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Josh Galemore, Star-Tribune 

A boy looks through a book at the main branch of the Natrona County Library on Wednesday.


Govt-and-politics
editor's pick top story
Wyoming small businesses employ creative solutions to survive during COVID-19 outbreak

The businesses lining the main streets of Wyoming speak volumes about the communities they inhabit.

Successful restaurants reflect the tastes of the local residents. Retailers, and the wares they carry, often resemble the demographics of a community. Art galleries, music shops and others can indicate the existence of tourist traffic and a creative class that provides a steady stream of foot traffic. Rows of occupied storefronts provide something else as well, inspiring feelings of security toward the future and a sense of a community’s prosperity and viability.

“That’s what we’re about, that person-to-person connection,” said Ash Miller, a sales associate at Wind City Books in downtown Casper. “You don’t really get that from Amazon or those other big sellers — that human connection.”

But for the past few weeks, retailers like Wind City Books have been learning how to maintain those relationships at a time when the coronavirus pandemic has all but forced shoppers off the streets and caused many businesses — now without cash flow — to temporarily close their doors or slash hours, particularly in the hospitality and tourism industries.

While Wind City Books has elected to stay open during the pandemic, their business model has changed slightly in the recent weeks. They’ve stopped serving coffee — one of the added touches of the bookstore — due to difficulties in the simultaneous handling of money and preparing beverages. Their operating hours have changed, now ending at 4 p.m. instead of the usual 6 p.m. And, as people continue to self-isolate in their homes, foot traffic to the store has slowed as well.

Despite the challenges — and some decline in business due to the lost foot traffic — Wind City is still earning money and selling books, with loyal customers and even new ones going out of their way to patronize the store.

After Wind City’s owner, Vicki Burger, posted a long message to the store’s Facebook page outlining some of the changes, the store has seen an uptick in online sales, Miller said, while customers have proven willing to shop online before coming down to the store to buy. Sales associates have even hopped on the phone with prospective customers to offer the same recommendations and suggestions they would to any other customer, allowing buyers to pay over the phone and pick up their orders curbside — similar to what restaurants around the country have done.

Cayla Nimmo, Star-Tribune 

Lauren Abesames works the counter Wednesday at Wind City Books in downtown Casper The book store has remained open through the COVID-19 pandemic, but they have adjusted their hours, expanded online ordering and offered curbside pick-up to accommodate health guidelines.

“We’re not supposed to have that connection now, so we have to do it at a distance,” said Miller. “But we still have that connection.”

Learning to adapt

Across the state, other businesses are learning to adapt to the change as well, in some cases even looking to the necessary act of social distancing as a trend to help encourage new ways to keep cash flow churning. In Platte County, the local chamber of commerce has taken to harnessing the power of social media to promote local businesses through online sales and special events like a “bear hunt,” where families were encouraged to walk around town to find teddy bears in the windows of local businesses and share their images on social media with a special hashtag.

In Laramie County, Visit Cheyenne — the capital city’s tourism division — has used social media to great effect as well, encouraging people to take photos of themselves patronizing small businesses by carrying out meals, buying gift cards to keep cash flow up or by social distancing through games like “social distance bingo,” where participants would be entered to win prizes.

The thinking is simple: It’s easier to rejuvenate a struggling business than resuscitate a dead one.

“We want to get folks to follow the protocols in place without spreading the disease,” Domenic Bravo, the CEO of Visit Cheyenne, said in an interview. “But we still want people to be shopping local and thinking local — to think about our neighbors and to keep those businesses strong, because they’ll be the key for us when we come out of this.”

Of course, moving online or going curbside is not a solution for everyone, and plenty of other businesses — with reduced traffic — will likely see revenues slide as well. To preserve jobs on Main Street, state and federal policymakers now find themselves facing the difficult task of creating certainty in an uncertain time. Without that, business owners have no choice but to take hold of the things they can to control their cash flow, whether it’s cutting hours, reducing spending or even laying off employees.

