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Gordon Revises Public Health Orders; Churches Fully Open

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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

Beginning June 15, public health orders will allow indoor gatherings of up to 250 people with restrictions, permit parades to occur with appropriate social distancing and allow K-12 schools, community colleges, the University of Wyoming and other educational institutions to resume in-person learning.

The orders, in effect through June 30, will allow gatherings of up to 50 people in a confined space to occur without restrictions and permit indoor events of up to 250 people with social distancing and increased sanitization measure in place.

Faith-based gatherings such as church services and funeral homes are exempt from the new orders and allowed to operate without restrictions, with appropriate social distancing encouraged.  

“Wyoming has made outstanding progress to date,” Gordon said in a news release. “Folks need to remember that it is important to remain vigilant, but because we have been so successful, I am confident we can continue lifting the very few remaining public health restrictions.”

Wyoming’s coronavirus dashboard has been updated to reflect the improvement in the statewide metrics used to ease restrictions. The number of new cases has changed from “concerning” to “stabilizing” and the percent of all tests that are positive is now rated as “improving.”

The health order updates will also allow childcare facilities to resume normal operations without restrictions on class sizes and expands the permitted size of group fitness classes to 50 participants.

Personal care services will no longer be required to operate by appointment only.

K-12 schools, colleges, UW and trade schools may resume in-person instruction for all students in groups of up to 50 persons with spacing guidelines.

The governor urged educational institutions to prepare fully developed reopening plans for the fall that incorporate public safety precautions and ensure smooth transitions to remote learning should new outbreaks occur. 

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Gordon Praises Wyoming Protesters, Police

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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

Gov. Mark Gordon is proud of protesters and law enforcement officers in Wyoming for the way they have behaved during demonstrations following the death of a Minnesota man at the hands of police, he said Thursday.

Gordon praised protesters and police during a news conference Thursday, saying they treated each other with respect.

“I wanted to express how extremely proud I am of Wyomingites around the state who felt it was proper and appropriate to demonstrate peacefully and did so,” he said. “I also want to thank our law enforcement officers who have not had to make arrests and have handled themselves professionally and with respect for protesters.”

Demonstrations have been held in a number of Wyoming communities, including Casper, Cheyenne, Jackson, Gillette, Riverton, Laramie and Rock Springs, to protest the death of George Floyd while being taken into custody by Minneapolis police.

The demonstrations have all been peaceful, in contrast to rioting and looting seen at other protests around the country.

“When these protests become violent, they become criminal behavior and nothing more,” Gordon said. “We would rather see the peaceful, respectful demonstrations that advance the message more effectively.”

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Gordon Tells State Agency Heads To Prepare For Drastic Cuts

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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

Gov. Mark Gordon is asking state agency heads to do whatever they can to reduce spending and to prepare for more spending cuts in coming months in response to what he said was the largest loss of income in state history.

Gordon, in a news release Thursday, said he is directing agencies to immediately take any action they can to reduce spending and then to prepare for future cuts by identifying programs that can be eliminated. He said such steps will undoubtedly lead to job losses and added he is also asking agencies to consider salary reductions, furloughs and reductions in benefits.

The state’s revenues have been significantly reduced because of declining mineral revenues and income losses associated with the coronavirus.

A state report recently predicted that during the upcoming 2021-22 biennium, state revenues will fall $1.5 billion short of estimates used to craft the state’s budget.

“We are in uncharted territory,” Gordon said in his news release. “We have just experienced the largest loss of income in our history just four years after our second largest loss of income.”

Gordon was expected to address his news release in more detail during a news conference Thursday.

Gordon said it would be impossible to make up for the revenue loss entirely through reductions in state programs and employment.

“But even if every state employee was let go, or if we closed the prisons, eliminated all money going to the courts and stopped funding persons with disabilities, we would still run out of funds at the end of the biennium,” he said.

Gordon said after proposing programs that could be cut, agency heads will be asked to build flexible approaches that could be adjusted to updated revenue forecasts as they are provided later in the year.

