By CJ Baker, Powell Tribune
Although Gov. Mark Gordon has ordered bars and restaurants to close in-person service at 10 p.m., a Powell sports bar announced Friday that it isn’t following the mandate, contending the state’s rules don’t apply to the business.
It appears to be the first open challenge to the public health orders in Park County.
The Red Zone Sports Bar and Grill made the announcement Friday, after being visited by a Powell police officer early that morning.
The officer had noticed the liquor establishment was still open around 12:10 a.m. and reminded a staffer of the 10 p.m. closing time listed in the health orders; the staffer told Sgt. Matt McCaslin they were allowed to remain open and the officer left.
“That was it,” Powell Police Chief Roy Eckerdt said of the incident, describing it as part of the department’s educational approach to enforcement of the orders.
“We’re not closing anybody down; we’re not arresting anybody,” he said.
Still, the incident drew widespread attention on Friday, when The Red Zone recounted the police visit on Facebook and proclaimed it would remain open. The Red Zone drew significant support, with hundreds of positive reactions and comments across Facebook.
While many cheered the business for standing up against the health orders, owner James Andrews contends The Red Zone is a “travel center” and therefore exempt from the state’s restrictions on bars and restaurants.
Hours after Gov. Gordon announced the curfew, Andrews had announced his sports bar was “offering the use of an extension cord” to charge vehicles.
He cited that “commercial grade electrical system,” the bar’s location next to a city parking lot (“free 24/7 RV parking”) and the Wi-Fi, USB charging ports and electrical outlets it offers to “the traveling public” as evidence it is a travel center.
“We’re fully compliant with the Wyoming state health orders,” Andrews said Friday. Attorneys for the establishment, whom Andrews declined to name, “think that we have more amenities than any other business in town to call ourselves a travel center,” he said. “So we are a travel center.”
For his part, Eckerdt said The Red Zone is “definitely not in compliance with the health order.”
“But that is not a law enforcement role to address,” he said. “We’ve identified it as a problem, we’ve provided education, we’ve done our part.”
He said the issue is now effectively in the hands of Park County Public Health officials and Park County Attorney Bryan Skoric.
However, Skoric said Monday that “there’s nothing further I’m going to be doing on it unless and until I receive a report” from police. The prosecutor added that he has not received any reports from law enforcement related to alleged violations of the public health orders.
Speaking Friday afternoon, Andrews said he hoped officers would not return to The Red Zone that night.
“I don’t think it’s gonna be pretty for them, because I think we’re gonna have a whole lot of angry people here,” he said.
“If they want to write a ticket, they can write a ticket,” Andrews added. “If they’re smart, and they just realize that we have good legal standing, then they’ll just go on about their way.”
Police ultimately did not return Friday or Saturday, although The Red Zone has been generally staying open until midnight and closing at 10 p.m. on Sundays and Mondays.
A failed bid for leniency
Park County Public Health Nurse Manager Bill Crampton said The Red Zone is trying to “get around” the 10 p.m. curfew.
However, even before Friday’s incident, Park County Health Officer Dr. Aaron Billin had prepared a variance that would allow the county’s bars and restaurants to stay open until midnight.
“We’re trying,” Crampton said Friday, adding, “the last thing I think we should be doing is continuing to close businesses. We’re killing ourselves.”
In asking for later hours, Dr. Billin said that, on a per-capita basis, Park County’s active cases ranked “less than all but 13 other counties” — i.e. 14th out of 23.
He also said there was “adequate capacity to handle a surge of COVID-19 patients” at local hospitals and that drive-thru testing was “readily available.” (Cody Regional Health has since announced it’s scaling back its drive-thru testing due to a shortage of supplies.)
State Health Officer Dr. Alexia Harrist ultimately rejected Dr. Billin’s request for a variance on Friday.
“Although we have seen the rates of newly reported cases and active cases decline over the past two weeks, and I certainly hope that continues, Wyoming and Park County … continue to experience high levels of transmission according to national standards,” she wrote in an email to Billin.
Harrist said that, according to White House guidelines, Park County had about four times too many cases over the prior 14 days to consider less restrictive rules.
