Teton commissioners stay the course on mask mandate

JACKSON — Activists opposed to the county’s mask mandate are continuing to wage a campaign of public comment and protest, aimed at having county commissioners lift the face covering requirement in Jackson Hole.

But the Mountain Freedom Alliance’s efforts — as well as pressure from two county commissioners — are not bearing fruit.

The Wyoming Legislature changed state law in the past year to require local elected bodies like the Jackson Town Council and the Teton County Board of County Commissioners to extend health orders longer than 10 days in their jurisdictions. And, with decisions on the mask mandate now in the political realm, those opposed don’t have the votes to change it in the unincorporated areas of the county, which fall under commissioners’ purview. The Mountain Freedom Alliance has not waged as sustained a campaign before the Town Council.

While Commissioner Greg Epstein has led the charge to lift the mask mandate with support from Commissioner Mark Barron, Commission Chairwoman Natalia D. Macker and Commissioners Luther Propst and Mark Newcomb have not changed their minds and are continuing to support the extension of the order.

“I wouldn’t want to lift the mask order yet,” Macker told the News&Guide. “And I haven’t heard recommendations from health professionals to do so.”

The requirement, supported by the Teton District Board of Health and other health officials in Teton County, is in place countywide through Dec. 31. But it may be lifted if Teton County drops into the “yellow,” or moderate, risk level, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Teton County is currently in the “red,” or high, risk level, though cases are decreasing.

On Nov. 7, about 20 protesters gathered on Town Square to object to mask mandates in Teton County as part of a “worldwide walkout” organized by Children’s Health Defense, an anti-vaccine group headed by Robert F. Kennedy. And, on Monday, Nov. 8, members of the Mountain Freedom Alliance and others packed the commissioners’ chambers at 200 S. Willow St., giving public comment for 30 minutes at the beginning of the meeting

They repeated their call to end the mask mandate, better defined the group and asked commissioners to hear from people besides local health officials.

Jenny May Shervin said the Mountain Freedom Alliance is united under “the banner of freedom”: choice, information and expression. She said it’s a place to “share ideas, ask questions, engage in discussion without judgment” to provide information and more to its members making decisions about health and education.

“We voted for you. And we are looking to you to let go of this mask mandate,” Shervin said. “You are dividing this community, and I am tired of trying to fight for our freedoms.”

When the Freedom Alliance finished giving public comment, which they’ve done at commission meetings for at least three weeks, Epstein once again pushed for reconsidering the mask mandate. He did so at another commission meeting last week, but Macker, Propst and Newcomb didn’t bite on his and Barron’s request.

“I’m going to continue to ask this,” he said.

Epstein and Barron did not respond to requests for comment. Macker, Newcomb and Propst did — and didn’t signal that they’re willing to change course.

“So long as they’re recommending a mask mandate, then that is my position,” Newcomb said of health officials.

Teton District Health Officer Dr. Travis Riddell, Board of Health Chair Dan Forman, Director of Health Jodie Pond, and St. John’s Health COVID-19 czar Paul Beaupre recommended against lifting the mask mandate at a late October update. They said it would be ideal to wait until kids 5 to 11 years old are able to be vaccinated and older residents have time to get booster shots.

But Newcomb did want to make sure everyone was heard.

“If we’re not having a dialogue and a discussion, and if we’re not creating an environment where everyone can respectfully submit an opinion and submit their data source and have a respectful dialogue, then we’re going down a road of divisiveness that is dangerous,” he said. “I see it nationally, and I really don’t want to see it happen locally.”

Macker feels respectful conversations are happening — in public comment.

“We have a place where we received that input,” she said. “The commission doesn’t really host like open forum town halls.”

Propst also said he’s following health officials’ guidance.

“I respect where they’re coming from,” he said of the Mountain Freedom Alliance. “I just haven’t seen the evidence that changes my mind.”

Macker, likewise, said she empathizes with activists.

“I want things to feel normal again, too, but I feel like it’s my responsibility to take in all of the feedback and make the judgment that I have been asked to make,” she said.

“And I am OK with where we are,” she added.