CASPER – Gov. Mark Gordon made clear Monday afternoon that his office would not be enacting any sweeping virus mitigation policies, deferring instead to the federal government and local officials.
“On COVID, let me be clear that we are not going to issue any mandates, no mandates will come from this office. No face masks, no vaccination mandates,” Gordon said, adding lockdowns were also off the table. “Fortunately, the issue is not masks, the issue is COVID and the disruption this virus poses to us all.”
Gordon did say he is concerned about the state’s trajectory. New and active cases, along with hospitalizations, are growing exponentially in Wyoming as the dramatically more contagious delta variant spreads nationwide.
More than 2,000 virus cases were considered active Friday — a 1,500-case increase from a month ago. Hospitalizations, too, have surged since March and now match figures not seen since early January.
Overwhelmingly, they are people who are not vaccinated.
Statewide, 112 patients were being treated Monday for COVID-19.
Gordon expressed concerns this new surge could hamper the economic growth Wyoming has experienced since lockdowns were lifted last spring.
“And here’s the thing, we already know what to do,” Gordon said. “I do believe statewide orders are not necessary, what will help ease the situation is people choosing to get vaccinated.”
Vaccines have been widely available to Wyoming adults since late March, earlier than much of the country. Despite that head start, thus far Wyomingites are making the choice to be vaccinated at a much slower rate than the rest of the nation.
Just under 43 percent of adults are fully inoculated. For those 12 to 17 years old, that number falls to below 16 percent.
Nationwide, more than 60 percent of adults are fully vaccinated, as are 48 percent of those 12 to 17, according to the New York Times.
Two weeks after vaccines were opened to Wyoming adults, uptake in the state began to fall.
Recently, however, vaccination is slightly on the rise. Between the last week of July and the first week of August, more than 5,000 residents received a first dose — more than had sought a first vaccine in any two-week period since mid May.
Gordon stressed vaccination is an “intensely personal choice,” but that he encourages people to get the shots, adding he felt the vaccines were safer than the risk of contracting the novel coronavirus.
“By now, most people know what we need to do, and we are all going to have to be more diligent if we are going to get COVID under control before school starts,” Gordon said. “I say this because the situation with COVID in Wyoming has grown more concerning in the last month.”
He said he anticipates a decision from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on whether it will approve the vaccines beyond emergency use authorization will calm public fears.
Beyond that, Gordon said he will leave virus mitigation decisions to local officials.
“I don’t find any value in grandstanding on this issue, and I will support counties, cities and school boards making their own decisions,” he said, adding that as a Republican he values local control. “I think that local governments can make their own decisions about what is necessary to keep the public safe and to keep those businesses open.”
The statements come two weeks after Gordon’s office announced it would not require school districts to impose mask mandates in K-12 schools, a strategy widely credited with ensuring Wyoming’s public schools remained open during the last academic year.
Gordon stressed he is not forbidding local officials from making those decisions.
When asked Monday whether that policy creates issues for children under 12 years old, who have not been approved to receive any COVID-19 vaccine, he acknowledged he does have worries about those students.
“I am concerned about kids under 12,” Gordon said. “I have grandchildren all under 12, and that is a concern. But we have been able to hold back the virus up until more recently and I think that means we can do it again. And I think it behooves all of us to protect our children.”
Gordon did not dismiss the effectiveness of face masks.
“We know that there’s value to masks and we recommend those masks,” Gordon said. “We also know that people have very strong concerns about masks. Some people feel a certain sense of disquiet with them.”
Several Wyoming school districts, including Natrona County’s, have already determined face masks will be optional for the upcoming school year.
At least in Natrona County, several parents have thanked school officials for that determination. At an Aug. 9 Natrona County School District board of trustees meeting, associate superintendent Walt Wilcox told trustees optional masking “will not become a point of polarization or dissent,” and that bullying from either perspective would not be tolerated.