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Wyoming will lift mask mandate next week
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Wyoming will lift mask mandate next week

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Wyoming will lift its mask mandate next week, Gov. Mark Gordon’s office announced Monday. The state will also allow bars, restaurants, theaters and gyms to resume normal operations on Tuesday after nearly a year of working under restrictions meant to limit COVID-19’s spread.

The news comes a week after new, loosened health orders went into effect removing limits on personal care businesses such as salons and widening allowable public gatherings.

“I thank the people of Wyoming for their commitment to keeping one another safe throughout this pandemic,” Gordon said in a statement. “It is through their efforts that we have kept our schools and businesses operating and our economy moving forward. I ask all Wyoming citizens to continue to take personal responsibility for their actions and stay diligent as we look ahead to the warmer months and to the safe resumption of our traditional spring and summer activities.”

The changes to the state’s health orders will be shared later this week, but Gordon “wanted to make sure the public knew of this important change today,” the announcement said.

“Wyoming is one of the few states in the country that kept students learning in the classroom for the entire school year,” Gordon said in the news release. “We made sacrifices, but the earlier orders saved lives. We persevered. With this approach we can have graduations, proms and a great end to the school year by keeping schools open. Especially since our children will not have the chance to be vaccinated this spring.”

Mar.08 -- Vaccinated people can visit indoors without masks, but must still wear them in public and avoid large gatherings when around those who aren’t immunized or are at high risk for contracting Covid-19, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Monday. CDC Director Rochelle Walensky spoke at a briefing.

Medical experts have credited local mask orders and the statewide mandate for driving down infections in Wyoming after they peaked in November. Health officers began enacting their own local orders in early November, as cases soared and hospitalizations were setting new records near daily. Gordon and State Health Officer Dr. Alexia Harrist followed suit in the first week of December, passing a statewide mandate.

Additionally, more than 100,000 Wyomingites have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.

Rolling back rules

Officials have gradually loosened restrictions over the last two months as COVID-19 numbers in the state continue to improve. Gordon’s office twice in February announced rollbacks of active health orders, allowing for larger gatherings and fewer restrictions in certain businesses.

Gordon had anticipated the state would continue easing restrictions as cases improve.

“If we continue on our current trajectory, I expect us to be able to continue to remove orders as we safely return to a new normal,” the governor said in a Feb. 25 press release announcing the most recent rollback at the time.

Wyoming has joined a trend of states lifting mask orders as virus cases fall nationwide. Texas, Mississippi, North Dakota, Iowa and Montana have all recently lifted public face mask requirements.

Gordon and the Wyoming Department of Health have used the White House Coronavirus Task Force’s guidelines on virus transmission to gauge the state’s pandemic response. Those guidelines break transmission risk into six color-coded tiers. Wyoming and most communities in the state were in the upper echelons of that ladder through the fall and winter.

Now, 15 counties are in the two lowest risk-categories, and Wyoming as a whole is in the third-lowest tier.

Hope and risk

Officials statewide have voiced optimism about the pandemic’s direction in Wyoming. Twenty-two people were hospitalized for the virus statewide Sunday, according to Wyoming Department of Health data. There are just over 500 active infections across Wyoming, down from the nearly 12,000 active cases at the pandemic’s height here in November.

Still, there’s risk. A 50-70% more contagious variant of COVID-19 is spreading through the U.S. and has been detected in Wyoming. Teton County officials announced Monday they had identified a second variant. And while vaccinations are moving, More than 80% of Wyoming residents have yet to receive a shot.

“Of course increased transmission remains a large concern until we can get closer to herd immunity within the community,” Hailey Bloom, spokesperson for the Casper-Natrona County Health Department said via email. “However we, like the governor, are hopeful that people will continue to use best judgement and take appropriate measures” like wearing face masks, getting tested and social distancing.

The federal government last week authorized a third vaccine for emergency use in the U.S. That vaccine, developed by Johnson and Johnson, only requires one dose and doesn’t need heavy-duty freezers for storage.

The state received roughly 6,000 doses of that vaccine last week, but doesn’t anticipate more until the end of March, Wyoming Department of Health spokesperson Kim Deti said.

Dr. Mark Dowell, Natrona County’s health officer, previously told the Star-Tribune that Wyomingites will need to remain vigilant into the spring and summer to ensure cases don’t rebound as people begin to travel more and let their guard down. Dowell has also said vaccinations will be the state’s best chance at getting through the pandemic.

In a video statement published to his practice’s website Monday, Dowell said he had no plans to request a local order in light of the state’s decision.

Deti, the Health Department spokesperson, said she did not have information on local requests for county-level orders.

Political response

Several state lawmakers, who recently convened for a monthlong, in-person legislative session at the Capitol, welcomed the easing of restrictions.

“I would have liked to see it done a little bit earlier, but I’m supportive of doing it now,” Rep. Mark Baker, R-Green River, told the Star-Tribune. “I think it’s important that we open up our economy, especially come spring time and the warmer weather. I’m definitely looking forward to seeing our economy and bars, restaurants and theaters open back up.”

House Minority Leader Cathy Connolly, meanwhile, said the move felt early to her.

“I think we’re doing good in terms of the rollout of the vaccine, but we’re nowhere near getting the level of vaccination that we need in order to no longer be cautious,” she said.

A suite of proposed bills aimed at curtailing the governor’s authority to impose public health orders — like those implemented during the pandemic this past year — have found their way to the Legislature.

To Rep. Chuck Gray, R-Casper, the mask mandate should not have been imposed on Wyomingites in the first place and he’s introduced a bill to cap the governor’s authority.

“We must move forward with (House Bill) 98 and other bills designed to stop all unconstitutional and out of control orders (like mask mandates) in the future,” he said in a written statement.

House Speaker Eric Barlow has also sponsored legislation to place certain limit public health orders, unless local governments approve. He said the governor’s announcement on Monday would not affect the bill.

“These bills are for the next time,” he said. “They don’t have anything to do with what’s currently underway.”

Star-Tribune staff writer Camille Erickson contributed to this report.

Photos: A timeline of coronavirus in Wyoming

Follow health and education reporter Morgan Hughes on Twitter @m0rgan_hughes

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Health and education reporter

Morgan Hughes covers health and education in Wyoming. After growing up in rural Wisconsin, she graduated from Marquette University in 2018. She moved to Wyoming shortly after and covered education in Cheyenne before joining the Star-Tribune in May 2019.

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