Kerry Drake FILE

Kerry Drake

Who would have thought the debate over Wyoming’s response to the COVID pandemic would be defined by two University of Pennsylvania graduates?

Luckily, a school stint in Philadelphia is the only academic or professional similarity shared by this pair of pandemic players.

One is Dr. Alexia Harrist, a board-certified pediatrician who is Wyoming’s state public health officer. After earning a bachelor of science degree at Yale, she graduated from the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Medicine and became a Ph.D. in neuroscience at its Graduate School of Education.

The other is Rep. Chuck Gray, R-Casper, who received bachelor’s degrees from Penn’s Wharton School of Business and School of Arts and Sciences.

Gray’s day job is hosting a conservative radio talk show.

Gray’s House Bill 98 proposes a comprehensive dismantling of Harrist’s office. He opposes the statewide mask mandate, which Gray describes as one of the state’s many “unconstitutional, out of control, arbitrary orders.”

HB 98 would limit any order imposed by the state health officer to 10 days. The Legislature could consider ratifying any order beyond that expiration date, but only in 10-day increments.

Since the Legislature only meets for 40 days in odd-numbered years and 20 days in even-numbered ones, what happens when a state health order is issued when lawmakers are not in session? If legislators decide to punt on the issue, HB 98 would allow the governor to extend the initial order by seven days. But that could only happen if the governor agrees to call a special session of the Legislature.

Wyoming doesn’t have many lawmakers with medical credentials. Rep. Tim Hallinan, R-Gillette, is a retired physician, and Sen. Fred Baldwin, R-Kemmerer, is a physician assistant.

Because his patients hardly ever wear masks (except in cute Facebook videos), I’m not going to count veterinarian and House Speaker Eric Barlow, R-Gillette.

Gray was a speaker at an anti-mask, anti-Gordon rally in front of the Capitol in January that featured organizer and former Rep. Scott Clem, R-Gillette. Clem and others set fire to a pile of masks.

Gray said the state health officer has become “the most powerful person in our state,” but lacks any accountability.

“The media today want to tell us this is not a big deal,” Gray said. “That’s been their lie for the last 10 months, but this stuff adds up.”

What terrible situation could it all lead to? “Before you know it, we’ve lost our constitutional republic,” Gray said.

Really? Our republic could be kaput if a state health officer like Harrist says we need to wear masks to help prevent people from inadvertently killing one another through transmission of COVID-19?

Do we have to kiss our cherished democratic institutions goodbye if a bar or restaurant can’t operate at full capacity for a while?

My criticism of Harrist and Gordon comes from a different political direction. I think both officials waited too long to issue a statewide mask mandate. They should have issued a stay-at-home order in March, when Wyoming was one of eight states that failed to do so.

Overall, though, Harrist has weathered the storm of right-wing criticism rather well. She’s generally made decisions based on science and evidence-based health risks to Wyomingites.

Contrast her approach with the bombastic Sen. Anthony Bouchard, R-Cheyenne, who at the protest said Gordon is a “criminal” for not allowing the use of hydroxychloroquine to treat COVID-19. A National Institute of Health study in November found it provided no benefits to adults who were hospitalized after contracting the virus.

Bouchard has his own health bill, Senate File 95-Election of state health officer, which would make Harrist’s position political and subject to recall by voters.

I really don’t want to see voters take on the challenge of electing an official to make life-or-death health decisions.

I imagine the winner would run commercials promising that if elected, there would be “no mask mandates or business closures – ever!”

It’s a terrible idea, but not the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard a legislator say about the pandemic. No, that utterance belongs to Clem who, before he left office, compared Harrist’s tempered response to the virus to “pulling out a .45 revolver and shooting a fly with it.” He also claimed last summer that COVID-19 was no worse than the flu.

Clem may be gone, but the anti-mask apple didn’t fall far from the tree when it came to his successor in House District 31, Republican Rep. John Bear. He’s a co-sponsor of Gray’s HB 98, and when lawmakers gathered in the House during the kickoff of the 66h Legislature in January, neither Gray or Bear wore a mask.

In this tale of two Ivy League graduates, one is doing her best to keep Wyoming residents healthy and safe. The other thinks he’s saving the republic by diminishing the state health officer’s ability to do her job, while defiantly flouting the rules she’s put in place.

Harrist and Gordon have extended the statewide mask mandate until at least March 15. I hope by that time both HB 98 and SF 95 are on the scrapheap of dead bills, where they belong.

The Drake’s Take is a weekly column by veteran Wyoming journalist Kerry Drake, and produced by WyoFile.com, a nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.

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