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Gordon: Coronavirus Cases Increase “Concerning”

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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

Gov. Mark Gordon described the current spike of coronavirus cases across the state of Wyoming as “concerning” during a press conference on Wednesday afternoon.

Gordon started off the conference by listing off the current facts about the virus in Wyoming: 1,404 lab-confirmed cases and 336 probable cases and 1,291 recoveries as of Wednesday.

“The numbers keep rising and that’s of concern,” Gordon said. “Many counties are reporting increases. We have 26 news cases today and there are hundreds of people under quarantine just here in Laramie County.”

Gordon pointed out a specific incident in Big Horn County in which a day care center had to close, forcing parents to take time off from work and impacting grandparents.

The governor reiterated that Wyoming residents should continue to wear masks, practice social distancing and use good hygiene to protect both national security and business liabilities.

Gordon discussed his recent trip to Dubois over the holiday weekend, noting “most” people were respectful and practiced social distancing or wore masks while he and First Lady Jennie Gordon were in town.

“I think Wyoming understands it is important that we make every attempt to make sure that we wear a mask if we can, social distance as much as we can, make sure we use good hygiene to protect … our business vitality,” he said. “Wyoming people have a sensibility about them, a common sense nature.”

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Gordon Says State Will Cut Staff

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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

Gov. Mark Gordon and his state agency heads will begin their work this week to cut the state’s biennium budget to deal with projected revenue shortfalls of $1.5 billion, he said Wednesday.

And the governor warned residents during a news conference that they will have to expect both program and personnel reductions.

“Some of the things that are on the (list for cuts) will be funding for things like mental health, sex offender programs, children, elder care … travel out-of-state for some of our agencies,” he said. “These are some of the many very difficult choices we will have to make and there will be reductions in force. None of that is good.”

Wyoming’s Legislature approved a budget for the 2021-22 biennium, which began on July 1, during a budget session that ended in March.

Shortly after, a collapse in mineral prices led state officials to predict that tax revenues for the biennium would fall $1.5 billion short of earlier projections, requiring budget cuts.

Gordon asked all of his agency heads to submit ideas for reducing their budgets by 20% and said Wednesday he has asked the officials to propose additional cuts of 10%.

“The cuts we’ve talked about here are getting close to the bone,” he said. “In some cases we really are talking about the bone. We will talk about some very precious programs and some very valuable people. I don’t look forward to any of this.”

The state’s agencies will work to improve the efficiency with which they provide services, Gordon said, to avoid reducing those services more than necessary.

In the upcoming election, Gordon said, candidates for the Legislature need to understand the challenges the state faces so they can be prepared to act accordingly during the Legislature’s general session in 2021.

“This election is essential to make sure we have quality candidates who understand the challenges and choices we have to make … in a way we can emerge from this, as I know we can, successfully and stronger,” he said. “Our session coming up in January will be one of the most important sessions that this state has ever seen.”

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Gordon Accepts “Wear A Mask” Challenge From Colorado Governor, Challenges Idaho

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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

Gov. Mark Gordon took to Twitter on Tuesday afternoon to tell the world why he wears a mask to protect the spread of the coronavirus.

Gordon’s tweet came in response to Colorado Gov. Jared Polis’ challenge, where he asked governors across the country to make a short video stating why they wear masks during the pandemic.

Polis sent the challenge out to Gordon on July 2.

“I’m wearing a mask as a sign of respect to my fellow citizens, a way to help keep them safe,” Gordon explained in the short video. “Wearing a mask when you can’t social distance is an easy courtesy to your neighbors and fellow citizens. It’s a way to keep our businesses open and our economy on the rebound.”

Gordon then challenged Idaho Gov. Brad Little to participate in the challenge next. As of late Wednesday morning, Little hadn’t responded.

Wyoming officials have never issued a statewide order requiring the use of face masks. However, Jackson officials recently approved a city ordinance requiring those inside of town shops to wear masks. Laramie officials are considering a similar ordinance.

