Moses Hasenauer, a Cheyenne resident and Tea Party activist, confronts Gov. Mark Gordon at an April 20, 2020 protest. (Mike Vanata/WyoFile)

CHEYENNE—Protestors had not been gathered long Monday before Gov. Mark Gordon descended the front steps of the State Capitol to speak with them. 

State troopers wearing cloth face masks — a precaution against spreading COVID-19 that few in the crowd of more than 100 were taking — flanked the governor as he approached the group. 

Gordon himself did not wear a mask, though the strings of one dangled from his pocket as he held up a prayer book. “What I’d love to do is ask you to pray with me for a little bit,” he said. 

The gesture appeared to win the crowd’s goodwill for at least the length of the prayer. Then many of the protesters began to shout questions and demands at Gordon. The chief demand, echoed by protesters all over the nation this week, was that Gordon rescind orders closing some businesses and restricting gatherings. 

Flanked by Wyoming Highway Patrol officers wearing cloth masks to protect against the spread of COVID-19, Gov. Mark Gordon descends the State Capitol steps on April 20, 2020 to speak with a group of protesters opposing his public health orders. (Mike Vanata/WyoFile)

“Why have you thrown a stumbling block in front of the people?” someone shouted from the crowd. 

Gordon defended his approach, which has stopped short of the “stay-at-home” orders other governors have issued. “We have kept people working in this state,” he said.

“All jobs are essential,” someone yelled.

“I’m not sure when we get back to normal,” Gordon continued. 

“Now,” a protestor shouted. “Today,” shouted another.

“I don’t want to lose my home,” a woman yelled. 

“This economy is not going to last much longer,” yelled someone else. 

“Let me ask you a question,” Gordon began, “65,000 people should die?” 

“That’s not the truth,” a protestor yelled. 

Gordon was referring to the oft-cited average annual death toll from the seasonal flu. COVID-19 skeptics have used the figure to argue that governmental response to the new virus is overblown, as did protesters on Monday.

“What you heard out there, and a lot of the mail I get, is people saying this is no more dangerous than the flu,” Gordon later told a reporter for the Washington Post. 

“About 65,000 people die from that a year,” Gordon told the Post. “And they use that as a reason we shouldnʼt do anything. We should not be aiming for 65,000 more people to die. We should be aiming to respond to this.” 

Protestors however were unreceptive to Gordon’s reasoning behind his orders to close in-house dining in restaurants, bars, theaters and gyms as well as his order banning gatherings of more than 10 people. 

Though some of the protestors were galvanized by the economic impacts of such orders, many were anti-government activists before COVID-19. 

“If we’re shutting down nonessential we should shut down this building too,” one protestor yelled at the governor, referring to the seat of Wyoming government. 

Flags, signs and clothing associated with the Tea Party movement were widely present. Several of the protest’s organizers were connected to the 2016 presidential campaign of libertarian political Rand Paul, organizer Ocean Andrew told WyoFile. A few were regulars in Wyoming’s most conservative activism circles. Nationally, many recent protests against the public health orders and guidelines have ties to conservative groups including the Tea Party movement, according to The New York Times

A protester flies the Gadsden Flag, an American-Revolution era piece of iconography co-opted in modern times by the Tea Party, at an April 20, 2020, protest against public health orders in Wyoming. (Mike Vanata/WyoFile)

Andrew, a 26-year-old Laramie resident, said he did not consider the divide in public opinion over COVID-19 a partisan one. It’s not a left versus right divide, Ocean said, but instead a divide between “people who are scared and who like the government to step in and those who like to really hold fast to constitutional liberties.” 

Polling data suggest that for now the group on the state house lawn was a vocal minority, not a popular uprising.

Surveys conducted by the University of Wyoming suggests that most state residents support the governor’s actions despite deep economic unease. In the most recent poll, published on April 16, nearly 40% of respondents said they or their immediate family members had lost a job or been laid off, and nearly 60% said they or their immediate family members had lost work or pay. More than three quarters — 75.3% — of respondents said they were “very concerned” about the pandemic’s economic impact. 

Despite such concerns, the survey also found that a majority of the state is following and in many cases supporting the same health orders protesters violated Monday. Fully 82% of respondents support the order limiting public gatherings, for example. A large majority of people, 77%, said they were “avoiding physical contact with others, spending more time at home and not attending public gatherings.” 

Popular sentiment aside, protesters Monday challenged Gordon’s authority to impose the health orders.

