CHEYENNE – About 250 people demonstrated in front of the Wyoming State Capitol Monday afternoon to protest a statewide mask mandate and other COVID-19 related restrictions.
Calls to "Stop the tyranny,” “Free Wyoming” and make Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon a "one-term governor,” were the rallying cries the protesters belted out after about an hour of listening to elected officials and other citizens decry the mask mandate, including outgoing Rep. Scott Clem, R-Gillette, who challenged people to burn their masks.
“At some of these rallies, you see the radical left go out there, and they burn Bibles and flags. You know what I think about burning? Masks,” Clem told the crowd.
“Burn them up,” the crowd responded with raucous affirmation.
Clem then doused a disposable mask in hand sanitizer before lighting it on fire in front of the crowd, some of which threw their own masks down for kindling.
Capitol security, which was monitoring the entire event, quickly came over to extinguish the small fire.
“They don’t like us burning masks,” Clem said. “We don’t like it when they trample on our freedoms.”
Gordon announced Saturday that the mask mandate he first issued in December will remain in effect until Jan. 25. Beginning this Saturday, Jan. 9, the governor has lifted previous restrictions on operating hours for bars and restaurants.
Wyoming's mask mandate, which requires people to wear masks while shopping at businesses, riding public transit or entering or leaving restaurants, among other instances, is similar to the mandates passed in dozens of other states across the country, and is a policy designed to contain the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Since March, the virus has killed 438 Wyomingites and approximately 352,000 total Americans.
“The governor is killing Wyoming," said Clem, who organized Monday’s event, known as the Free Wyoming rally, to the crowd from a podium at the foot of the steps leading to the entrance of the Capitol.
“He can come out here and say whatever he wants, but I am not content until he gets rid of all of these restrictions,” Clem said, before encouraging small business owners to file suit against the state for placing restrictions on their operations.
Clem, the pastor of Central Baptist Church in Gillette has been an outspoken voice against any government-prescribed public health measures since the virus started 10 months ago. State Rep. Roy Edwards, R-Gillette, was a member of Clem's congregation before he died of COVID-19 last fall.
“I’m all for personal responsibility,” Clem said. “If you’re in one of those high-risk classes, do what you need to do to make yourself safe. But for those who are not, that is your freedom, your liberty, that is something you have the right to do.
"This is our constitutional duty to stand up for our rights, to stand up against tyranny and make our voices heard. If (Gordon) ridicules us for that, then he’s unworthy of that office, and he should resign.”
The majority of people who attended Monday’s rally were not wearing face coverings, though a few scattered counterprotesters were.
Pat Baird, a longtime resident of Cheyenne who recently lost a friend to the virus, stood in the crowd while wielding a sign reading: “2 Rs = Respect and Responsibility Toward our Fellow Citizens.”
“Gov. Gordon has walked a fine line,” Baird said. “He’s doing everything necessary to fight this pandemic, but I don’t think he’s gone over the line. He’s tried to balance having businesses open and making the economy work while also trying to keep safe our general population."
Gordon, who famously referred to people not willing to comply with public health recommendations and orders as “knuckleheads," did not make an appearance at the rally, but several other elected lawmakers did.
Rep. Chuck Gray, R-Casper, criticized what he and many others at the rally perceive as an overreach of power by Dr. Alexia Harrist, who was appointed by the governor to serve as the state health officer and state epidemiologist.
Harrist, who previously worked for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, works on behalf of the Wyoming Department of Health. She has offered state officials her medical expertise on how best to respond to the threat of the virus.
“Overnight, we saw an unelected official – the state health officer – become the most powerful person in our state," Gray said. "There’s still been no accountability on this unelected health officer. The media today want to tell us this is not a big deal. That’s been their lie for the last 10 months, but this stuff adds up. Before you know it, we’ve lost our constitutional republic.”