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Wyoming Counties Differ on Strategies For Budget Shortfall

in Coronavirus/News

By Ike Fredregill, Ellen Fike, Wendy Corr and Mari Heithoff, Cowboy State Daily

Most of Wyoming’s counties are experiencing budget difficulties because of declines in tax revenue caused by the coronavirus pandemic, but the extent of the impact varies from county to county, according to officials.

Jeremiah Rieman, executive director for the Wyoming County Commissioners Association, said  different counties are finding different ways to deal with the sales tax income slump that came with the economic slowdown caused by the pandemic.

“The impacts really show diversity,” he said. “In some instances counties are able to balance the budget. Others are taking cuts of varying degree.”

Fremont County

As an example, Fremont County commissioners cut the county’s budget by $4.5 million, said commission Chairman Travis Becker.

“No department has been spared,” he said. “All of our social services are not funded this year.”

Among other things, the county reduced its contribution to its libraries and reduced funding to senior service centers, Becker said.

“And not a single dime of general fund money is able to go to the museums,” he said. “They’ll be trying to fund programs through self-generated dollars.”

Becker said the cuts will have a direct impact on the county’s residents, but they had to be made so the county could maintain funding for mandated services such as the county clerk’s office and sheriff’s department.

“People think we can cut somewhere else, but we can’t cut the mandated essential stuff completely,” he said. “Believe it or not, I’ve had people say we should not give the sheriff’s department so much money, but I’m not going to do that. I have to do what the state mandates, and I can’t cut some things completely.”

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Park County

In Park County, Joe Tilden, chairman of the county commission, said officials expect cash carryover from the current fiscal year to total around $2 million, covering most of the $2.2 million shortfall predicted with tax income declines.

Commissioners will also urge all agencies in the coming year to avoid unnecessary expenses, and are proposing a fifth penny sales tax.

If approved by voters, the extra 1% sales tax would bring in $3 million to $3.5 million annually.

“Now, what we hope to do with that is use a portion of it for general fund and it’ll put us in a position where we can prioritize things in the future,” he said. “So for the foreseeable future, five to six years down the road, we should be in pretty good shape – as long as we can keep our expenses under control, which we’ve learned how to do, and we’re doing a good job. You know, our expenses are coming in less than inflation the last ten years, that’s big.”

Laramie County

Laramie County commissioners told county departments to cut their budgets by 20% more than one month ago, said commission Chairman Gunnar Malm.

“We’re able to have a balanced budget with those reductions in costs and can put money into reserves, which are pretty healthy due to years previously not spending oil and gas money and banking it,” he said. “(The county) will have 20 million in reserves after we pay for the sixth penny projects.”

In addition, none of the county’s employees have seen their hours cut or have lost their jobs, Malm said.

The county expects a financial impact from the cancellation of Cheyenne Frontier Days, but the extent of that impact is not yet known, Malm said.

Rieman said bigger concerns are looming for all counties with anticipated drops in property tax income.

“The big thing we’re all bracing for is the reverberation into the next fiscal year where we’ll begin to see impacts on  property taxes,” he said. “This is not going be a short cycle. It will have impacts long term, and we don’t quite understand what that will look like.”

Shortages faced by the state government may also force cuts in assistance for counties, Malm said. 

“There’s always the looming question of what the Legislature will do with money for towns and counties and what that could do for our bottom line if that was reduced in any way,” he said.

Rieman said impacts in the future will depend largely how long the economy will be affected by the coronavirus.

“The real concern is the length of this pandemic, whether that’s another wave or continuing at the steady pace that prohibits us from opening the economy,” he said. “If this pandemic continues to linger, it’s going to put additional pressure on the government to continue services as well as pressure on the state and federal government to provide some sense of relief here, so we don’t have a complete collapse of our economy.”

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Wyoming’s Economic Health in April Worst in 15 Years

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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

Wyoming’s economic health in April was at its lowest level seen in 15 years, according to a state agency.