Bridge loans

To offset some of the immediate fallout of these circumstances, the Small Business Administration has set up a lending program intended to offer employers a loan of up to $2 million that can be used to pay employees or pay rent and utilities until the worst of the crisis is over, buying firms some time to make more methodical decisions about the future.

Cayla Nimmo, Star-Tribune 

A chalkboard sign outside of Wind City Books reads "Now is the time to stay home and read!!! We have many books to tempt you."

“Access to capital is a fundamental part of running a business, whether you’re a dry cleaner in Rock Springs or a large organization doing global or international business in Wyoming,” Cindy Delancey, president of the Wyoming Business Alliance, said. “It’s so important to create a mechanism to ensure that our businesses have that access and to help them continue to employ workers and invest in their organizations.”

So far, many businesses across the state have already been looking to take advantage, with Wyoming’s SBA regional director Amy Lea telling the Star-Tribune that her office had been fielding calls “all weekend” seeking information and looking for other options to fund their businesses in a way that aligns with their finances or might be better suited to fill their needs.

“By taking a moment to assess the situation, you might be able to buy some time to make the very best decision they can for their business — whether that is applying for an SBA economic disaster assistance loan online or other potential options that may be available in the future,” she said.

In the meantime, the state — including an Auditor Kristi Racines-led task force — has been focusing primarily on setting up businesses around Wyoming with connections to programs to provide them with a degree of certainty that COVID-19 has taken from them.

"Uncertainty is bad for business, so hopefully in a little bit folks will have a better understanding of what we’ll be looking at,” Delancey said. “But we’ll also — most importantly — be looking toward how to keep people safe while still conducting business in a reasonable manner.”


State-and-regional
breaking top story
'We're not trying to shut down Wyoming': Governor says he's hoping to avoid shelter order as coronavirus cases jump

Just as his counterpart in Idaho joined a growing list of governors ordering residents to stay home, Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon said he was doing his best to avoid similar measures here as the total number of coronavirus patients in the Equality State rose by more than 70 percent in roughly 24 hours.

“We are trying to avoid that order,” he told media during a press conference Wednesday. “But we do have the tools to be able to issue that kind of order. But as I said, we are trying to avoid that order because of the complexities it involves.”

“We do have means to enforce it, either through law enforcement or other means,” he added. Even without the order, he urged Wyomingites to stay at home as much as possible. Health officials across the country have said that a sound way to slow this virus — as any other — is to maintain social distancing.

Gordon’s press conference comes as Wyoming continues to experience its largest surge of new COVID-19 cases. As of late Thursday afternoon, there are now 49 confirmed cases in Wyoming, with 21 identified in roughly the past 24 hours. Nationally, there are more than 63,700 known cases, according to the New York Times. More than 900 people have died. Both of those numbers have jumped in the hours since this article was first updated. They will continue to grow.

The numbers grow here, too. Before the the governor started speaking early Wednesday afternoon, there were 41 confirmed cases in Wyoming. Minutes after his press conference ended, the state announced the total number of COVID-19 patients had risen to 44, with a first case for Albany County and two new patients in Teton County.

When dawn broke Tuesday, there were 29 known cases in total. Officials have said repeatedly that there are almost certainly more cases than have been identified because of limited testing capabilities. While the state lab has increased its ability to process samples by a factor of 10, there still remains a shortage of the swabs and tubes to take and transport the samples taken from patients. As a result, only a certain group of people are being tested. Elsewhere, people with mild symptoms are being told to go home and stay there for two weeks.

It’s thus unclear how extensive the virus’ presence is in Wyoming, which is why officials have repeatedly urged people to stay home as much as possible and avoid social contact with others. Asked if the state has modeled the potential extent of the virus, Health Department Director Mike Ceballos said the agency’s epidemiologists were working on it. On Tuesday, Wyoming’s health officer, Dr. Alexia Harrist, said the state was in the process of creating some of the supplies needed. A Health Department spokeswoman said Wednesday afternoon that some 2,600 sample kits — the materials needed to actually take a sample from a patient — will be distributed statewide.