“To be sure, the data that we used to model these revenue shortfalls are preliminary, and therefore still a bit unclear, but there can be no doubt we will see a continuing steep decline,” the Governor said. “In any event, our approach to the significant cuts we will have to make must be done strategically, with purpose, and in a manner that assures Wyoming can recover rapidly.”

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Gordon Announces New Health Rules: Up To 250 People Can Gather in Public

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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

Although the state’s largest rodeos will be canceled for this year, a change in the statewide health rules allowing for groups of up to 250 to gather in public will allow smaller rodeos and other events to proceed this summer, Gov. Mark Gordon said Wednesday.

Gordon, speaking during a news conference, announced the state’s public health rules will be relaxed as of Monday to allow for larger gatherings outside as long as social distancing guidelines are observed.

In the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, state health rules limited public gatherings to fewer than 10, a number that was boosted to 25 on May 15.

With the further relaxation to allow for outdoor gatherings of up to 250, a number of events, such as small rodeos, graduations, farmers markets and weddings can be held, Gordon said.

“This is good for our communities and for our economy,” he said.

Gordon noted that the opening of Yellowstone National Park over the Memorial Day weekend drew more tourists back to Wyoming and said there is reason for optimism.

“Even though this day seems like it has gone a bit awry, I am optimistic about Wyoming’s future,” he said. “We are moving forward, we are going to see rodeos like the Hulett Rodeo. We’re already seeing more people out on the roads. We’re on our way back.”

Gordon also spoke briefly about a recent report that predicted the revenues for the state’s budget for the coming 2021-22 biennium could fall below earlier projections by up to $1.5 billion, saying the state cannot simply cut expenses to offset the losses.

“It clearly illustrates the financial challenges the state is facing,” he said. “It is clear that we cannot cut our way completely to solving this problem. So we’ve been and will continue to examine a number of ways to address this budget shortfall.”

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Gordon Signs $1.25 Billion Federal Coronavirus Bills

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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

Three measures authorizing Gov. Mark Gordon to spend $1.25 billion in federal coronavirus relief funds and spelling out how some of that money should be spent have been signed into law.

Gordon on Wednesday signed all three pieces of legislation, approved during the Legislature’s special session May 15-16, but he vetoed one piece of language to expand eligibility for one of the business relief programs.

The “Wyoming Business Interruption Stipend” program is designed to provide grants of up to $50,000 for businesses with fewer than 50 employees that lost money because of the pandemic. The grants will be to compensate businesses for actual losses.

As written, the smallest grant that could be provided would be $20,000. 

Gordon said many small businesses lost less than $20,000, however, under the rules for the distribution of the federal money, businesses are to be reimbursed for no more than actual losses.

As a result, Gordon removed the reference to a minimum grant of $20,000 to allow those with lower losses to apply for the program.

“The line-item vetoes I have implemented fairly preserve the eligibility of any applicant, while making it clear that applicants must be able to point to attested losses consistent with the language of the (Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security) Act,” he said in a letter explaining the veto to Secretary of State Ed Buchanan.

Gordon praised the Legislature for work on all three bills.

“You wrestled with complicated programs in challenging times under trying circumstances and demonstrated what we in Wyoming do so well — work together to find solutions,” he said in his letter. “We all agree that the support of Wyoming’s small businesses is a priority as we reawaken our economy and fortify the state for the year ahead.”

In addition to the bill setting up three business relief programs at an initial cost of $325 million, the Legislature approved a plan to reimburse landlords who forgive past due rent payments by tenants who may have lost their jobs or had their wages cut during the pandemic.

Also created was language to make businesses immune from lawsuits that may be filed by people claiming to have been infected with the coronavirus by the actions of the businesses. The language says that if a business adhered to all recommended safety guidelines, such as requiring staff to wear face masks, then it will be immune from coronavirus-related lawsuits.

