some limits on staff who choose not to be immunized against any number of diseases.

Gov. Mark Gordon in May issued an executive order forbidding state agencies and other government facilities from enacting “vaccine passports.” But the state is limited in what it can require of businesses or forbid them from doing.

Federal public health, antidiscrimination and equal employment laws supersede state statutes, though federal regulators have punted the specific issue of COVID-19 vaccine requirements to the local level.

“The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not mandate vaccination. However, whether a state, local government, or employer, for example, may require or mandate COVID-19 vaccination is a matter of state or other applicable law,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website.

Among those “other applicable” laws is the Americans with Disabilities Act, which is referenced in Wilson’s draft.

The law requires that employers provide “reasonable accommodations” for employees with disabilities. Wilson’s draft extends the obligation to provide “reasonable accommodations” to unvaccinated residents who are either applying to work at a company that otherwise requires vaccinations, or for members of the public hoping to access an “essential service.”

For example, if an unvaccinated resident wanted to go grocery shopping at a store that required customers to be immunized, that store would be obligated to provide a “reasonable accommodation” for that shopper.

The bill would also protect an unvaccinated person seeking work at a company that otherwise requires immunization. In that instance, the employer would not be allowed to deny a person work because they were unvaccinated. If the company did not want that person interacting with the rest of the staff, it would be required to “reasonably” accommodate the individual.

An unvaccinated person with no disability would not be covered by the provisions in the ADA, but the committee bill would extend the use of “reasonable accommodation” to most residents in these situations.

A staff comment on the draft, however, suggests that the ADA actually allows for vaccine requirements in the workplace.

“Under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, an employer may have a workplace policy that includes ‘a requirement that an individual shall not pose a direct threat to the health or safety of individuals in the workplace.’ This policy may include a vaccination requirement,” the comment reads.

Connolly, the bill’s sole opponent, took issue with who would be receiving the accommodations.

“I understand there’s an attempt to balance the employer with an employee who does not want to be vaccinated, but what about those other workers who want to work in a safe environment?” Connolly asked.

Wilson rebuffed the question, saying if someone was vaccinated they shouldn’t be worried about personal risk. Vaccinated individuals may still be able to carry and spread the virus, though the risk is much lower than for the uninoculated, according to the CDC.

While the vaccines have been proven safe and effective at preventing COVID-19 related hospitalizations and deaths, not everyone is able to get one. Some people are allergic, and others are unable to take the vaccine for other health reasons.

In addition to regulating businesses, the bill also gives K-12 students new grounds to request vaccination waivers. State statute requires all students in K-12 public or private schools to show proof that they’ve been immunized against certain diseases.

A student can currently request a waiver to this requirement on religious grounds, and the county or state health officer must approve those waivers.

The bill would allow students to request those waivers based on either a religious or “personal objection.” It does, however, allow for county or state health officers to remove students with those waivers from school in the case of an outbreak of a disease for which the student is not vaccinated.

The legislation still needs approval from both legislative chambers and the governor, which likely won’t be possible until February.


State-and-regional
breaking top story
Wyoming officials warn of above-average fire season
  • Updated

There are three notable wildfires burning in Wyoming, marking an early start to what could be an active fire season.

State officials predict that the state is at an average to high risk for fires throughout June and into July, and at above-average risk from mid-July into August.

“In most years, we don’t start seeing larger fires until July,” said Bill Crapser, the state forester.

The largest of the three is the Skull Creek Fire, which is currently at around 1,000 acres and burning six miles north of Osage in rural Weston County. Pre-evacuation orders were put into effect in the area.

This fire was 30% contained as of Thursday evening, and firefighters were “cautiously optimistic,” Crapser said.

The second-largest blaze is the 100-acre Robinson Fire in Johnson County, southwest of Buffalo. And the third is the less than 100-acre North Fork Fire near the Colorado border.

Despite their smaller sizes, officials are worried about the Robinson and North Fork fires because they’re in inaccessible areas. Windy conditions were also expected Thursday.

“If you look at the predictive services … we’re looking at probably on the high end of normal for fire danger and fire potential for the rest of June and into July,” Crapser said at a news conference Thursday. “Looks like an ... above-normal fire season for Wyoming for the second half of July and for all of August.”

With large fires expected, officials feel secure in the resources they have to pay for the firefighting.