The state’s Economic Analysis Division, in its June report on the state’s economic indicators, reported that the state’s economic health in April was given a score of 95.2, the lowest score recorded since the measurement was first taken in January 2005.

A score of 100 indicates the state’s economic health is equal to conditions seen in January 2005. A higher score indicates improvement and a lower score indicates worsening conditions.

The EAD, a division of the state Department of Administration and Information, said the four economic indicators used to determine the state’s economic health all declined significantly in April from March, when the economic health index was set at 104.3. Unemployment was the biggest contributor to the decline, the report said.

“This large drop in the index from March 2020 was primarily due to a sharp increase in unemployment resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic,” the report said.

The economic health index in April of 2019 was set at 105.9.

The index is determined by reviewing the state’s monthly unemployment rate, monthly total non-farm employment, sales and use tax collections from the mining sector and sales and use taxes from lodging.

Wyoming’s unemployment rate increased significantly in April from March, growing to 9.6% from 3.8%.

Non-farm employment dropped by 24,000 in April to total 262,400, sales and use tax collections from the mining industry fell by $2.7 million to total $6.4 million and lodging tax income totaled $640,000, a decline of 50% from numbers posted in April of 2019, the report said.

“This 50% year-over-year decline ties the largest decline for any month over the past 15 years,” the report said. 

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Balow: Individual School Districts Will Decide Whether Or Not To Open Schools This Fall

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The decision on whether schools across Wyoming will open this fall will be left up to local school districts, Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow said Wednesday.

Balow, speaking during a news conference with Gov. Mark Gordon, said the Department of Education has prepared a “guidance document” to help local school districts decide whether to open their doors for the fall semester.

The “Smart Start” document will provide districts with the information they need as they decide to open schools completely, provide a mix of in-school and remote education or leave schools closed and continue online education, Balow said.

“The bulk of the decision-making is in the hands of your communities,” she said. “Health officials, school boards, educators, parents and even students will make important decisions in the coming weeks.”

The document lays out benchmarks to be met and procedures to be followed for each of the options. For instance, before a school can be opened, plans will have to be developed for managing student arrival at the building, parents will need to screen their children daily for coronavirus symptoms and both students and staff will be asked to stay home if they feel ill.

Schools opening will also be advised to seat students in such a way as to limit close contact and encourage hand washing by anyone entering a school building.

Balow said the state’s school districts learned a great deal about educating students online during the pandemic and the department plans to use those lessons in determining how best to teach students going forward.

“My goal is to make sure students continue to have access to the same high quality education experience they always have in Wyoming and to empower communities to make the very best decisions,” she said.

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Faced With Surge in Coronavirus Cases, Gordon Renews Call For Use of Masks, Social Distancing

in Coronavirus/News

By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

Faced with new growth in the number of coronavirus cases in Wyoming, Gov. Mark Gordon on Wednesday renewed his call for Wyoming residents to take the steps they can to prevent the spread of the illness.

Gordon, during a news conference, noted that the state saw its total number of laboratory-confirmed coronavirus cases rise by 27.7% in the last two weeks, with the majority of the new cases coming from seven counties.

As a result, he said, Wyoming residents must continue to observe social distancing, frequent hand washing and the use of face masks when it is not practical or possible for people to remain separated from each other.

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Gordon noted that in a number of other states, a reopening of businesses has led to increases in case numbers and resulting deaths that have prompted other governors to reimpose some of the restrictions that had been in place, such as ordering bars and restaurants to close.

“This is something we don’t want to do,” he said. “So it really does depend on the people of this state to exercise good judgment and do the right thing.”

As recently as two weeks ago, officials had been hopeful that they could lift all remaining restrictions designed to prevent the spread of coronavirus, such as orders limiting the size of groups indoors to no more than 50 and outdoors to no more than 250.

With the increase in case numbers and corresponding increase in the number of active cases, officials agreed such a change would not be wise, he said.