The language began life as a separate bill filed for consideration the day before the special session began, but eventually was turned into an amendment of one of the three bills approved.

“Ambush legislation rarely results in good legislation, but in this case, the resulting amendment was a reasonable extension of other protections already in statute,” Gordon wrote.

Legislative leaders have said another special session will probably be held later in the year to deal with revenue shortfalls expected to affect the state’s biennium budget approved in March.

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Gordon Allocating $17 Million To Expand Coronavirus Testing, Response

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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

Gov. Mark Gordon announced Wednesday that he is allocating $17 million in federal funding to expand coronavirus testing, improve contact tracing and add to the state’s supply of personal protective equipment.

“We have been working diligently to modify our public health orders to continue a safe and sensible reawakening of Wyoming’s economy,” Gordon said in a news release. “I am also pleased to be directing funds available through the CARES Act to improve our ability to identify cases of COVID-19 and limit public exposure to the virus.”

The $15 million Gordon has allocated to the Wyoming Department of Health will help the agency increase its diagnostic testing and contact tracing capabilities. Funds will be used to bolster testing capacity at the Public Health Laboratory, obtain additional testing supplies and provide additional support to the team that does contact tracing, which includes people in communities across the state.

Gordon allocated $2 million to the Wyoming Office of Homeland Security, which will be working with the Wyoming Business Council to purchase PPE and distribute it to non-health care related entities to support public safety for businesses and other entities across the state under new health orders to take effect Friday. The orders will relax some of the restrictions put in place in mid-March to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

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UW Poll: 75% Approve of Gordon’s Response to Coronavirus

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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

The majority of Wyomingites approve of the way Gov. Mark Gordon is handling the coronavirus pandemic, according to a survey released by the University of Wyoming’s Wyoming Survey and Analysis Center (WYSAC) on Thursday.

The survey was conducted Monday and is the third of multiple surveys the center is conducting to measure public response to a variety of topics related to the pandemic. A total of 496 residents participated in the survey on Monday, representing all 23 counties.

Three-quarters of the people surveyed said they somewhat or strongly approved of the way Gordon is handling the crisis. The governor’s net approval rating — the percentage disapproving of his efforts subtracted from the percentage approving them — is at a positive 54 percentage points.

Approval was also high for local government and health officials, with 77% of the responses saying they somewhat or strongly approved of the way the counties are handling the pandemic. Their net approval rating is at a positive 59 percentage points.

The approval of the way President Donald Trump is handling the crisis has decreased over the three surveys, with 59% saying they somewhat or strongly approved of how he’s handling the situation. His net approval rating decreased by 5.6 points and now totals a posititive 20.5 percentage points.

The survey noted that Wyomingites’ support for certain major policies has decreased over the last few weeks.

These include: 76% support the close of K-12 schools, down eight percentage points; 67% support the closure of daycare centers, a decrease of 11 percentage points; 64% support the closure of restaurants and bars, a 12 point decrease; 74% support limiting public gatherings, an eight point decrease; and 44% support a “shelter-in-place” order, a decrease of four points.

On Wednesday, a group of seven Republican legislators sent a disapproving letter to Gordon questioning the constitutionality of his orders, among a number of other concerns.

“How does any statutory reference supersede the US and Wyoming constitution? Please provide documentation,” the letter asked.

On Thursday morning, two other Republican lawmakers lauded the governor’s actions stating that “…the State of Wyoming will be farther ahead than any state in the nation in regards to relaxing [public health] orders.”

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Gov. Gordon Allows Gyms, Hair Salons, Barbers to Reopen May 1

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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

Gov. Mark Gordon announced Tuesday afternoon that some businesses can reopen on May 1 after more than a month of being shuttered.

These orders will allow gyms, barber shops, hair salons and other personal care services to reopen under specific operating conditions designed to minimize public health risk from the coronavirus.

This phased approach will also ease restrictions on day care and allow hospitals to resume elective surgeries.

