Bill Sniffin: Wyoming’s Long, Long, Long, Long, Long Year Of Plague, Economic Distress

in Column/Bill Sniffin

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By Bill Sniffin, publisher

The first big bombshell occurred almost exactly a year ago when the state high school basketball tournaments in Casper were cancelled because of a new virus on the world stage.

From then on, folks we have been on a long, strange journey. 

Last March, we were terrified by the TV images of horrific scenes in hospitals in New York City and in Italy.  If that was the plague it certainly appeared to be coming for us!

Wyoming put in lots of restrictions and cancelled just about everything and then we just stayed put – we sat around and waited for the apocalypse.  And waited. And waited.

My column on May 10, 2020,  pointed out how spectacular the statistics were in Wyoming with just eight deaths, lowest in the USA. We had more traffic deaths than Covid deaths. Our numbers of sick people were tiny compared to other states.  In a burst of bravado, I speculated this might be the biggest over-reaction in history.  

Few people had predicted that the Cowboy State would be so much safer than the rest of the world. 

Wyoming is a big, lonely empty place with six people per square mile.  New York City has 27,000 people per square mile. The Big Apple is full of crowded apartments and subways. New York City is a claustrophobic place for most Wyomingites. Watching the horror on TV of their emergency rooms and listening to the daily beseeching from Gov. Andrew Cuomo, well, it was easy to believe the world was coming to an end. This plague was coming for us, too. 

Milan, Italy, has 19,000 people per square mile.  Have you been to Italy? People there live long lives. These are truly the most loving and sociable people on the planet with many three-generation family units. Italian life span is 83.2 years. This compares to 78.5 in the USA. Watching the carnage on TV was awful. Yet 80 percent of the people who died in Italy were over 60 years of age and most had underlying health conditions.  Was this our future?  Back during the spring of 2020,  it looked like it could be.

It was not.  Most definitely. At least not right away.

With Wyoming being such a big open place, it was logical that it would be a magnet for tourists.  Everything here was shut down at first but then the dam burst in mid-June.  

We had record tourism in August, September, and October and despite 5 million visitors over the tourist season we saw no spike in Covid cases. It was almost an innocent time. How could Wyoming dodge this bullet?

Back on May 17, 2020, we made national news when a Cheyenne club became the first strip club in the country to reopen. I assume the dancers wore masks on their faces, despite little else.

Wyoming received some $1.25 billion in federal CARES aid. The Wyoming Business Council did a fantastic job of making grants to state businesses under guidelines developed by the legislature, which met by Zoom.  Zoom became one of the hottest businesses in the country as everybody jumped on the remote meeting bandwagon. 

While Wyoming remained one of the states with the fewest health-related restrictions in the nation through the spring and summer of 2020, that changed in the fall and winter as the number of active cases in the state skyrocketed from 3,266 on Oct. 24 to 11,861 one month later.

The increase prompted Gov. Mark Gordon and state Public Health Officer Dr. Alexia Harrist to impose a requirement that people wear face masks in public.

In the late fall of  2020 we peaked with 11,861 cases. Even Gov. Mark Gordon tested positive. On Dec. 7, he issued a statewide mask mandate. People were hunkering down. The plague had arrived in Wyoming with a vengeance. 

Because of Covid, Wyoming, in several ways, has been forever changed.

Many of the new systems and techniques put into place during the last 200 days  will continue on into the future. Biggest things will be state-wide meetings being held with Zoom, distance education, and telehealth medicine.

Wyoming people drive more miles per year than people in any other state, on a per-capita basis.  We have good roads.  We are small in population but have been almost desperate to get together for meetings, it seems. 

For 50 years, my typical Wyoming day often meant driving three hours to Casper or Rawlins or Rock Springs or Jackson or Cody or Pinedale for a two-hour meeting and then driving three hours home.  In the summers, we even would make the 4.5-hour trip to Cheyenne for a meeting and then drive back home in the same day.  

Not anymore. We will Zoom those meetings. 

Our legislators have been meeting almost non-stop by Zoom and I predict that whenever this darned pandemic ends, that option will continue.  The computer-generated meetings are not as comfortable as in-person meetings but they certainly work better than anything else I have ever seen. 

The months of December and January were rough but then the vaccines arrived. As I write this on March 12, 2021, times are good. Cases are way down. The mask mandate comes off this week. 

But sadly, the death toll almost hit 700 on the one-year anniversary. 

It has been a very long year.  Now in 2021, we can again  appreciate what normal life is all about. What a relief!

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