The state needs to “back off,” protestor Bob Ide told WyoFile. Ide works in commercial real estate in Casper, he said. He is the husband of Cathy Ide, who organized an earlier protest in that city and is statewide coordinator of the Wyoming Campaign for Liberty, a group associated with libertarian politician Ron Paul. Though Ide was not trying to “minimize” the virus’ threat, he said, he was protesting “to stand up for our Declaration of Rights and the Wyoming and the U.S. Constitution.” 

Wyoming law appears to give State Public Health Officer Dr. Alexia Harrist broad powers to stem public health threats. Statute gives Harrist the authority to “establish, maintain and enforce” isolation and quarantine, and “to close theaters, schools and other public places, and to forbid gatherings of people when necessary to protect the public health.” 

There have been no legal challenges to the health orders that Wyoming Attorney General Bridget Hill was aware of, she told WyoFile on Tuesday.

Not all conservatives agreed with the protestors’ stance.

Amy Edmonds is a conservative who has worked for U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney and the libertarian think tank the Wyoming Liberty Group as well as serving in the legislature. She writes columns decrying government overreach and growth in state government budgets. She also thinks protesters’ concerns of a power grab were overblown as the majority of the state sacrifices to try and slow the spread of a deadly virus, she told WyoFile.

“There are Republicans all across the state that very much want to stay in place and are abiding by all the rules,” Edmonds said.

“If folks want to exercise their freedom of speech and do it in a way that violates the governor’s orders they can do that,” she said. “I don’t agree with them but they can do that.” Edmonds did not see any tyranny in the orders, many of which aren’t being enforced.

Wyoming Highway Patrol officers look over a protest from the top of the State Capitol steps on April 20, 2020. Both the Wyoming Highway Patrol and Cheyenne Police Department officers were on hand but neither agency chose to enforce a public health order banning gatherings of more than ten people. (Mike Vanata/WyoFile)

“What we all collectively decided to do is go into our homes to try and protect our healthcare systems,” Edmonds said. “I have not seen anybody  be arrested in Wyoming or anything like that.”

“I know my governor is not a dictator and he’s not out to grab power,” she said.

Wyoming Highway Patrol officers and Cheyenne City Police Department officers, including Chief Brian Kozak, watched during the protest. A spokesperson for the WHP told WyoFile the protestors had secured a permit from the city of Cheyenne. Kozak told WyoFile the people were “voluntarily” violating the health orders and there was no need for enforcement.

Rep. Tyler Lindholm (R-Sundance), a prominent libertarian-leaning politician, told WyoFile he saw some government overreach in the business closures but that the orders were an “understandable” reaction to a virus about which much is still unknown.

“I do think this is a very authoritarian time that we’re living in,” Lindholm said. Orders closing restaurants, for example, were a step too far, he said. 

But he disagreed with people he believes underestimate the virus. It killed a 39-year-old friend of his in Colorado, he said. 

Protestors and skeptics who point to seemingly low rates of deaths and infections in Wyoming are ignoring the fact that the rates are a result of the same health guidelines eschewed Monday. “A lot of people are poo-poo’ing [the virus] right now because of what I view as a success,” Lindholm said. 

Protests are OK if participants take measures to protect themselves from spreading or catching the disease, he said. “You can accept the reality of the disease and accept that there is an inherent danger while at the same time practicing your civil liberties and making sure that [officials] hear your grievances.”

Only a few protestors on April 20 wore masks and many did not keep their distance from one another. One protestor mocked reporters and photojournalists who approached the rally wearing cloth masks to prevent them from coughing or sneezing on protestors. “Watch out guys you might get a cold,” the protestor, an older man seated on a bench, said. 

More rallies are planned in towns around the state on Friday, according to social media posts.

Rally organizer and Cheyenne resident Susan Graham speaks to Gov. Mark Gordon at the April 20, 2020 protest. (Mike Vanata/WyoFile)

In a Twitter post later in the day, Gordon wrote that he was “disappointed” in the protestors. “While I disagree with their choice to violate a public health order,” he wrote, “I nonetheless thought it was important to listen to their concerns.” 

Gordon announced Thursday he is outlining a “measured approach” to ease the public health orders and will “continue to prioritize the health and well being of our residents.” Steps to reopen the economy will be “slow, incremental and thoughtful” and will not be driven by politics, he said.

What his decision to descend the Capitol steps earned him with the protesters is unclear, though several applauded his courage to step forward and listen during the mostly shouted exchange between governor and activists. 