“We were successful because people were adhering to the right kinds of protocols and now we’re being less careful and that is bringing consequences,” he said.

If case numbers grow too quickly, the state will have to reimpose some of its restrictions on businesses, Gordon said.

“I know some people will give us the victory signal one finger at a time” if such rules are put back in place, he said.

Gordon and Dr. Alexia Harrist, the state’s public health officer, said despite the rise in cases, the state’s residents should be able to enjoy their Fourth of July holiday if they take the proper precautions.

“It’s possible to have fun while taking part in these activities responsibly,” Harrist said.

Harrist also said she is reviewing a request from Teton County to make the wearing of face masks a requirement inside buildings.

Officials in Teton County, where several new cases have been diagnosed in recent weeks, are seeking the order because of the number of tourists in Jackson who are not observing requests to wear masks.

Gordon also announced state residents can use, at no cost, a mobile app designed to reduce the spread of coronavirus by letting users track who they come in contact with.

The information from the Care19 Diary app will then be used for “contact tracing” to determine who might have been exposed to the illness. Gordon said the app is available from both the Google and Apple app stores.

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John Barrasso: “I Wear A Mask And Others Should As Well”

in Coronavirus/News

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U.S. Sen. John Barrasso doesn’t think shutting down the economy again due to a resurgence in cases of coronavirus is the right idea but he does think people should follow established guidelines to prevent the spread of the illness, such as the wearing of masks in public places.

Barrasso, appearing on FOX News on Tuesday, said he hoped wearing masks hasn’t become a political issue. He added individuals can wear masks and be supportive of President Trump at the same time.

“I am for President Trump and I wear a mask. As do members of my staff and family,” Barrasso said. “It is an important thing to do protect ourselves and a responsible thing to do to help protect others.”

Barrasso, a physician, said people need to follow the basics including: proper hygiene, social distancing and wearing masks.

“I wear a mask and I think others should as well,” he said.

However, Barrasso said calling on law enforcement to step in when citizens aren’t following health guidelines isn’t the right answer.

“What do you do with the individual who is not following guidelines and not doing the thing that is responsible?” Barrasso asked. “It is difficult to try to enforce something like wearing a mask.”

The senator said if people were to “get back to basics” and follow health guidelines, the U.S. would be in a better position.

“If people were actually following those guidelines, the numbers would be much lower than they are right now,” he said.

“As a doctor, the basics are: proper hygiene, distancing, and wearing masks. I think it is important,” Barrasso said.

The senator brushed off the idea of additional shutdowns, saying the toll on the economy and on the health of individuals would be too high.

“We know that when people can’t go to work and there is higher unemployment, there are issues related to abuse of substances and spouse and children.  All of these things which can lead to bad health impacts as well,” he said.

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19 New Coronavirus Cases Confirmed In Seven Counties

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19 new confirmed coronavirus cases were reported in seven counties on Wednesday, bringing the total number of cases seen since the illness was first diagnosed in the state to 1,203.

The Wyoming Department of Health, in its daily coronavirus update, said 19 new cases were reported in Fremont, Laramie, Lincoln, Natrona, Park, Platte and Teton counties.

The increase marks the eleventh consecutive day of double-digit increases in confirmed case numbers. Dr. Alexia Harrist, the state’s public health officer, said during a news conference Wednesday that the increase could not be tracked to any one event.

“It is really a combination of factors,” she said. “I will say that gatherings at bars and restaurants is one of those factors. Keeping social distancing in those environments remains critical.”

Since the coronavirus was first reported in Wyoming, Fremont County has seen 319 cases; Laramie County had 175 cases; Uinta County had 140 cases; Natrona County had 105 cases; Teton County had 98 cases; Sweetwater had 80; Park had 49; Campbell had 43; Washakie had 34; Albany had 31; Lincoln and Sheridan had 19; Big Horn had 17; Converse and Johnson had 16; Carbon had 13; Hot Springs had nine; Crook had seven; Goshen had four; Platte and Sublette had three; Weston had two, and Niobrara had one.

