This was not a Mark Gordon people were used to seeing.
On an early summer afternoon in July, Gordon’s typically affable, even-keeled demeanor at the podium was showing cracks. Criticism of his administration’s public health orders had begun to mount. Many in Wyoming were fed up with the economic fallout from the pandemic, resentful of wearing face coverings to slow the virus’ spread and yearning for a return to normalcy so they could enjoy Wyoming’s short summer season — public health concerns be damned.
Gordon, it seemed, was tired, too.
“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,” he said. “So I think those Republican principles that we count on are ones that ought to be respected.
“There is no constitutional right to go infect somebody else,” Gordon continued. “There is no constitutional right that says you can put others in harm’s way.”
It's July 15, a date when the state had seen 1,600 lab-confirmed cases and 22 deaths tied to COVID-19.
Today, things seem worse. In late September, record highs for new and active cases were established and broken on a near-daily basis, a trend that has continued into October. As of Saturday afternoon, 5,415 lab-confirmed cases of the coronavirus — over three times as many as there were in July — have been reported in Wyoming, while the death toll has more than doubled, rising to 53 people statewide.
Yet, as the pandemic appears to be worsening, the public has increasingly soured on the guidelines to contain the virus’ spread. While a slim majority of the state continues to support a hypothetical indoor mask order, support for vaccines, public health orders and behavioral changes have declined as the months have dragged on, according to polling data from the University of Wyoming’s Survey and Analysis Center.
Meanwhile Gordon — who remains one of the nation’s most popular governors — has continued to roll back public health orders, most recently allowing restaurants to increase their seating capacity. His tone toward the public’s compliance with public health orders has softened as well: Where he once scolded a resistant public, he has since taken a softer tone even as rates of positive cases grow, hospitalizations have increased and public support for measures shown to stall the virus’s spread have waned.
“We don’t react to what happens on an immediate basis,” he said at a press conference last month. “We try to take a measured course.”
Pressure to further loosen the state’s public health orders, meanwhile, has been mounting.
Behind the scenes in the Legislature, lawmakers have been pressuring one another to call a special session to rein in the authority of the Gordon administration and its Department of Health. A formal poll called by Cheyenne Republican Clarence Styvar is now circulating among legislators to gauge support for such a session, according to emails provided to the Star-Tribune.
Pressure from the public and from private business has been immense as well. Emails to lawmakers and the governor calling for loosened health orders number in the hundreds, while the state’s economy has continued to suffer under the weight of the pandemic, despite Wyoming having the nation’s fifth least-restrictive public health protocols, according to a Sept. 15 analysis by personal finance website WalletHub.
Publicly, Gordon’s ability to navigate the pandemic has required a careful hedging of conflicting interests: a balancing of public health and public opinion. But privately, the trend of apathy he is seeing from the public has been a troubling one.
Since the onset of the virus, Gordon has been careful to note that its presence would be longstanding, that its impacts to the economy would be devastating and that a spike in cases sometime in the fall was all but inevitable. However, the governor said the recent surge and shifting attitudes toward the virus have “weighed heavily” on him.
“This virus comes and goes,” he said in an interview with the Star-Tribune last week. “And when it comes, it comes (in a) very, very aggressive way. And that’s been a big concern for me this last week and a half, where we’ve seen this real spike. I won’t say that hasn’t kept me awake at night. It has. When you have this success, and people get lulled into a sense of complacency, that this isn’t a big deal. But the fact of the matter is, when you practice these good behaviors, your chance of getting sick is dramatically reduced.”
A public divided
Casper Republican Pat Sweeney’s inbox has been blowing up for weeks.
Day after day, Sweeney opens his legislative inbox to dozens of new emails urging him and his colleagues to take up a special session to reopen the economy or draw up new legislation. Other times, constituents simply email him to vent.
Sometimes, the emails contain statistics skewed to minimize the risk of COVID-19. Other times, they contain flat-out misinformation, such as an email stating their county had seen a sharp increase in suicides and drug overdoses since the pandemic’s start — a fact the Wyoming Department of Health refutes. Often, the emails are angry, arguing that the state is not being responsive to the public’s needs and questions.
“People think we’re heading in the right direction; the other half are mad as hell,” Sweeney said. “Who’s right? Who’s wrong? And do you really want to have those deaths on your mind? I know it weighs heavily on me and I know it weighs heavily on the governor.”