“I think we’re OK money-wise, and we’ll see how the year goes, but I think we’re positioned well,” said Jacque Buchanan, deputy regional forester for the U.S. Forest Service’s Region Two.

For context, 2012 was a record-setting fire season in Wyoming, and the state started seeing large fires in mid-to-late May. So while 2021 is seeing an early start to fire season here, it’s not out of the norm.

“It is incredible this summer how dangerous these fire conditions are,” Gov. Mark Gordon said at the same Thursday news conference. “If you haven’t taken and established that fire defensible perimeter around your house, you will lose it.”

As the climate warms, communities across the West are grappling with increasingly active fire seasons. Wyoming hasn’t been hit as hard as some states such as Oregon, which experienced a wildfire season last year that consumed 1.1 million acres and more than 4,000 homes while killing nine people, according to The Associated Press.

Still, Wyoming did experience its largest wildfire in recent memory last year. The Mullen Fire burned 177,000 acres in southern Wyoming’s Medicine Bow National Forest. The flames destroyed 32 homes and 34 outbuildings.

Wyoming is experiencing drought conditions in most of the state, enough so that Gordon’s office this week launched a new website for the public to monitor the situation. Parts of south central and northeastern Wyoming are experiencing extreme drought, according to the website.

Mullen Fire photos

Business
AP
US consumer prices surge
  • Updated

WASHINGTON — American consumers absorbed another surge in prices in May — a 0.6% increase over April and 5% over the past year, the biggest 12-month inflation spike since 2008.

The May rise in consumer prices that the Labor Department reported Thursday reflected a range of goods and services now in growing demand as people increasingly shop, travel, dine out and attend entertainment events in a rapidly reopening economy.

The increased consumer appetite is bumping up against a shortage of components, from lumber and steel to chemicals and semiconductors, that supply such key products as autos and computer equipment, all of which has forced up prices. And as consumers increasingly venture away from home, demand has spread from manufactured goods to services — airline fares, for example, along with restaurant meals and hotel prices — raising inflation in those areas, too.

In its report Thursday, the government said that core inflation, which excludes volatile energy and food costs, rose 0.7% in May after an even bigger 0.9% increase in April, and has risen 3.8% over the past year. That is the sharpest 12-month jump in core inflation since 1992. And it is far above the Federal Reserve’s 2% target for annual price increases.

Among specific items in May, prices for used vehicles, which had surged by a record 10% in April, shot up an additional 7.3% and accounted for one-third of May’s overall price jump. The price of new cars, too, rose 1.6% — the largest one-month increase since 2009.

The jump in new and used vehicle prices reflects supply chain problems that have caused a shortage of semiconductors. The lack of computer chips has limited production of new cars, which, in turn, has reduced the supply of used cars. As demand for vehicles has risen, prices have followed.

But higher prices were evident in a wide variety of categories in May, including household furnishings, which rose 0.9%, driven by a record jump in the price of floor coverings. Airline fares rose 7% after having increased 10.2% in April. Food prices rose 0.4%, with beef prices jumping 2.3%. Energy costs, though unchanged in May, are still up 56.2% in the past year.

Meanwhile, the number of Americans applying for unemployment benefits fell for the sixth straight week as the U.S. economy, held back for months by the coronavirus pandemic, reopens rapidly.

Jobless claims fell by 9,000 to 376,000 from 385,000 the week before, the Labor Department reported Thursday. The number of people signing up for benefits exceeded 900,000 in early January and has fallen more or less steadily ever since. Still, claims are high by historic standards. Before the pandemic brought economic activity to a near-standstill in March 2020, weekly applications were regularly coming in below 220,000.

Nearly 3.5 million people were receiving traditional state unemployment benefits the week of May 29, down by 258,000 from 3.8 million the week before.

From the cereal maker General Mills to Chipotle Mexican Grill to the paint maker Sherwin-Williams, a range of companies have been raising prices or plan to do so, in some cases to make up for higher wages they’re now paying to keep or attract workers. This week, for example, Chipotle Mexican Grill announced it was boosting menu prices by roughly 4% to cover the cost of raising its workers’ wages. In May, Chipotle had said that it would raise wages for its restaurant workers to reach an average of $15 an hour by the end of June.

Andrew Hunter, a senior U.S. economist at Capital Economics, noted that the price category that covers restaurant meals jumped 0.6% last month. He took that as evidence that labor shortages at restaurants, hotels and other service sector companies are beginning to fuel wage and price increases.