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Wyoming Health Orders To Remain The Same Until July 15

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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

Wyoming’s current public health orders will be extended through July 15, since the number of coronavirus cases continues to rise, Gov. Mark Gordon announced Monday.

The number of coronavirus cases confirmed in the past two weeks, makes up 25% of Wyoming’s total number of lab-confirmed cases diagnosed since the illness was first detected in Wyoming in mid-March. Of a total of 1,144 cases seen since March, 288 new cases have been confirmed since the current orders went into effect on June 15.

New cases of the virus have been reported in 15 counties, indicating increased transmission within Wyoming communities.

Gordon continued to emphasize personal responsibility and stressed a cooperative effort by business owners and patrons is required to prevent businesses from being forced to close in the face of growing case numbers.

“It is clear from the recent increase in cases statewide that the dual threat of COVID-19 to both the health of our citizens and the health of our economy is not going away,” Gordon said in a news release. “No one wants to see the progress we have made vanish, but that requires each of us to make a concerted effort to slow the spread of the virus. It is really simple and depends on everyone practicing good hygiene, social distancing and doing their best to wear a mask in public where social distancing isn’t possible. It’s the way you and our economy will both stay healthy.”

The Wyoming Department of Health and Gordon continued to recommend the use of face coverings in public settings where it’s not possible or reasonable to stay physically apart.

The continuing orders allow gatherings up to 50 persons in a confined space to occur without restrictions and permit events of up to 250 persons to proceed with social distancing and increased sanitization measures in place.

Faith-based gatherings such as church services and funeral homes will continue to be permitted to operate without restrictions, with appropriate social distancing encouraged.

All public health restrictions that apply to restaurants, bars, gyms and performance spaces will remain in place.  Those restrictions include seating no more than six people at a table, making sure tables are at least six feet apart, requiring staff who get close to customers to wear face masks and disinfecting the business three times daily.

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Gordon Urges Wyoming Residents To Continue Coronavirus Safeguards

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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

Wyoming residents have been successful in slowing the spread of coronavirus, but rising numbers of new cases are evidence they cannot abandon the practices that helped the state achieve one of the lowest infection rates in the country, Gov. Mark Gordon said Tuesday.

Gordon, during a news conference, said he was disappointed to see that the number of confirmed coronavirus cases has gone up by 106 in the last week, leaving the state with more than 220 active cases.

“It seems to me not long ago we were under 200 (active cases) and that makes me sad because we are now spiking,” he said.

Gordon said he understood the desire for people to get out after their long isolation.

“I know when the grass is green and the horses are fresh, we all want to run out to the pasture and buck,” he said. “This a time when we do not want to run away. This is a time when we want to mind our Ps and Qs.”

By observing state recommendations for preventing the spread of coronavirus, state residents have managed to keep the threat of the illness low enough that Wyoming was able to move closer to resuming normal summer patterns much faster than other states, Gordon said.

“We have the lowest unemployment and one of the lowest rates of infection and one of the lowest rates of death,” he said. “And that’s because of what you’ve done.”

However, he added that some people have disregarded the safeguards in recent weeks, leading to an increase in new cases.

“This talks about the carelessness, recklessness and sometimes the thoughtlessness that can mean we’ll lose ground,” he said.

Dr. Alexia Harrist, the state’s public health officer, said there is reason for optimism for the state’s continued battle against the virus.

She noted that a recent jump in cases in Uinta County, where the number of confirmed cases has more than doubled, was largely the result of a social gathering where people did not observe safeguards.

“This situation illustrates how it doesn’t take much to really change the disease picture in a community,” she said. “This disease has not gone away, so please think of others when you make choices.”

Some other states that have reopened their economies have seen major increases in coronavirus cases, prompting officials there to study putting back in place the restrictions on businesses and personal movement that had been in place earlier.

Gordon said he has not really considered such a move, however.

“I hope we don’t have to do that,” he said. “Dr. Harrist and I have not talked about this. Largely because I believe the people of Wyoming won’t be so stupid as to put us in that kind of quandry.”

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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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