Danielle Kinberg, a hairstylist in Lingle, understands that COVID-19 is real and, for vulnerable individuals, can be extremely deadly. However, she believes that masks are a matter of choice and opposes a mask mandate.
Briefly put out of business at the pandemic’s start, Kinberg is now back in business in a county that, as of Friday, counted just 30 active confirmed cases of the virus — just above the median in Wyoming. She is not ardently anti-mask. She will put one on when asked to by customers, she said, and will provide them to those who want one. However, she believes that human needs and human behavior — the need to touch one another, or see one another face-to-face — should not be completely disregarded because of a new threat, no matter how deadly and unpredictable.
“This narrative that we have to strip ourselves of all human contact to save ourselves is a big concept,” she said. “I think we’ve always known that people need to be touched and hugged and have that human contact. I’m OK with thinking, ‘OK, this is a big, scary virus, or whatever, and we’re going to have to do something.’ But I was never OK with taking away everything we know to be true about how to care for humans in order to care for humans. I just never thought that makes sense.”
Lawmakers have put human need front and center in the political discourse as well. Rep. Scott Clem, a Gillette Republican who has opposed most public health orders and often rails against the science of vaccinations, has gained support among some conservatives in the Legislature in a push for greater flexibility in visiting senior homes.
Gordon said he has tried to broker some sort of compromise to compensate for people’s mental health — loosening rules for athletic events, for example, and a popular decision to allow the summer rodeo season, at least for smaller events, to move forward.
But science, he said, must come first. Particularly with human lives at stake.
“I was talking to a rancher friend of mine up in Sublette (County), and he said, ‘Well, that works well on a head of calves,’” Gordon said of concepts like herd immunity. “You might lose 2% or 3%. Not a big deal. But that’s pretty hard to sort of extrapolate that to a human population. Because when you’re talking about herd immunity and heads of calves, you’re talking about acceptable death. I just find it really hard to think about people and decide to run a policy based on acceptable death.”
Conspiracy and doubt
A growing mistrust of institutions has also created an environment where people are more likely to deny expert opinion in favor of their own, leading, it appears, to elevated levels of misinformation.
In Wyoming, one of the best examples is a private Facebook group called the Reopen Wyoming Action Group. The group has become one of the largest brokers of misinformation in the state with more than 3,200 members following its posts.
Despite a line in the page’s rules asking people to fact check what they post, common shares to the page include amateur statisticians who use data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to refute CDC guidance, videos from anti-vaccination activists and outright conspiracy theories, most recently among them a post suggesting without any evidence that a polio vaccine was somehow causing even more cases of polio.
Contradictory messaging by the federal government has not helped, as policy decisions by agencies such as the CDC and the Food and Drug Administration have been interfered with by political appointees, muddying the waters on topics like airborne transmission of the virus and the safety standards of a potential vaccine.
Meanwhile, narratives of government overreach have been persistent since the beginning of the pandemic, building on an existing mistrust of government and institutions.
“We are being lied to so that someone can control the narrative,” Aaron Kristiansen, a Rock Springs resident and a member of the Reopen Wyoming Action Group’s Facebook page, wrote in an email. “I don’t care what political party you prefer, but this virus is all about politics and control.”
Altogether, these trends create an environment where scientific authorities are looked at with increasing skepticism.
“This has been a pretty frightening development in our society,” said David Wheeler, a neurologist and the president of the Wyoming Medical Society. “This writ large mistrust of experts and from our perspective, medical experts, has led people to behave in ways that are contrary to their best interests in a lot of different ways.”
Similar to how a small contingent of skeptics has birthed larger segments of the population who downplay the severity of climate change, Wheeler said that unqualified experts and a general mistrust of institutions have helped to cultivate a widespread feeling that unscientific opinions on the virus have legitimacy on par with experts’ judgments.
And those feelings, according to research, are often formed through the lens of media trust and politics. According to a May study by the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, conservatives reported significantly higher doubts toward the virus’ severity than liberals, while their levels of mistrust in institutions like the media were much higher than that of Democrats. And the polarization has had severe social consequences.
After speaking out in favor of a statewide mask mandate, Wheeler said he received a number of death threats from people who disagreed with him, saying they believed he was part of a “liberal plot” to control the population. Meanwhile, mask wearing and other protective measures have become symbols of political persuasion, rather than concern for public health.
