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State Health Officer Dr. Alexia Harrist speaks during a media briefing Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2020, inside the Capitol in downtown Cheyenne. The briefing, which also included updates from Gov. Mark Gordon, Wyoming Secretary of State Ed Buchanan and Cheyenne Regional Medical Center CEO and President Tim Thornell, gave information on the spike in COVID-19 cases across the state, as well as the upcoming election. Michael Cummo/Wyoming Tribune Eagle

CHEYENNE – Health officials in Laramie County were largely on board with updated statewide health orders announced late Thursday by Gov. Mark Gordon aiming to reduce the spread of COVID-19, though they also saw aspects of the orders that could’ve been more restrictive.

The orders set to take effect Tuesday Nov. 24 impose stricter limitations on gatherings, limiting those without restrictions to 25 people – down from the 50-person limit that has been in effect for months. If social distancing is followed, indoor events can have up to 25% of venue capacity, with a maximum of 100 people. For outdoor events, the orders allow for gatherings limited to 50% of venue capacity, with a maximum of 250 people.

While relieved to see steps taken at the state level, Cheyenne-Laramie County Health Department Executive Director Kathy Emmons said she would’ve supported stricter measures, adding “we just really need to do whatever we can do to limit the size of gatherings.”

“I would’ve been fine with (the orders) being a little more restrictive, to be perfectly honest, and I’m not talking about closing down businesses,” Emmons said Friday.

“The smaller we can keep groups of people at this point, the better.”

While the new limitations allow for half as many people to gather as before, other states have pushed for stricter restrictions, as the COVID-19 pandemic has reached new heights across the country. Governors in the neighboring states of Idaho and Colorado, for example, have recently restricted many gatherings to 10 people.

“I would like to have seen us set it at 10, rather than 25, but at this point, we’ll take whatever we can get,” Emmons said of her preference.

In an interview Friday afternoon, State Public Health Officer Dr. Alexia Harrist said the restrictions were deemed necessary after seeing transmission in many informal gatherings where social distancing and masks weren’t in use.

“(With the 25-person limit), we’re mirroring the way we’ve eased the restrictions in the orders, so we’re sort of taking similar steps in making the orders stronger, wanting to do this step-wise ... so that we can take additional steps based on what we’re seeing in the data,” Harrist said.

“It is very much a possibility that we would need to have more orders and more restrictions,” she added. “That’s certainly a possibility, and we will base that on the data that we’re seeing, while trying to do it in a measured, step-wise fashion so that we can understand those impacts.”

Unlike the Republican governors of Utah and North Dakota, Gordon also decided against issuing a statewide mask mandate, instead continuing his preference to leave that call to individual counties. Emmons said she was “a little disappointed” at the decision to not implement one statewide “because the reality is we’re so mobile as a society.”

“If everybody would stay in their own communities and their own small groupings, it wouldn’t be a problem, but we know that people travel across county lines,” Emmons said. “Without some stronger mandates on the masks, it’s still going to spread.”

As of Friday, 15 of Wyoming’s 23 counties, including Laramie County, have been approved for a mask mandate in many indoor spaces. While many Wyomingites now live in places that require masks, Emmons said a statewide order would add another level of gravity to the situation.

“The reality, though, is that the people who aren’t going to (wear a mask) because the county mandates them to are also not going to do it if the governor mandates it,” Emmons added.

Gordon’s decision also came after nearly every county health officer in Wyoming wrote a letter to the governor earlier this month urging him to issue a statewide mask mandate. Though the governor ultimately didn’t go there, Laramie County Health Officer Dr. Stan Hartman said limiting gatherings was a sensible move.

“The governor didn’t think we should do a (statewide mask mandate) at this time – that’s his decision, and I’m not trying to second-guess him,” Hartman said during an interview Friday. “That’s the one thing the county health officers would’ve liked to have seen, but short of that, I think limiting the crowd sizes and doing the other things that he did are reasonable steps, and I support them.”

Harrist, meanwhile, commended the county health officers who have pursued local mask mandates, adding “everybody, at this point, should be wearing masks indoors when they are around other people who are not in their households.”

“A (statewide) mask mandate, as the governor said last week, is absolutely still a possibility, but I am very happy with the fact that 15 out of 23 counties already have it in place or will within the next couple of days,” Harrist said.

A request for additional comment from Gordon had not been returned by press time Friday.

The new orders will take effect Tuesday, Nov. 24, days after Wyoming saw its number of COVID-19 hospitalizations reach a new high Friday, with 219. The trends were equally concerning at Cheyenne Regional Medical Center, which was reporting a new high of 60 patients with COVID-19 on Friday.

On the front lines at the Cheyenne-Laramie County Health Department, things have been no better, according to Emmons. On Monday, the department tested 320 people for COVID-19 at its drive-thru testing site at the Event Center at Archer, and some people had to come back for testing the next day due to the strain on the system.

“That’s by far the higher number of tests we’ve done (on a single day),” said Emmons, noting her team was previously averaging around 150 tests a day. “It’s just mind-boggling.”

Tom Coulter is the Wyoming Tribune Eagle’s state government reporter. He can be reached at tcoulter@wyomingnews.com or 307-633-3124. Follow him on Twitter at @tomcoulter_.

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