Converse County and state health officials have imposed a mask mandate for all of the county through Dec. 4, although they warn it could be extended if the rate of new infections continues to surge here and throughout Wyoming.
The order, which was approved by Wyoming State Health Officer Dr. Alexia Harrist, mandates masks be worn in all public spaces including businesses and local government buildings for two weeks. The orders began Friday (Nov. 20) and expire two weeks later on Dec. 4, with local officials given the option to readjust or extend the orders, county Public Health Director Dr. Mark Campbell said.
The mandate requires face masks be worn by all adults in the county in certain places which are open to the public with some exceptions. Face coverings are to be worn by everyone – except minors (although those above age 2 are urged to wear them), when out in public.
However, the requirement for students to wear masks while in school has not changed and is not affected by the new mandate as that is a school requirement that has been in place since classes began last fall.
The number of positive cases in the county continues to surge, and county officials are hoping having the mask mandate will slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus. (See related story on the front page.)
“As of Nov. 19 the county has 130 active cases with seven county residents hospitalized,” Converse County Public Health Nurse Darcey Cowardin said during a conference call with officials Nov. 19.
Although the mandate did not require approval from the county commissioners, they supported the application for a mask variance, Converse County Commissioner Jim Willox said.
“We want to keep patients out of the hospital, reduce the number of cases in the county and remove some of the stress on the hospital, healthcare system and staff,” Willox stated.
Campbell acknowledged masks will not stop the spread of the virus but will slow down the spread along with other acts like washing hands, social distancing and not going out when you’re sick.
“Masks can help with people who are positive but don’t know it. We’ve had a number of hospitalizations here who have been transferred to Wyoming Medical Center, who already has a large number of COVID patient hospitalized,” he said.
Along with patients, several doctors, nurses and other healthcare workers in the county have tested positive, which puts another strain on the hospital.
“We have all felt the severe impact due to the traffic, and we don’t want to see businesses crushed. We want to do everything we can to keep businesses open and mitigate the crushing effect this can have on our community,” Converse County Commission Chairman Robert Short said.
The mandate states that all members of the public, except for minors, must wear a face covering outside their home when they are inside or in line to enter a retail or commercial business or any government facility except federal and state ones because a county order cannot supercede state or federal orders. However, most of those facilities already had mask mandates in place.
Masks are also to be worn at any healthcare operations like hospitals, clinics, walk-in health facilities, dentist, pharmacies and/or when a person is waiting for or riding on public transportation.
Retail and commercial business owners and employees, along with employees and volunteers in government facilities, are also required to wear face masks.
Individuals with medical or mental health conditions, or with a disability affected by wearing a mask, are not required to wear face coverings and are not required to provide any explanation or documentation explaining why they are exempt, the order read. People who are actively exercising at a gym are also not required to wear a mask but must wear one when entering or exiting the facility or not actively working out.
While the order carries the weight of law, county officials said they are not wanting to police residents, just encourage responsible behaviors during a pandemic. Thus, the mask mandate will not be enforced by law enforcement, and residents who choose not to wear a mask will not be cited, although Campbell said someone could be cited if they are a “repeat offender” who violates the order on multiple occasions and locations.
“We want to educate everyone about the importance of masks, not to cite residents. We are trying to slow the uptick of cases, down,” Campbell said, noting he is leaving the decision about how to handle nonmask-wearing customers up to store owners.
Campbell also mentioned several pallets of PPE (personal protective equipment) were received, with two pallets given to Memorial Hospital of Converse County, one pallet to Douglas Care Center and one-half of a pallet delivered to Mountain Lodge. The remainder is being kept for future needs.