“It all comes down to caring for the community, helping the common good by taking a simple precaution,” Justine Larsen, a Powell resident, wrote in a Facebook message to a Star-Tribune reporter. “Numbers are going up, precautions and health orders should remain. The pettiness and distancing from scientific fact is what astounds me. I’m just a precaution taker by nature. I stay home when I’m sick, even if it means losing pay. I vaccinate my children. I get a flu shot every year. I trust science over any slight discomfort. I wash my hands before preparing food, and, since the start of the pandemic, I won’t eat indoors at a restaurant. I am just amazed how unwilling people are to shorten this pandemic by taking the most minimal of precautions while hollering about the perceived infringement on their rights.”
Prior to Tuesday’s presidential debate between President Donald Trump, who has since tested positive for the virus, and Joe Biden, an NBC News reporter said she witnessed a Cleveland Clinic doctor remind Trump’s guests to wear masks, even offering them masks if they didn’t have one.
Ultimately none of them chose to wear one, she wrote on Twitter.
“There’s this preconceived notion that the whole concept of what science says we should do to protect ourselves is some kind of left-wing plot, that there’s some sort of agenda,” said Wheeler, the president of the Wyoming Medical Society. “I generally can’t explain it. But I do see it repeatedly. We’re just trying to make the best of the science we have to give people what they need to be safe.”
All of it, Gordon says, plays to the detriment of Wyoming and the country.
“The America I grew up in was one where we put America first,” he said. “We had confidence in our demonstrated facts, we understood that empirical judgments were important, and we understood that we could discuss action on their merits. One of the challenges I think, now, is that everybody brings their own facts.”
But the economy
As the pandemic has raged on and the economy remains stagnant, the financial pressure to ease up on certain restrictions has grown.
The pandemic’s harm to the economy was evident from the get-go. The cancellations of the College National Finals of Rodeo in Casper and Frontier Days in Cheyenne cost their host communities tens of millions of dollars in expected revenues, while economic activity dropped significantly across nearly every sector in the second quarter of 2020, according to numbers released by the Wyoming Division of Economic Analysis last week.
With most of the federal stimulus money from earlier this year nearly expended and little indication that U.S. Congress will agree on an additional round of funding anytime soon, Ron Gullberg, the strategic partnerships director for the Wyoming Business Council, said his group is now looking at strategies to help businesses survive the slower months of fall and winter.
However, many businesses are struggling now, and need some sort of assistance to stay afloat in the absence of federal action. With little money left to spend, that action likely comes in the form of policy directives and increased flexibility.
“We’re very concerned with what happens when fall and winter come in,” said Chris Brown, executive director of the Wyoming Lodging and Restaurant Association. “The creativity we’ve seen in industry, for both the lodging and restaurant industry, have been to find ways to accommodate customers outside. With the winter coming in, those opportunities are obviously going to be reduced significantly.”
It’s a reality Gordon – who has pledged to follow a “middle course” in combating the virus – is aware of. Members of his family have personally contracted the virus, he said, and throughout the pandemic, he has stressed that all of his public health decisions have been informed by the acceptable risk and a full understanding of their implications.
“The tighter restrictions that were in place in the spring were implemented at a time when no one knew exactly what the pandemic would look like and when we had less accurate information about transmission,” Michael Pearlman, a spokesman for the governor, said in a statement following a recent loosening of the state’s pubic health orders. “The Governor has consistently taken a balanced approach, with a goal of placing the least amount of burden on the state’s businesses while still taking measures to protect public health. This is a continuation of that philosophy.”
Still, loosening health order restrictions may not have the desired economic effect. At the start of the pandemic, a University of Wyoming study concluded that the economic benefits of lives saved could outweigh the value of the projected losses of GDP by about $5.2 trillion nationwide.
It’s not just an economic case critics are making: detractors fear that the nation’s unwillingness to do more, and confront the ire of unpopular opinion, will only lead to more deaths.
“Political pressures and economic realities are clearly coming into play,” said Wheeler. “But I am very worried that a lot more people are going to die. If we would follow those basic parameters for public health, I’m quite confident that this virus would stop spreading within a matter of two months. We would be in much better position.”
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