She said Wyoming hospitals are experiencing high patient volumes and struggling to stay fully staffed, with multiple outbreaks at nursing homes and that “we continue to see high numbers of deaths due to COVID-19 because of our high transmission levels.”
Particularly with vaccines arriving, Harrist has stressed the restrictions are “for now, not forever.”
But the recent public health measures have drawn pushback from an increasingly pandemic-weary public.
Andrews — who is immunocompromised and plans on being “among the very first” to get a vaccine — said he thinks the intent behind the state’s orders “is really good,” and he hopes people “take all the precautions they can” to avoid getting COVID-19.
But he disagrees with the mandatory orders and questions their legality.
Others have also questioned the evidence behind the early bar and restaurant closures.
“Please explain to us all how COVID is more deadly after 10 PM. Please explain to us all how COVID understands holidays, and is less deadly between 10 and midnight, or 10 and 2 AM, on New Year’s Eve,” Cody resident Billy Struemke wrote on Facebook, referring to a request Billin made to allow establishments to stay open until 2 a.m. on Jan. 1.
Billin said the questions were based on “false assumptions” and pointed to Harrist’s email. She said restaurants and bars are among the high-risk environments for transmission of COVID-19 — being indoor spaces where you can’t easily keep your distance from others or wear a mask.
“Studies also show that closing restaurants and bars to indoor dining, as part of a strategy that also includes limiting gatherings and mask use, is effective in reducing transmission,” Harrist wrote, adding, “In order to avoid closing these businesses altogether, we have closed these businesses for a portion of the day instead to obtain at least partial effect on transmission.”
Adding to the questions about the effectiveness of the new rules is their enforcement — or lack thereof.
Andrews said “our attorneys say that this is a completely unenforceable mandate.”
Several sheriffs around the state have taken the same position, including Big Horn County Sheriff Ken Blackburn. However, Blackburn also encouraged people to wear masks “to help our vulnerable population.”
“I implore our county’s citizens to … be respectful and compassionate to each other, not because of a mandate, but because higher laws that say, ‘Love thy neighbor,’ and ‘Do unto others as you’d have them do unto you,’” the sheriff wrote Wednesday.
In a Monday interview, Chief Eckerdt said the public health orders are an example of why citizens need to be involved in their government, including at the state and local level.
“There’s a state statute on the books that their elected officials, that they voted for, years ago, put on the books — allowing the state health officer to do what they’re doing,” Eckerdt said, adding, “Nobody paid attention and now it’s here.”
Some state lawmakers have advocated for changing the statutes to limit the power of health officers.
Violations of the public health orders are technically punishable as misdemeanor crimes, but there’s been zero indication local law enforcement agencies will issue citations for infractions.
Park County Sheriff Scott Steward said Friday his office had no calls or incidents related to the mask mandates or the new health orders.
Similarly, Cody Police Chief Chuck Baker said his department had not received any complaints related to the bar and restaurant curfew. As for the mask mandate, “it appears mask use and compliance is up and we have had no significant reported incidents relating to violations,” the chief said Saturday.
Baker added his department continues to focus on educational efforts, “to gain understanding and voluntary compliance.”
Powell police appear to have been the first local agency to have logged an incident related to the mandates.
“We’re required to enforce it, but we’re not told how we have to enforce it,” said Eckerdt of the orders. “So we’re enforcing that through education.”
In a comment on The Red Zone’s Facebook post about the visit from police, Powell resident Lisa Rieb called the situation “sad”
“All they had to do was keep driving,” Rieb said of Powell police. “Government picking winners and losers in business is unconstitutional. Can a gas station stay open past 10 o’clock?”
“Come on, Powell PD,” she added. “You’ve worked so hard at establishing good relationships with the community. We support you, so don’t punish free citizens with the unjust mandate.”
Others were less restrained.
“Time for a war,” wrote Greg Prestone of Dubois; Don Schmalz of Cody said he was “proud of people standing up to this LIBTARD Governor and his LIBERAL Health Gestapo!!”
Andrews, who made an unsuccessful run for the Powell City Council this year, said he hoped he would have the support of the city government going forward.
“I don’t have strong opinions about all this, really, except I have 10 employees that … I have to pay, that they have families to feed,” Andrews said. “We’re providing a service for the community that I think is valuable and needed, and we’re gonna try to continue to do that.”