In a sign that officials believe that the spread of the coronavirus has been sufficiently slowed, on Wednesday Gov. Mark Gordon announced that public health orders that go into effect Friday, May 15 will significantly loosen restrictions.
Under the new public health orders, restaurants and bars will able to serve people indoors. Movie theaters and other places people gather will be able to host groups of up to 25 people. Churches may host more than 25 people provided that appropriate social distancing is observed. Variances granted in several counties, including Johnson, allowed bars and restaurants to begin in-restaurant dining last week. Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks will also begin a phased reopening on Monday with restrictions in place.
“I am anxious today,” Gordon said during a Wednesday afternoon news conference. “I’m very anxious because we are loosening substantially many of the requirements we had in place. We’re doing that in a way that we believe is safe, and yet I stand before you today knowing that our citizens are at greater risk today."
Gordon and state health officer Dr. Alexia Harrist have repeatedly said that decisions to reopen businesses will be based on health metrics, including the number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 and the rate of positive test results. Those numbers have continued to improve. Johnson County's last positive test result came on April 9.
Gordon urged Wyoming residents to respond to the openings cautiously and with an eye toward maintaining the social distancing that he said has helped the state avoid the serious problems caused by the coronavirus in other states.
“This is truly an exciting time for Wyoming, but it’s also one that is a cautionary time for Wyoming,” Gordon said. “This is not a ‘hold my beer’ moment.”
Gordon also reminded listeners that the pandemic is not over.
“It is important to remember that even as we ease restrictions, the virus is not gone,” he said. “It is still capable of wreaking havoc. And it’s going to be with us for some time here in Wyoming. It’s time to get our head in the game. We are trying to work our way safely back to as normal a condition as we can get.”
As of Wednesday afternoon, Fremont County had 190 coronavirus cases; Laramie County had 112 cases; Teton County had 68 cases; Natrona County had 39; Campbell had 16; Converse had 14; Sweetwater had 13; Sheridan had 12; Johnson had 11; Albany and Lincoln had eight; Uinta had seven; Carbon, Crook and Washakie had 5; Goshen had four and Big Horn had two. Hot Springs, Niobrara, Park and Sublette counties had one case each.
Platte and Weston counties remain free of any confirmed cases.
Recoveries among patients with both confirmed and probable coronavirus cases increased by three on Wednesday to total 477. That number includes 343 recoveries among those with laboratory-confirmed cases and 134 among those with probable cases. A probable case is defined as one where a person has symptoms of the illness and has been in contact with someone who has a confirmed case of the disease, but had not been tested for coronavirus.
In addition to Wyoming’s 523 confirmed cases, the Health Department said there are 165 probable cases.
In other developments:
Parks open: State and federal officials announced Wednesday that Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks will reopen with limited services on Monday. Officials said visitors will be able to access Yellowstone’s lower loop through entrances near Jackson and Cody for day use only. Restrooms, gas stations and trails and boardwalks will be open for use. The opening is the first part of a three-phase plan to return both parks to full operation.
Dismantled: Structures put in place in Natrona County to deal with the coronavirus pandemic are being dismantled and put on standby. Natrona County officials said they will demobilize the county’s Emergency Operations Center as the growth of the illness in Wyoming appears to slow. The center was a collection of agencies that worked together to distribute information and address the virus as a coordinated group. The county has also closed two facilities established to allow the homeless and people vulnerable to coronavirus to quarantine safely.
Undecided: Officials in Teton County, where special rules restricting businesses and movement are in place, are unsure how they will proceed in the face of the partial lifting of statewide health orders. When the state allowed gyms and businesses that provide personal service to open up in early May, Teton County asked for and obtained a special rule keeping those businesses closed. With new statewide rules set to take effect Friday that will allow restaurants and bars to open, Dr. Travis Riddell, Teton County’s health officer, said he will determine in several days how the county will proceed.
Forest opening: Developed areas inside the Bighorn National Forest will open as they normally do under a phased plan beginning in several weeks, according to a public affairs officer for the forest. Sara Evans-Kirol said that by May 31, the forest will also allow its region-wide restriction on campfires to end. Evans-Kirol said some confusion has resulted from the reopening of state parks for overnight camping on Friday, with some people mistakenly believing the opening applies to all forest lands in Wyoming.
Increased visitation: Officials with the Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area in northern Wyoming report that visitation to the area has increased since the coronavirus pandemic began in March. Christy Fleming, the chief of interpretation for the area, said the car count for April in the park’s southern district was above the average by 258%. “By the end of March, we were starting to see a lot more people using the trails,” she said. “What we think it is is cabin fever, of course, but also kids not having track and other after school (and weekend) activities, so they are able to go out and do stuff earlier.”