Cheyenne’s South High students, from left, Joey Barto, Jecember Meade, Eva Glaze, Kaedyn Davenport and Heidi Glaze sit together with their masks on after school on Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2020. With the number of active COVID-19 cases continuing to rise in Wyoming, the Cheyenne-Laramie County Board of Health advanced a motion Tuesday asking the county health officer to issue a mandatory mask order. Rhianna Gelhart/For the Wyoming Tribune Eagle

CHEYENNE – With the number of active COVID-19 cases continuing to rise to record highs here and across Wyoming, the Cheyenne-Laramie County Board of Health advanced a motion Tuesday asking the county health officer to issue a mandatory mask order.

The motion, which was passed unanimously by the five-member board, directs County Health Officer Dr. Stan Hartman to issue a mask requirement for all of Laramie County. Per the motion, the county-level health order will be drafted in line with one approved in Teton County, which so far is the only county in Wyoming with a mask mandate.

Wyoming, which does not have a statewide mask requirement, has recently seen its number of active COVID-19 cases reach record highs, and the trends have been especially worrisome in Laramie County. Prior to the board’s vote, members received a COVID-19 update from Kathy Emmons, executive director of the Cheyenne-Laramie County Health Department.

Over the last two weeks, 5.88% of all tests in Laramie County had come back positive, Emmons said. The 5% threshold is considered a key statistic by many health officials, and she said they would prefer to see that number around 2%.

Meanwhile, the number of active cases in Laramie County had grown to 381 as of Tuesday afternoon.

“(Before October), we had been running about 30, 35, maybe 40 active cases, so that is just a skyrocket difference,” Emmons told the board.

The number of COVID-19 hospitalizations at Cheyenne Regional Medical Center, up to a pandemic high of 16 as of Tuesday, was also a point of concern. Emmons said as Wyoming Medical Center in Casper fills up, there will be more residents from elsewhere that need treatment in Laramie County.

Five of the current hospitalizations at CRMC involve people from outside Cheyenne. “One was from Newcastle, one was from Gillette, one was from Wheatland, one was from Laramie, and one was from South Dakota, so now we’re starting to see that influx into the hospital from other areas,” Emmons added.

The statistics immediately drew the concern of board President Tim Thorson.

“Listening to our director explaining the current situation, I don’t know how much more worrying statistics would have to be in order to get that trigger point (for a mask mandate),” Thorson said.

As he has done previously in public discussions, Hartman described masks as effective and inexpensive, arguing wearing them could help the country avoid further economic setbacks.

“(Mask use) would keep the economy going, it would help keep things open and help keep kids in the schools. We would avoid shutting things down again, or having things shut down just by virtue of the fact that too many people are on quarantine,” Hartman said.

“So I think if this board wants to pursue a mask ordinance for Laramie County, I’m willing to help draft that and take it to the state.”

Hartman added that based on his conversations with other county health officers, “as we start to see cases explode in more counties, there’s going to be more of a movement for different counties to actually do this very thing.”

The board also briefly discussed increasing public education on how COVID-19 can spread, though Thorson wondered what else could be done to boost public health messaging.

“I’ve seen our state governor angry at a podium, saying ‘this is something that has to happen, we want you to do this, please do this,’ and I don’t know how much stronger of a statement we could have than that,” Thorson said, adding his appreciation for the state allowing counties to adopt their own measures.

There were other trends that the board found concerning. Transmission of COVID-19 in Laramie County could soon reach levels that make contact tracing “untenable,” Emmons said. When contact tracing can’t be conducted thoroughly, that leaves health officials with few options but to institute a mask mandate, board member Karl Musgrave said.

“Contact tracing really works in the beginning of an epidemic, when you’re trying to prevent new cases, but it’s very hard to do contact tracing when you’re right in the middle of the worst of it,” Musgrave said. “I think it’s right to start this discussion, and I support it.”

Though the board’s backing of a mask mandate was unanimous, it remains to be seen how warmly the idea will be received by other local officials – or the public. During the meeting, Laramie County Commissioner Linda Heath told the board that local law enforcement had yet to enforce the requirements for visitors to wear masks in the county courthouse.

“Neither the Cheyenne (Police Department) nor the (Laramie County) sheriff’s department were willing to dedicate officers to enforcing that due to limited staffing, and they feel that it is an overreach of their constitutional duties,” Heath said.

Heath later added that any further considerations of the mask policy should be done in coordination with local city and town councils and the Laramie County Board of Commissioners.

“This is something that we’re going to have to take into consideration – public reaction. We’re going to have to take into consideration constitutional rights,” Heath said. “Not all of the communities are seeing the same thing that they’re seeing here in Cheyenne. Granted, (LCSD2) has been hit with it since school has opened.”

In turn, the motion advanced by the local health board also includes a request for support from the Laramie County commissioners, as well as local city and town councils. However, to take effect, the local mask mandate only requires the signature of two people: Hartman and State Health Officer Dr. Alexia Harrist.

If it resembles the one passed in Teton County, a local order would likely require residents to wear masks inside of or in line for any retail or commercial business, when obtaining health care and when using public transit.

Reached after the vote by the board, Emmons said it remains to be seen when a mask requirement could take effect in Laramie County, as it will depend on how long it takes for Hartman to draft the order and for Harrist to review it.

“It’s hard to say,” Emmons said. “It just depends on how long it takes to get through all the appropriate government channels.”

As a next step, the Cheyenne-Laramie County Board of Health set a special meeting for noon next Tuesday, Oct. 27, to receive an update on where the order stands.

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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