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Think your work is ‘essential’ during a pandemic? Think again
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Think your work is ‘essential’ during a pandemic? Think again

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Traffic rolls through downtown Casper as some businesses remain open amid the growing COVID-19 pandemic March 25.

Even doorknob makers think they are critical cogs during the COVID-19 pandemic and want a gubernatorial designation as essential workers, a policy advisor to Gov. Mark Gordon says.

They’re not likely to get it.

Such requests are pouring in from those anticipating additional government-enforced closures like those seen in stay-at-home orders issued in other states.

Designation as an essential employee or industry can afford exemptions to the kind of travel, work and other restrictions that come with many emergency federal, state or local health orders.

“We get probably three or four [requests] a day, from the doorknob manufactures to Society of Professional Journalists to the manufacturing … of pipelines,” said Renny MacKay, senior policy advisor to Gordon. He estimated Friday the number of requests is approaching 100.

As one of the last remaining states without a statewide stay-at-home order, the list of essential personnel in Wyoming currently has only one official function — allowing access to daycare. Doorknob manufacturers, journalists and roughnecks do not qualify.

Wyoming Health Officer Dr. Alexia Harrist defined essential personnel in her order closing bars, schools, dine-in restaurants, child-care facilities and other places where people congregate. Although general child-care facilities must close, ones that take care of children of essential personnel may operate under certain conditions, her order reads.

They only can accept children whose parents work in one of 15 different fields. Those are child care and educational workers; health care workers; criminal justice employees; firefighters, National Guard troops and first responders; state employees working on COVID-19; active duty military staff; pharmacy workers; foster families with children through grade 8; 911 staff and plumbing, electrical, telecommunications and wastewater workers; public works employees, grocery workers, supply chain drivers; medical manufacturing personnel and fuel distributors.

“We had to narrow and find a group of people that needed day care to do their jobs,” MacKay said. “The issue is there’s not enough day care in Wyoming to provide for everybody who asked.”

There are 18,000 workers in the oil and gas industry, for example, MacKay stated, citing an example. If the state puts them or bankers on the child-care list, it would have to put journalists on the list, then gas station attendants. You can’t allow day care for every one of those industries, he added.

Who is an essential worker?

Designating a business as part of the critical infrastructure would have a larger effect than just allowing workers to travel to their jobs in the case of a stay-at-home order, according to one of the requests made to Gordon. The Petroleum Association of Wyoming and the Wyoming Mining Association asked to be declared an essential business and critical infrastructure to enable deliveries.

“Vendors are no longer shipping necessary supplies and will only do so with a letter from you with the designation,” the letter reads.

State officials have talked to representatives from those industries, including the one that makes doorknobs (and secure doors), Mackay said. “We’ve had conversations with several of these folks.” He agreed that supply chains can be constrained.

He suggested if there is a bottleneck, it’s not in Wyoming and a solution, also, is not to be found here. “Generally, this is an issue somewhere else,” MacKay said.

The federal Department of Homeland Security has twice updated its guideline listing 16 critical infrastructure sectors during the COVID-19 pandemic. The USA Patriot Act of 2001 enabled the DHS’s Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency to define the critical sectors and their workers.

A critical sector is one whose incapacitation or destruction would have “a debilitating effect on security, national economic security, national public health or safety,” the CISA website reads. “The list of essential workers should be considered by state and local government officials as those with prioritized need for access and re-entry into, out of, and through areas where shelter-in-place, quarantine, cordons, and restricted areas,” (sic) the website reads.

In a press conference Friday, Gordon said Wyoming isn’t ready to impose a stay-at-home order the way so many other states have. Listing of, and exemptions for, critical workers “would be designated in a future order,” MacKay told WyoFile on Friday. “Nobody is issuing an order today.”

At his press conference Friday, Gordon leafed through letters from various organizations asking him to list their trade as a critical business, tossing them aside.

“What we did was we said ‘stay home, wash your hands, maintain social distancing, don’t go to the store unless you have to…’” Gordon said, clearly frustrated by state and national criticism for not having issued an official order. “That is essentially what a stay-home order is.”

The Wyoming Medical Society asked the governor to issue a stronger order and he has for now declined.

“We appreciate the previous actions you and the State Public Health Officer have taken in response to this crisis, and understand the intricate and sensitive policy issues at play during this critical time,” the March 26 letter from Wyoming Medical Society president Dr. David Wheeler read. “However, we now believe that a statewide ‘shelter-in-place’ order is the only way to curb the exponential spread of COVID-19 in Wyoming.”

Both Gordon and MacKay pointed to Colorado’s stay-at-home order and other directives as heavy-handed approaches that accomplish no more than what Wyoming is accomplishing. Wyoming orders and directives limit assemblies to no more than 10 people and imposes a 14-day quarantine on those entering the state in addition to closing dine-in restaurants and other gathering places.

Colorado’s stay-at-home orders carry a list of 88 exemptions for essential or critical workers, a review of them shows. If Wyoming imposed the same restrictions and exemptions, it would make little difference in a Wyoming street scene, Gordon and MacKay said.

Under a Colorado-style stay-at-home, a flower shop now open in Cheyenne would have closed, also perhaps a car dealership, MacKay explained. In Colorado, housing construction is allowed to continue, including for projects for low-income and vulnerable people, a review of orders there shows.

Colorado businesses that can’t be conducted remotely are to shut temporarily, “except as necessary to engage in minimum basic operations needed to protect assets and maintain personnel functions,” the orders state.

More important than imposing an order is changing people’s behavior, MacKay said. "Do you change behavior or do you have orders?" Mackay asked. “What we want is better behavior.”

As Gordon put it, “our orders talk less and say more.”

Does stay-at-home save lives?

The Wyoming Republican Party applauded Gordon in a Facebook post at the end of March, calling stay-at-home “essentially locally enforced martial law.”

“By our very nature and geography Wyoming is a social distancing state,” the post reads. “Further governmental intrusion on the private sector and individual freedom would put Wyoming in a more vulnerable position than has already been achieved.”

The governor, “knows the ramifications of an additional order on people’s lives,” MacKay said.

Whether a stay-at-home order saves lives compared to a stay-at-home recommendation isn’t settled in Wyoming.

“Are behaviors changing in Colorado more than they’re changing in Wyoming?” MacKay asked. Referring to Teton County’s order limiting gatherings to only members of a household he asked, “did that change behavior so much that lives are being saved?

“That’s what we keep trying to evaluate,” MacKay said. The governor continues discussions with state health officials. “It’s minute-to-minute,” MacKay said of the talks that seek an answer to “are the behaviors in Wyoming such that we need a different order.”

MacKay said Friday he was “immensely frustrated” that Colorado was being portrayed in the national media as a state under lockdown “and we have nothing.” In fact, Gordon and the state department of health have orders “in place that are enforceable right now … trying to keep people safe.”

“The idea [Colorado is] locked down there is just false,” he said, pointing to exceptions allowing businesses like hardware stores and marijuana shops to stay open.

“We’re just not that different from Colorado. In both places, everyone is doing their best to save lives.”

Even lockdown-state orders have weaknesses, MacKay said. Some states characterized as locked down still allow barber shops to stay open, an industry Wyoming has temporarily closed.

“Wyoming is trying to save lives and has orders in place to do that,” MacKay said.

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