“These new orders start our process of getting this part of Wyoming’s economy up and running again,” Gordon said in a news release. “We have asked Wyoming citizens to make sacrifices over the past five weeks and they have responded. I want to thank these businesses for playing such an important role in our initial battle with COVID-19. Easing the restrictions on these businesses at this time is prudent and gets us one step closer to a return to normal.”

Gordon said last week during a news conference that he would allow the 23 Wyoming counties to take their own approaches on easing restrictions, based on local expertise and health data. He reaffirmed this stance on Tuesday.

“We all recognize that the virus has had severe impacts in some Wyoming communities, while other towns and counties have been spared,” he said. “This plan takes into account the continued safety of our citizens and establishes a process to consider some case-by-case exceptions to state health orders when appropriate. It is important that we do not surrender the ground we have taken and that we extend our gains against this virus.”

For gyms to reopen on Friday, there will be a limit of the number of patrons in the facility, staff will have to wear face coverings and the locker rooms will be closed. Gyms are prohibited from offering one-on-one training or group classes.

That same order will be modified to allow child care centers and home day cares to reopen or continue operating under certain precautions, including limiting groups of people to fewer than 10 or more in one room and implementing screening and cleaning protocols.

Cosmetology services (such as barber shops, tattoo parlors and massage therapy services) can reopen Friday, but must limit the number of patrons, screen the patrons and staff for symptoms of illness or exposure to a person with the virus, requiring patrons and staff to wear face coverings and eliminating waiting areas.

No business is required to open on May 1, though. Businesses that choose to stay closed will still be eligible for assistance from the Small Business Administration programs.

Effective immediately, hospitals and health care providers can resume elective surgeries. The Wyoming Department of Health has provided guidance on this.

The health order limiting public gatherings to 10 or fewer people has been extended through May 15, though. Gordon’s directive requiring anyone coming into Wyoming to self-quarantine for 14 days is expected to be updated Wednesday.

All of the new statewide orders allow county health officers to submit requests for county-wide variances from the orders if public health conditions in the county warrant a change.

“The goal is to provide a measure of flexibility in recognition of the fact that public health conditions can vary greatly from county to county in Wyoming,” the release said.

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Rep. Scott Clem: Gov. Gordon’s Coronavirus Response Is Unconstitutional

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By Ike Fredregill, Cowboy State Daily

As Gov. Mark Gordon moves to ease restrictions put in place because of COVID-19, some Wyomingites question whether the restrictions were ever the right response. 

Larry Herdt, a 63-year-old Wyoming native living in Casper, said requiring businesses to close was a step too far, no matter how dangerous coronavirus is.

“Closing down businesses and all this stuff — to me it’s infringing on people’s rights,” Herdt said. “(Gordon) never asked people how they would mitigate it (in their businesses), and I think that should have been his first step.”

In Wyoming’s northeastern corner, Rep. Scott Clem, R-Gillette, wrote an open letter to Gordon, calling for businesses and schools to reopen weeks ago.

“We’re citizens in this country, not subjects,” Clem told Cowboy State Daily. “To see China respond to this in a very authoritarian and draconian way was not surprising. But when we had governors here in America, like sheep, follow the China model, I was not expecting that.”

Wyoming did not impose strict stay-at-home orders like some states, which Clem applauded, but he said he felt the state still went too far in restricting residents’ ability to work.

“I think we ought to start reopening today and tomorrow,” he explained. “I think the cosmetologists, barbers, tattooists …  should be open today.”

Herdt expressed similar sentiments, adding bars and restaurants to the mix.

“I’m not a bar person, but I eat in a lot of bar-and-grill places, and I think they should be able to make their own decisions,” he said. “To me, what (Gordon) did was unconstitutional.” 

On March 13, Gordon declared a state of emergency in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, followed by a statewide public health order to close bars, restaurants, theaters, gymnasiums, child care facilities and schools in an attempt to limit the virus’ ability to spread among congregated people.

While Gordon issued an advisory for residents to stay at home, the governor did not order them to do so.