While he was still reticent Wednesday to issue a shelter-in-place order, Gordon, along with Harrist, has ordered the temporary closure of schools, gyms, bars, hair salons and other businesses where people tend to congregate. Restaurants were permitted to remain open, but only to offer takeout and delivery. But Gordon indicated he wasn’t for the time being planning to go beyond that step to a shelter-in-place order, as states such as Ohio and New York have done.

“We know this is a difficult situation, probably the hardest we will face in our lifetime,” Gordon told reporters.

“We’re not trying to shut down Wyoming,” he added.

The first of Gordon’s significant measures against the spread of the virus — the recommendation 10 days ago that schools close — is set to expire April 3. Gordon said he was working with the state Department of Education on how to proceed with an education system of nearly 94,000 students and thousands of educators and support staff.

At a separate press conference in Casper, Natrona County School District spokeswoman Tanya Southerland said the district was undertaking “proactive and precautionary planning” to keep students learning, should schools remain shuttered. She said no decision has been made on whether virtual learning will be offered here.

If schools are shuttered for the rest of the year or if there’s a move to push coursework online, there are statutory obstacles to navigate. Though a federal waiver has cleared testing requirements, there’s the matter of seniors who need to complete this semester’s coursework to graduate — a process and set of standards dictated in statute, as well as in every school district’s own policies.

Providers

Gordon stressed the need to protect health care workers from the virus, another multi-faceted problem. First is the shortage of personal protective equipment — masks, gloves and gowns — that providers in Wyoming and just about everywhere else in America have been warning about. Lynn Budd, the state’s homeland security director, told reporters Wednesday that a shipment of the protective gear had been received from a national stockpile and that it had been distributed across the state.

“It’s not enough, but we’re doing the best we can at this point,” Budd said, adding that the state had placed orders with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The problem there, officials have said in the past, is that states, hospitals and clinics across the country are all queuing up.

Asked how much equipment had been requested and distributed, Budd said she didn’t have those figures available.

The second issue affecting the safety of health care workers — who are one of the groups that’s a testing priority — is their exposure to patients more generally. Officials in Natrona County and at the state level have urged anyone with symptoms not to go to their local emergency room unless they’re having significant breathing problems, and to not go to their primary care clinic without calling first, for fear of spreading the virus to unprepared staff.

“More importantly, if our first responders and our health care professionals are themselves infected, they take themselves off the line, further complicating issues,” the governor said.

In Wyoming, while hard numbers are difficult to confirm, several of the known cases are health care workers, including one in Casper and one in Park County.

Similarly, Gordon stressed the need to not overload the state’s isolated hospital systems, warning that it would have a ripple effect.

“We want to make sure, if this crisis comes in greater detail — and we’ve seen it increase over the last few days — that we have adequate health care facilities,” he said. “If our hospitals are filled and somebody has a stroke or somebody breaks a leg, you won’t be able to be taken to the hospital.”

Economic impact

At his press conferences, which have occurred with increasing frequency as the virus spreads, Gordon has repeated that the virus will damage the state on two fronts: its public and economic health. Robin Cooley, the state Department of Workforce Services director, took the microphone on the economic impacts after Gordon finished speaking.

She said the workforce claims center, which handles calls for unemployment insurance, has added 15 new employees and plans to install new phone lines as well.

While the claim volume has increased, Cooley said there is not currently a backlog and claims are being processed within two days.

The department is also working to push emergency rules that would expand the criteria for qualifying for the insurance. Currently to qualify, residents must be actively seeking work, for example. That’s something difficult to do when the state has mandated statewide business closures.

Still, Cooley said there are employers in the state looking for workers. She directed those looking for work to wyomingatwork.com.

As far as the department’s ability to serve an increased need for unemployment insurance for an extended amount of time, Cooley said she isn’t worried. She said Wyoming’s unemployment insurance trust fund was among the healthiest in the country before the pandemic. She said when comparing the current situation to the 2008 recession, she felt the fund was in a comfortable place.

Cooley added the department is working on making emergency federal grant money available to employers to keep staff on the payroll amid a statewide public health order that has closed a slew of businesses.