The Department of Health’s total case figures account for all cases seen since the illness was first detected in Wyoming. They do not take into account the recoveries.

The number of probable cases in Wyoming since the pandemic began was set at 311 on Wednesday. A probable case is one where a patient shows symptoms of coronavirus and has been in contact with a person with a confirmed case, but has not been tested.

Of the total of 1,514 patients seen since the coronavirus was first detected, 1,119 have recovered, the Health Department said, including 877 patients with confirmed cases and 242 with probable cases.

The number of active cases in the state, meanwhile, was set at 377 on Wednesday. They included 308 patients with laboratory-confirmed coronavirus cases and 69 with probable cases.

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33 New Coronavirus Cases Record in Wyoming; 11 in Park County

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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

New confirmed coronavirus cases were detected in nine counties on Tuesday, pushing the total number of confirmed cases seen since the illness was first detected in Wyoming to 1,184.

The Wyoming Department of Health, in its daily coronavirus update, said a total of 33 new cases were reported in Big Horn, Campbell, Laramie, Lincoln, Natrona, Park, Sheridan, Sweetwater and Teton counties.

Park County’s total increased by 11 on Tuesday to total 44.

The Health Department’s total case numbers reflect all cases detected since the pandemic reached Wyoming and do not take into account the patients who have recovered. 

As of Tuesday, Fremont County had recorded 316 confirmed cases since the pandemic began; Laramie County had 168; Uinta County had 140; Natrona County had 103; Teton County had 97; Sweetwater County had 81; Park had 44; Campbell had 43; Washakie had 34; Albany had 31; Sheridan had 19; Lincoln had 18; Big Horn had 17; Converse and Johnson had 16; Carbon had 13; Hot Springs had nine; Crook had seven; Goshen had four; Sublette had three; Platte and Weston had two, and Niobrara had one. 

The state also recorded 27 recoveries during the day, bringing the total number of recoveries among patients with laboratory confirmed coronavirus cases to 860 and the total number of recoveries among patients with probable cases to 237.

A probable case is defined as one where the patient shows symptoms of coronavirus and has been in contact with someone with a confirmed case, but has not been tested for the illness. As of Tuesday, the number of probable case seen since mid-March was 303.

The numbers brought the number of active coronavirus cases in the state to 372, including 306 patients with confirmed cases and 66 with probable cases.

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Jackson Town Council Passes Resolution Requiring Face Coverings In Public

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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

The Jackson Town Council has passed a new resolution in support of a health order that would require people to wear face coverings in public places.

As of Monday, Teton County had 95 confirmed cases of the coronavirus, but health officials are expecting the number to increase daily, with cases surging in Wyoming and all over the country.

The council had a special meeting on Monday to discuss the resolution to support Dr. Travis Riddell, Teton County’s health officer, in his plan to ask the state for a health order requiring the use of face masks. The discussion lasted around an hour.

A number of Teton County residents used the public comment period to give the council their opinions on the resolution. Many came out in support of the resolution, offering up information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that recommends wearing face coverings to help slow the spread of the virus.

Some of the comments came from county business owners, many of whom already were requiring customers of their stores to wear face coverings. One man told the council that he has around 15 to 20 negative encounters a day with people who refuse to wear a mask.

The resolution noted that an influx of people who come into the county’s health care systems could compromise the ability of staff to deliver the necessary care to the public.

Since Teton County is a major tourist destination in the Rocky Mountain region, the council felt it was appropriate to require everyone to wear masks in public gatherings.

“Teton County Hospital District routinely serves patients not only from within Teton County but also many tourists and residents from Lincoln County, WY, Sublette County, WY, Fremont County, WY and parts of Eastern Idaho who will further stress its capacity, making it critical that Teton County take steps to slow the spread of COVID-19 infection so as not to overwhelm the local healthcare system in such a way that would result in many preventable deaths,” the resolution said.