Clem said during these unprecedented times, he felt Gordon was doing the best he could, but closing businesses overstepped the Constitution by quarantining healthy people, rather than just the sick. 

“We give pretty broad statutory authority to our public health officer to deal with these kinds of pandemics,” he said. “But upon looking at those statutes, it’s clear to me those statutes have more to do with quarantining sick individuals than healthy individuals. For me, that’s the disproportionate response.”

While Clem acknowledged the severity of the pandemic and the need to cater a response to prevent the state’s health care facilities from being overwhelmed, Herdt said he viewed threats posed by COVID-19 as part of the natural course of life.

“Walking out the door is a risk,” Herdt said. “With all the pathogens in the air, you’re going to get sick no matter what.”

Although he said he doesn’t believe the fatality numbers broadcast in the media, Herdt explained people should have the right to take the risk if they so choose. 

With recovered cases in Wyoming topping 300, Clem said he believed the state’s efforts flattened the curve, preventing hospitals from being overburdened and allowing the state to stockpile ventilators and personal protective equipment for dispersing to areas should the need arise. Now, Wyoming should turn its attention to the next crisis — the economy, he said.

“We haven’t gone off the rails in suppressing our economy, but I think we’ve gone too far,” Clem explained. “I’m reminded that our health experts are not economic experts, and we need to listen to both.”

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Interview: Gordon Discusses Thinking Behind Not Issuing Stay-At-Home Order

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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

Gov. Mark Gordon’s approach to restricting the movements of Wyoming residents to slow the spread of coronavirus has been based on the idea that most will follow advice intended to keep them healthy, he said Tuesday.

Gordon, in an interview with Cowboy State Daily, said he and the governors of South Dakota, North Dakota and Nebraska all agreed that given the chance, their residents would act in their own best interests without “stay-at-home” orders.

“(We) have all kind of taken the approach that you tell people what’s important and you ask them to do the right thing and they’ll exhibit the common sense that we know they have,” he said.

Gordon and fellow governors who have resisted adopting the more restrictive rules had been criticized by some, but Gordon noted that even Dr. Anthony Fauci, one of the key advisors to the White House, endorsed the approach.

“It was nice to have a conversation with Dr. Fauci where we went through that and he said ‘You’re doing all the right things,’” he said. “And he even said it nationally.”

Wyoming was the last state to see a death attributed to coronavirus and the last state to see more than 300 cases of the illness.

“We’re not out of the woods, but I feel so far our efforts have been successful,” Gordon said.

Gordon has faced pressure not only at the national level, but from his constituents for his actions.

On Monday, he spoke with a group of protesters demanding that the state lift the restrictions it imposed in March. Meanwhile, some residents have said they would rather the state issue a “stay-at-home” order to restrict the movements of state residents and prevent the spread of the disease.

In March, Gordon and Dr. Alexia Harrist, the state’s public health officer, issued three orders to try to slow the spread of coronavirus. One closed schools and businesses where 10 people or more are likely to gather, another closed businesses providing personal services, such as hair salons and tattoo parlors, and the third prohibited gatherings of more than 10 people.

The state has not ordered the closure of “non-essential” businesses or required that people remain in their homes.

Gordon said his approach embodied a balance state officials knew would have to be reached to both protect the public’s safety and allow the economy to continue operating, where possible.

 “In Wyoming’s case, we really had to find the balance because we had the virus arriving late … it hit us in a sort of unpredictable way,” he said. “So we tried to find a course that could balance that.”

The result was that rather than being shut down, most of the state’s major industries have been able to continue operations.

Gordon said he also understood the opinions of those who want to lift all the restrictions immediately rather than leave them in place until at least April 30.

“What I heard yesterday was frustration that I think almost everybody in Wyoming is feeling,” he said. “We need to get moving again. We need the country to get moving again.”

State officials are working this week on developing a process which can be used to guide how the state gradually reopens its businesses, he said. 

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