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Editorial board: Don't let hecklers stop conversations about COVID-19
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Editorial board: Don't let hecklers stop conversations about COVID-19

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Natrona County news conference

Natrona County Commissioner Rob Hendry (standing, left) tries to get audience members to allow County Health Officer Dr. Mark Dowell to discuss the state of COVID-19 in the county at a news conference Monday at Casper College.

On Monday, community leaders and health experts assembled on the stage at a Casper College theater for what was intended to be a meeting on the COVID-19 surge in Natrona County.

What transpired can only be described as a debacle.

Within minutes, a hostile crowd began heckling and shouting down the county’s health officers, as well as the chairman and vice-chairman of the Natrona County Commission. A few groups of spectators repeatedly interrupted the speakers, yelling out unfounded conspiracies, wild allegations and a seemingly endless supply of untruths.

The elected officials asked for quiet. They asked for civility. They offered the crowd a chance to comment after the doctors were done. But that did nothing to stop the catcalls and the interruptions. Neither did the doctors’ comments, even when they described caring for sick and dying COVID-19 patients. When one of the doctors said he had cared for a patient who would likely die that day, and another who would probably die the next, the heckling continued.

Finally, after 45 excruciating and frustrating minutes, Natrona County Commission Chairman Rob Hendry ended the meeting. Little information had been shared, and the comments that were made were hard to understand over the din of conspiracies and wild accusations. The message that officials wanted to get out – that cases, hospitalizations and deaths are rising at a disconcerting rate – was lost.

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The people who chose to derail an important public meeting embarrassed our community. They were not protecting our rights or defending Wyoming’s economy. They robbed the public of vital information during a pandemic that has begun to swamp our hospitals and kill Wyomingites at increasingly high rates. (Last month, there were a record 37 announced COVID-19-related deaths. In only one week of November, Wyoming has already recorded 27.) The acted as bullies, pure and simple, and they couldn’t abide by the basic rules that are required for a civil, democratic society to function: take turns, don’t interrupt and treat others with respect.

It also important to note just how flawed their arguments are. As the CEO of Wyoming Medical Center noted during the meeting, people in the crowd were arguing that a hospital that’s promoted mask wearing to save lives is also trying to profit off the deaths of COVID patients. How does that make sense? Why are we ignoring the same doctors who have for years saved the lives of countless Wyomingites?

We wish we could end things here. But our local leaders also deserve criticism for how the meeting was handled. Why were unruly spectators allowed to stay? Why not remove the few dozen bad actors so that the rest of the community can get good information instead of canceling the meeting altogether? If someone disrupted a city council meeting to the point that our leaders couldn’t do business, the police would rightfully remove them from city hall. What’s the difference?

And let’s not forget that photographs from the event showed that many of the spectators disregarded the college’s indoor mask rule. Why were they allowed to stay? What message does that send?

Officials should have given the public more notice about the meeting. They could have also done a better job of informing the public about its purpose – people in the audience mistakenly thought the county commission was going to vote on a mask mandate, even though that’s not how such a mandate could be enacted. Finally, once the meeting was canceled, there was nothing stopping officials from hosting an online meeting where the conversation could continue. (The Casper-Natrona County Health Department and Wyoming Medical Center, to their credit, subsequently produced a series of videos with information from the doctors and health officials who tried to speak at the meeting.)

Ultimately, the meeting represents a lost opportunity to inform and to educate. This pandemic isn’t going away. It wasn’t hoax and it’s not overblown. It’s killed 236,000 Americans so far this year. Among those dead are 127 Wyomingites.

And those numbers will only rise. Here in Wyoming, more deaths have been announced in the past week than in the first three months of the pandemic. How many more will have to die before we stop allowing loud and uninformed voices to dictate the conversation?

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