The council was unanimous in its vote to pass the resolution.

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Face Coverings Required for UW Employees, Students This Summer

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University of Wyoming employees and students are required to wear face coverings while on UW-owned property or when conducting university business or activities, including instruction and research.

This requirement is in place immediately and also is part of the university’s plan for the fall semester to mitigate spread of the novel coronavirus COVID-19.

“Given its highly contagious nature and the unpredictability of how it will affect any given individual, it is imperative that we, as a community, treat it as the public health crisis that it is and take simple precautions to protect our families, our neighbors and ourselves,” said College of Health Sciences Dean David Jones, who leads a UW team addressing campus questions on COVID-19. 

“The university’s decision to implement a mask/facial covering policy was not made out of fear; it was made out of a sense of commitment to slowing and decreasing the spread of a highly contagious virus. The more consistently we wear masks in public spaces in the community, the sooner we will get to a point where we will no longer need to wear them.”

One exception to the policy on face coverings is that people alone in closed-door offices — or in their residence hall rooms — don’t have to wear them at those times. Additionally, while UW’s current policy for the fall semester — approved by the Board of Trustees — is that visitors to campus are encouraged but not required to wear masks, the issue may be discussed further by the board in July.

The university will require and provide face coverings for all employees and students this fall — those coverings have been ordered, and some units already have secured masks and other types of protection for their employees — but not all units are able to provide them at this point. So, employees and students on campus this summer may need to wear their own personal face protection.

The university is developing a COVID-19 policy that will outline the rule on face coverings as well as other guidelines, including physical distancing and what to do if you develop symptoms that might indicate coronavirus infection. It also will lay out consequences for violation of the policy, including disciplinary action through the Student Code of Conduct, for students, and the employee handbook, for faculty and staff members.

Additionally, UW’s Office of Academic Affairs is drafting a behavioral expectation addition to the syllabus, giving faculty members the ability to remove students from the classroom for violation of the COVID-19 policy.

“It has been widely shown that communities that adopted masks early on have experienced a lower health impact as it relates to spread of the COVID-19 virus,” says incoming President Ed Seidel. “The wearing of masks and other practices help prevent us from transmitting the virus to others and provide some degree of protection to ourselves, as well.”

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Second-Highest Increase In Wyoming Coronavirus Numbers Seen Monday

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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

Twenty-nine new confirmed cases of coronavirus were reported Monday as the total number of cases seen since the illness was first diagnosed in Wyoming grew to 1,151.

The Wyoming Department of Health, in its daily coronavirus report, said new cases were seen in Albany, Big Horn, Laramie, Lincoln, Natrona, Park, Sweetwater, Teton, Uinta and Weston Counties. The increase was the highest in Uinta and Laramie counties at six each.

The day’s increase was the second-highest seen since the pandemic began in mid-March. The highest increase, 36 cases, was reported on June 25.

The Department of Health’s coronavirus totals count all of the cases detected since the illness was first detected in Wyoming in mid-March and does not take into account recoveries or deaths.

As of Monday, the number of confirmed cases seen since mid-March totaled 318 in Fremont County; 164 in Laramie County; 140 in Uinta County; 102 in Natrona County; 95 in Teton County; 78 in Sweetwater County; 42 in Campbell; 34 in Washakie; 33 in Park; 31 in Albany; 18 in Sheridan; 16 in Converse and Johnson; 13 in Carbon; 12 in Lincoln; 11 in Big Horn; nine in Hot Springs; seven in Crook; four in Goshen; three in Sublette; two in Platte and Weston, and one in Niobrara.

The number of active cases stood at 362 on Monday, including 290 among those with confirmed coronavirus cases and 72 among those with probable cases.

The active case number reflects recoveries among 843 patients with confirmed cases and 227 patients with probable cases for a total recovery number of 1,070 since mid-March.

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