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Lawmakers defied mask orders at session kick-off in Capitol

House Republicans speak in a circle without masks on on the floor of the House chamber. Clockwise they are: Reps. Bill Fortner (Gillette), Jeremy Haroldson (Wheatland), Chuck Gray (Casper), John Bear (Gillette), Chip Neiman (R-Hulett) and Pepper Ottman (R-Riverton). (Mike Vanata/WyoFile)

January 13, 2021 by Andrew Graham, WyoFile

The majority of state lawmakers who attended the kickoff of the 66th Wyoming Legislature in person Tuesday defied public health orders by not wearing face coverings.

Gov. Mark Gordon and Public Health Officer Dr. Alexia Harrist issued health orders Dec. 7 that require Wyoming residents to wear face coverings in indoor public settings. Gordon signed the mask mandate after months of appealing instead to residents’ personal responsibility failed to slow COVID-19 case counts, hospitalizations and deaths. The order, extended on Jan. 9, applies to state government buildings including the Capitol. 

The large majority of lawmakers on the House floor, and many in the Senate, did not wear masks while gathering Jan. 12 to begin the 2021 general session. Public health orders were likewise not enforced among members of the public in attendance, many of whom circulated in the galleries and hallways of the Capitol maskless.

The open disregard for state law came after one former and several  current lawmakers — along with hundreds of protesters — accused Gordon and Harrist of being “tyrants” for issuing such health orders, though they have yet to be rigorously enforced. 

Lawmakers on the House floor during the Jan. 12 opening of the Legislative session. (Mike Vanata/WyoFile)

This public health order flouting took place not in a bar or small business, however, but in the seat of state government and by many of those who write the state’s laws.

An unusually high number of Wyoming Highway Patrol officers were on hand in the wake of last week’s storming of the U.S. Capitol. Officers conducting security checks at the Capitol entrance — a first in recent history — reminded visitors that masks were required but did not enforce the mandate, according to a WHP sergeant. 

The highway patrolmen guarding the statehouse are directed by Gordon. 

“While the Governor directs the WHP inside the Capitol, their primary mission there is security so that the citizens of Wyoming can participate in the affairs of government,” Gordon’s spokesperson Michael Pearlman wrote in an email. 

“The Governor strongly believes that the health orders were carefully considered and should be followed inside the Capitol building, as he is committed to assuring the safety and wellbeing of visitors as well as state employees, and protecting the political process,” Pearlman wrote. “Others may have different agendas.”

‘A job to do’

Legislative leaders chose not to enforce the mask rule on their own members because it would have distracted from efforts to get the session underway and begin addressing Wyoming’s fiscal crisis, Senate President Dan Dockstader (R-Afton) and Speaker of the House Eric Barlow (R-Gillette) said during a press conference. 

“We have a job to do and we needed to get the process started and to venture into whether we have a mask or not just causes more problems,” Dockstader said.

Sen. Tara Nethercott (R-Cheyenne) wears a mask as she is sworn in at the Wyoming State Capitol. (Mike Vanata/WyoFile)

The Legislature’s management council voted in November 2020 not to require lawmakers to abide by health orders, though they directed their staff to do so. Some lawmakers also noted that legislative leadership generally rules over its own spaces, raising the question of whether the order issued by the executive branch legally applied inside the House and Senate chambers. 

For the most part, however, leadership sought to avoid the controversy of requiring masks. Many lawmakers present have argued the Legislature should be meeting in-person for the next several weeks, instead of waiting until March to assess the public health situation. 

“We could’ve spent the whole day dealing with the issue of one or two members not wearing a mask and having to have them removed and seeing the situation escalate,” House Speaker Pro Tempore Mike Greear (R-Worland) said. 

Indeed, enforcement would likely have had to occur on far more than just one or two members. At least 27 members of the House were present in the chamber. All were Republicans with the exception or Libertarian Rep. Marshall Burt (Green River). All the Legislature’s Democrats participated in the session via Zoom. 

Only one House member, Rep. Landon Brown (R-Cheyenne), wore his mask the entire time he was seated at his desk. While some lawmakers in the Capitol wore masks when moving around or speaking to each other, many did not.