The inflation pressures are not only squeezing consumers but also posing a risk to the economy’s recovery from the pandemic recession. One risk is that the Fed will eventually respond to intensifying inflation by raising interest rates too aggressively and derail the economic recovery.

The central bank, led by Chair Jerome Powell, has repeatedly expressed its belief that inflation will prove temporary as supply bottlenecks are unclogged and parts and goods flow normally again. But some economists have expressed concern that as the economic recovery accelerates, fueled by rising demand from consumers spending freely again, so will inflation.

The question is, for how long?

“The price spikes could be bigger and more prolonged because the pandemic has been so disruptive to supply chains,” said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics. But “by the fall or end of the year,” Zandi suggested, “prices will be coming back to earth.”

So far, Fed officials haven’t deviated from their view that higher inflation is a temporary consequence of the economy’s rapid reopening, with its accelerating consumer demand, and the lack of enough supplies and workers to keep pace with it. Eventually, they say, supply will rise to match demand.

Officials also note that year-over-year gauges of inflation now look especially large because they are being measured against the early months of the pandemic, when inflation tumbled as the economy all but shut down. In coming months, the year-over-year inflation figures will likely look smaller.


Energy
breaking top story
SAGE GROUSE
Federal judge rules against BLM, suspends new drilling on 400,000 acres of sage grouse habitat
  • Updated

A judge suspended new oil and gas drilling on more than 630 square miles of greater sage grouse habitat in Wyoming and Montana in a ruling Wednesday against the Bureau of Land Management.

The federal agency violated the National Environmental Policy Act when it auctioned off hundreds of acres of sage grouse habitat — some of which is considered priority habitat — in four 2017 sales, according to Idaho U.S. District Judge Ronald Bush.

The BLM, under then-President Donald Trump, failed to adequately consider the effects that drilling would have on the greater sage grouse or to properly weigh the possibility of deferring drilling in the bird’s habitat, ruled Bush, a President George W. Bush appointee.

The judge determined that “it was reasonably possible for BLM to synthesize available information and analyze in better detail the site-specific impacts of the lease sales on greater sage-grouse.”

Additionally, he ruled, “BLM violated NEPA by failing to provide an adequate explanation of why it failed to consider the reasonable alternative of deferring priority greater sage-grouse habitat.”

His order stems from a 2018 lawsuit by environmental group Western Watersheds Project, which challenged the Trump administration’s evaluation of leasing’s possible effects on the bird.

“Instead of prioritizing oil and gas leasing and development outside designated sage grouse habitats, the Trump administration targeted some of our nation’s most ecologically sensitive public lands for drilling and fracking, without even considering the consequences,” Western Watersheds Project executive director Erik Molvar said in a news release. “This ruling sends a very strong message that the BLM can no longer lease public lands for fossil fuel development without weighing the outcomes for sensitive lands and wildlife.”

Rather than vacate the lease sales as the group requested, however, the judge chose to send the environmental assessments back to the BLM so it could address the problems that were raised. Until then, the agency cannot issue new applications for permits to drill or approve of any new “surface disturbing activities” on the parcels.

“The State of Wyoming has taken extensive steps to ensure that the sage-grouse remains off the endangered species list while balancing the need for other uses of public lands like grazing, recreation, and oil and natural gas development,” Pete Obermueller, president of the Petroleum Association of Wyoming, said in a statement. “I am confident the mitigation measures the industry has taken will withstand a second look.”

Sage grouse

The state is listed as an intervenor in support of the BLM in the case.

“The Governor is dismayed by Judge Bush’s ruling but is pleased that the leases have not been vacated,” said Gordon spokesman Michael Pearlman. “We are currently evaluating our options as to whether the state will appeal the ruling.”

The BLM and the Western Energy Alliance, another intervenor, did not respond to requests for comment, according to the Associated Press.

Sage grouse are a chicken-sized, primarily ground-dwelling bird whose numbers have fallen significantly from the millions that inhabited the U.S. West in frontier times. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determined in 2010 that the bird deserved special protection but said in 2015 that conservation efforts led by Wyoming made that unnecessary.

A February report from the Wyoming Game and Fish Department said that the number of sage grouse in Wyoming had remained stable in 2020.

Bush’s ruling comes amid a federal oil and gas leasing moratorium imposed by President Joe Biden’s administration while it studies the effects on climate change. According to the lawsuit, federal agencies manage about half of the bird’s remaining habitat.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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