Asked about people’s rent and mortgages in a time where people are out of work or furloughed, Gordon said he had been in discussions with the Trump administration and Wyoming’s congressional delegation to seek relief on mortgage payments.

“Our ability to regulate is somewhat limited,” he said.

Nationally, Congress continues to deliberate on what is being described as the largest economic relief bill in history. It comes with a $2 trillion price tag and will include a $500 billion fund for large corporations, $367 billion for small businesses, and funding for more extended unemployment insurance and hospital relief.

Some Republicans in the Senate demanded changes Wednesday to the unemployment benefits, while Sen. Bernie Sanders has said he will block the bill if the benefits are weakened.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


Health
breaking top story
20 new Wyoming coronavirus cases confirmed in roughly 24 hours, bringing state total to 49

Wyoming’s known coronavirus cases jumped nearly 70 percent in a little more than 24 hours as the respiratory disease spread its reach across the state.

The known number of cases here has changed sometimes by the hour, but as of 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, there have been 49 identified cases in 10 Wyoming counties. The new cases, which began to be confirmed Tuesday night, include four in Natrona County; four in Teton County; one in Sweetwater County; four in Laramie County; four in Fremont County; one in Carbon County; and one in Albany County.

Details on all of these cases remain unclear; a spokeswoman for the state Health Department said late Wednesday afternoon she didn’t have information on all of them. Messages sent to officials in Fremont County, where the previous 10 cases were all linked to an assisted-living facility there, were not returned Wednesday.

Two of the new Natrona County cases were identified in Douglas, at a Memorial Hospital of Converse County clinic. A Casper-Natrona County Health Department official said at a press conference Wednesday that the two new cases had traveled domestically and may have had contact with another known patient. Both patients are Natrona County residents who were tested in Converse County.

The Sweetwater County patient, that area’s first, is a Green River man in his 40s who is self-isolating at home. In a statement, the chief nursing officer for the Memorial Hospital of Sweetwater County said officials “are aware this likely will not be” the only case.

In Teton County, where there are now six cases, officials now believe community transmission — meaning spread from person to person within the county — is present there. In a statement, the county health department said two of the new cases were confirmed by a private lab.

“The definition of community transmission is having more than one case in a community that are not linked and the source of the infection is unknown,” the department wrote. “As testing becomes more widely available, more cases can be expected.”

The new Cheyenne cases — four of them, bringing the capital city’s total to 12 — are not family members, according to the city. Leaders there, too, say that the cases “signify a trend of community transmission which is best responded to by ensuring social distancing, covering sneezes and coughs, maintain distance of six feet from other individuals, frequent handwashing, and staying home if sick.”

The known number of 49 as of 6:30 p.m. is just that — the known number. There is still a national shortage of testing equipment, and thus the state — and hospitals and clinics across Wyoming — is only testing certain high-risk groups. There have been 758 samples run through the state lab, with its daily testing capacity up to as many as 100 samples a day.

The state lab itself has created 2,600 kits to collect the sames — the swabs that go up your nose and the special tubes that take the swab to the lab — that’ll be sent across the state. Five hundred more are also being sent out to replenish used supplies, a Health Department spokeswoman said.

Nationally, the numbers are grim and growing ever more so. The New York Times clocks the known cases at over 63,700. More than 900 have died.

Speaking to Natrona County school board members Wednesday night, infectious disease Dr. Mark Dowell said that Wyoming would not be immune to the spread that has infected tens of thousands of Americans.

“If you look at what’s going on nationally, we’re at the beginning,” he said. “And there’s no reason to think that we’re somehow insulated in a bubble.”

The advice is the same here as it is all over: Stay home. Don’t hoard supplies you don’t need. Call your clinic if you have symptoms. Try not to touch your face. Don’t rush to the ER unless you can’t breathe. Don’t go out in public unless you need to, and for no longer than needed. Work from home and let your employees work from home. Wash your hands. Be kind.


Andrew Graham, WyoFile 

A truck heads east on Interstate 80 outside Laramie.