CHEYENNE — Laramie County and most of Wyoming have seen a spike in the number of active COVID-19 cases over the past week, which one health official is partly attributing to a relaxed attitude toward safety precautions.
“It appears to me, just from anecdotal information we’ve been hearing in our office, that people are beginning to not wear their face masks in public like they were doing previously," Kathy Emmons, executive director of the Cheyenne-Laramie County Health Department, said Monday.
She said she’s heard reports from people who say that mask-wearing among customers in certain stores is not being enforced to the degree it once was.
“As people are getting weary of COVID-19 and of wearing masks, they’re just not being as diligent as they were in the past. I think that’s leading to increasing cases again,” Emmons said, noting that while previous case spikes have been isolated to some counties, the most recent increase is statewide. “As people are traveling and letting their guard down, that’s also impacting those numbers.”
As of Monday, Wyoming’s active case count had risen to a new pandemic high statewide of 1,091. Laramie County, which is the state’s most populated county, reported a five-case increase from Sunday to Monday, bringing its total of active cases to 82.
Although privacy laws prohibit publicizing the identities of those who have tested positive, several Cheyenne-based agencies have been affected by the weekend spike.
On Friday, Laramie County School District 1 reported that at least one student at Cheyenne’s East High School had tested positive, and that a total of 14 students would quarantine as a result. Whereas 100 students had to quarantine when a student and staff member tested positive two weeks ago at McCormick Junior High School, updated state health orders now direct schools to quarantine students only if they were not wearing a mask when they came into contact with an infected person.
On Sunday, the school district said in a news release that a staff member at Prairie Wind Elementary School had tested positive, but that no additional people would be quarantining as a result because they were all wearing masks at the time of potential exposure.
Although neither Gov. Mark Gordon nor the city of Cheyenne has issued a formal public mask mandate, the school district does require that all students and staff wear a mask whenever it is impossible to keep 6 feet of distance between other people.
Additionally, Cheyenne Regional Medical Center said in an email to staff Sunday that one staff member who “works directly in patient care” tested positive. The hospital said it is in the process of “working with the health department in contact tracing to identify any patients or staff with whom this employee had contact.”
Monday morning, the city of Cheyenne also announced in a news release that it was closing the Cheyenne Municipal Building – and having all of those approximately 50 employees work remotely – through this Friday, Oct. 2, after it was discovered that “an individual in the building has tested positive for COVID-19 and has been in the presence of other employees.”
According to Michael Skinner, public information officer for the city, city employees have shifted from working remotely to in person a couple of times since the onset of the pandemic in March.
“This is certainly the first positive case (at a city office building) I’ve been made aware of,” said Skinner, who added that everyone working in the office is required to wear a face mask when entering the building and in common areas. “We also have several plexiglass dividers in common areas. I’ve never seen more hand sanitizer throughout a building.”
In addition, some city employees have continued to work remotely, and many services that used to welcome walk-in patrons are now done by appointment only. “I know it’s been a pain for some people, but I’ve been really impressed with people following the (health) orders," Skinner said. "It’s been really encouraging to see people take the protocols seriously.”
Skinner said he’s not sure when the city’s office building will reopen for in-person work, but city officials will work with the local health department to determine next steps.
Kim Deti, spokeswoman for the Wyoming Department of Health, said that although the recent spike in the virus can’t be assigned to any one particular cause alone, following established public health guidelines – like wearing masks, thoroughly washing their hands and practicing social distancing whenever possible – is key to avoiding future upticks.
“People are out and about more. There are fewer restrictions. They’re gathering more. But those things can grow on you,” Deti said, cautioning that even the most well-meaning of small social gatherings can lead to an outbreak if a person spreads the virus, which can present few or no symptoms in some individuals.
“We know people wish the pandemic was behind us. They’re tired of things being different than they were,” she said. “We think that might also affect their decisions about the risk, but unfortunately this virus is sticking around, and we all need to do our part to help keep kids in school, keep businesses open and keep our vulnerable populations safe.”
Monday afternoon, around 30 people showed up in front of the Wyoming Capitol to protest mask requirements, some specifically criticizing the mask mandate in Wyoming schools when social distancing is not possible.
It was the second such demonstration in recent weeks.
For Dallon Orcutt, who had a sign that said “Freedom to choose to wear or not wear a mask,” the issue comes down to personal freedoms. He said kids should have the choice of whether or not to wear their masks in school.
“If people want to wear a mask, go for it; don't force that upon me,” Orcutt said. “Anybody in America should be able to make a choice to live however they want, to dress however they want, but don't force it on me and take my freedoms away.”
Others at the rally, like Liberty Robbins and Brenda Whitman, focused more on the effects of mask-wearing on school-age children. While much of the conversation was centered around physical health, Robbins questioned the effects of mask mandates on kids’ mental health.
“You can’t see your friends smile. You can’t laugh with your friends at school. What is that doing to our children? It’s particularly hard on the younger kids who rely on facial cues and are still learning socialization. How do they know they’re doing good in school if their teacher can’t smile back at them?” Robbins asked.
Whitman added that with the mandate, “It’s like they’re being taught to be fearful.”
A number of protest attendees also said studies show that masks are ineffective. However, a number of peer reviewed, scientific studies – including from Duke University, the National Institutes of Health and the University of Oxford – have all found that mask wearing is an effective tool in slowing the spread.
Still, the protestors pressed Gov. Mark Gordon’s chief of staff, Buck McVeigh, for answers about the mandates from the governor, who McVeigh said could not attend due to scheduling conflicts.
Susan Graham, who is involved in Conservative Corner Cheyenne, a group that says it supports candidates who support the Constitution, attended the rally to inform residents of Gordon’s power to end the public health emergency declaration. She passed out fliers containing Wyoming State Statute 35-4-115, which states: “The governor shall declare when a public health emergency exists or has ended.”
Graham said, “The channels of public information are clogged, and to get this information to people is a challenge.”
The flier encouraged residents with concerns to reach out to Gordon’s office and request he end the public health emergency.