Of the roughly 18 members present in the Senate, around five wore masks most of the time. 

Members also failed to maintain the recommended 6 feet of separation. 

‘The science is settled’

During a May special session, the use of masks was far more ubiquitous even as the virus was far less prevalent. Today, Wyoming is just seeing declines from a COVID-19 crisis in the fall that filled hospitals and greatly alarmed health officials. Weekly death tallies remain near record highs in the state.

The virus’s spread initially slowed following the implementation of Gordon’s face mask order but has since increased again. Over the last two months the state has continued to announce more COVID-19 related deaths than it had throughout most of 2020. The Wyoming Department of Health announced 33 more deaths as lawmakers gathered in the Capitol.  

“We feel the science is settled and there is no question wearing masks can be an effective prevention strategy,” DOH spokesperson Kim Deti wrote in an email to WyoFile. “That’s the reason we’ve been recommending them for so long and why they were included in public health orders. We are always somewhat concerned when people gather indoors without masks.”

In his address to lawmakers, Gordon noted the pandemic’s fatal toll on the state. 

“Like you, I will never forget this disease’s heartbreaking cost as we in Wyoming have lost 489 souls who were our parents, families, friends, colleagues and neighbors,” he said. 

Tuesday morning, Speaker Barlow, a veterinarian, had emailed House members and asked them to wear masks. 

“Let’s make this first day a testament to the many that will follow by safeguarding the health of those around us, and the dignity of the Legislature,” he wrote in the email, which was obtained by WyoFile. 

“There’s some folks that it’s just a protest not to wear one,” Barlow said in the press conference. Barlow wore a mask, he said, even though he has already contracted and recovered from COVID-19. Knowing that some lawmakers would not wear masks, the Legislature gave both its members and its staff the opportunity to work remotely and stay out of the chambers, Barlow noted.

A member of the Legislative Service Office staff wears a mask as he works on Rep. Chuck Gray (R-Casper)’s computer. Gray did not wear a mask on the chamber floor. (Andrew Graham/WyoFile)

Still, at several times, legislative staff did come onto the chamber floors to help lawmakers with technical issues. In one instance, Rep. Chuck Gray (R-Casper) huddled with a technician at his computer monitor. The staff member wore a mask but Gray did not. 

Gray, a prominent voice in the opposition to health orders, did not respond to a voicemail message seeking comment. At a Jan. 4 rally in Cheyenne, he said the state was being run by “an unelected official,” in a reference to Harrist. At the same rally, former Rep. Scott Clem of Gillette called on people not to wear their masks and practice “civil disobedience.” 

Several other lawmakers who did not wear masks did not respond to voicemails seeking comment. 

Democratic criticism

Democrats deliberately stayed away to stay safe and make a point about stopping virus spread, Senate Minority Leader Chris Rothfuss said. Lawmakers had set a poor example at a time when many in the state were wearing masks as they went about their own jobs, he said. 

“It’s disappointing to me that we’ve abdicated those [orders] because they’re too hard to enforce,” he said. “That’s what it comes down to… Wearing a mask is very simple. My 6 year old does it every day of school and complains not one whit. All of his classmates wear one all through the day and they’re honestly capable of accomplishing much more work than we were tasked with today.”

Rothfuss and other lawmakers expressed hope that the virus was not spreading on the House and Senate floor, as infections would make their work harder to complete going forward. “A lot of lawmakers … have contracted and suffered through the virus,” Rothfuss said. One lawmaker, Rep. Roy Edwards (R-Gillette), died from the virus. The House passed a resolution to honor his memory Tuesday. 

Tuesday was the only day lawmakers will have exposed themselves, their staff and others in the capitol to COVID-19 for some time. Under a special schedule designed to avoid virus spread by limiting gatherings, the Legislature will not meet again in-person until March. 

This article was originally published by WyoFile and is republished here with permission. WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.

The Wyoming Department of Health provides COVID-19 case, variant, death, testing, hospital and vaccine data online. The department also shares information about how the data can be interpreted. COVID-19 safety recommendations are available from the CDC.