CASPER — Gov. Mark Gordon stressed Wednesday that he will not be issuing a statewide or K-12 mask mandate like he did last year, even as schools opened and COVID cases surged across Wyoming.

“I’m not considering a mask mandate. There are some things that are different now, we have vaccinations and other issues that are different,” Gordon told the Star-Tribune on Wednesday. “One of those issues is that attitudes have hardened significantly.”

“One of the significant challenges with a mandate that we saw last year is a significant amount of pushback,” he added.

As of Wednesday, 198 COVID patients were hospitalized around the state — roughly the same amount as there were when Gordon issued a mask mandate in early December amid the last surge.

During the current surge, Gordon has been emphasizing the importance of local and county governments taking the lead on COVID measures because of their familiarity with the community.

“We don’t believe that mandates from on high work,” Gordon said during an appearance Tuesday in Jackson. “We do think that local control, local government is where that nexus lies. They can appreciate the circumstances at a local level in a way we find from on top things can’t happen.”

That said, health officers in some counties face significant challenges. Last year, some county health officers received aggressive backlash from community members opposed to steps like mask mandates and business restrictions. Some health officers were even pushed out.

That sentiment, at least among some critics, hasn’t appeared to change.

Fremont County Republicans voted recently to “[denounce] the authority” of public health officers.

The Wyoming Legislature has also acted to put new restrictions on health officer powers. Despite some turmoil, Wyoming was home to a significant success story last year amidst the pandemic. The state had the highest proportion of in-person K-12 learners last school year, which the governor regularly touts.

What’s more, no school had to close last term because of a virus outbreak.

Now, as schools are just resuming, cases are exploding and an outbreak has already forced at least one district online.

However, most districts have made masking optional. Even as the virus rips through Wyoming’s school districts in the first days of the school year, Gordon said Wednesday that another K-12 mask requirement “is not on the table,” sticking with his decision from early August to not require masks in schools.

While Gordon shows no sign of enforcing masking, he has been continually encouraging and positive about getting vaccinated.

“We now have different tools to work with, vaccinations being one of the best,” he said.

However, Wyoming has one of the nation’s lowest vaccination rates.

As of Tuesday, just under 36% of the state’s population was vaccinated, despite doses being widely available here for months.

Messaging from the governor on COVID-19 has been sparse over the recent weeks. Between his press releases and tweets from the summer, the governor has mentioned COVID three times — a press release and tweet to announce that he was not going to implement a school mask mandate and another release, on Aug. 23, to emphasize that in-person schooling is a priority.

Still, Gordon remains adamant that his decisions are not based on what’s popular among his constituents.

“Let me say that I’m doing the things that I think are appropriate and correct,” Gordon said.

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