“I don’t think that he’s impressed with our choice to work, now,” protest organizer Susan Graham told WyoFile.

“I respect him for [coming out],” said protester Blaine Rasmuson, 23. But, “it’s probably PR and damage control,” Rasmuson said, “I think at heart he’s a Democrat.”

Greg Flesvig, a furloughed railroad conductor living off his savings while waiting to go back to work, said Gordon was “trying” to do the right thing in the face of the crisis.

“I like him,” Flesviq said of Gordon. “I’d expect that he would come out just to address the people.” 

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Andrew Graham

Andrew Graham is reporting for WyoFile from Laramie. He covers state government, energy and the economy. Reach him at 443-848-8756 or at andrew@wyofile.com, follow him @AndrewGraham88

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  1. I support the protestors regardless of origin. I support the Bill of Rights. The Constitution was written to restrict government and officials not citizens.

    Unelected Health Department officials, or any unelected official for that matter, should not have any authority to open or close anything. They should make their recommendations then duly elected officials should make their decisions on what is appropriate for the situation.

    How do we as citizens hold unelected officials accountable? We can’t.

    Provide the advice and guidelines then allow consenting adults to make their own decisions. Thank you very much. Choosing to allow big business to open while restricting small business is hypocritical not science or data based. Also how is a tattoo parlor or hair salon manager better able to run a business why can’t a Mom and Dad supervise their kid at a closed public facility out in the fresh air and sunshine. or big chain grocers over mom and pop grocers?

    This is uncharted territory and worthy of consideration and deliberation. The government turns unqualified drivers loose in the highways to slaughter men women and children. Because we have rights.?

    I don’t need a government chaperone elected or unelected to tell me what acceptable risk to take or not to take., where to shop, how to shop, etc.

    Publish the guidelines health bulletins advisories out and treat citizens as adults.

    We get it. I don’t need a public servant to be my nanny.

    1. I can hear you now during the Nazi bombing Blitz of London during WWII, complaining about the gross infringement on your rights to keep your lights on whenever and however you wanted.

      Who were these unelected civilian British air raid wardens who wandered the streets at night ensuring that no buildings allowed the slightest peek or glow of light and enforcing stringent legal penalties against offenders? How dare they tell you what acceptable risk to take or not to take.

  2. In the week since the newsy April 20 protest on the steps of the Wyoming Capitol , various investigative media around the country have found a strong point source of where many of these ” ReOpen…” protest rallies have originated. Just do a web search for ” Dorr brothers organizers ” and set aside a lot of time tor ead up on the lads. There are four Dorr brothers – three of whom are very strident in instigating the organizing in 49 of the 50 states, primarily using Facebook . Ben, Aaron, and Christopher Dorr have been found by cybersecurity investigators to be behind the protests. This should surprise noone. The Dorrs have been very active in activist gun rights circles and even in the weeds of the Anti-Vaxxer breeding grounds. It was actually quite easy for the cyber intelligence investigators to determine where the marching orders were coming from : they allt race back to a single SSL internet security certificate that has been used all over the country … 13 gun rights coalitions alone.

    The Dorrs are just clever enough to make it look on the surface like all of these astroturf protest movements are independent from one another , but they are not. A ReOpen Wyoming group sprung up in the last ten days or so, mostly thru Facebook and claiming over 600 members of this writing, and they say they organized over ten different ReOpen rallies around the State held on Friday April 24. Look under the hood and you will find they are fully partnered with whatever is left of the activist Wyoming Gun Owners group ( Anthony Bouchard’s hard hitting take no prisoners 2nd Amendment outfit ). In the driver’s seat is ReOpen organizer Kristy Tyrney of Powell ( ? ) who is a very outspoken ambitious anti-vaxxer and advocate for industrials cale home schooling , and now the ReOpen Wyoming brushfire. She attended the rally in Cody. In Park County with is population of 27,000 the best ReOpen Wyo could muster was fifty people. a lot of the same faces we’ve seen at these sorts of tea Party-GunRights rabbles for the past decade.

    So this national anti-quaratine anti-lockdown anti-business closing backlash movement is Libertarian ? Yes. Tea Party ? Maybe, to the extent the tea party is still relevant to anything ( to my mind, nothing ) . Gun rights ? Whoodathunkitt . Freedom Works – always glad to loan out the field manuals and raw intell and contact info .

    But those upstart and dangerous Dorr Brothers— be wary of those boys. They don’t do much to cover their tracks. Whether that is because they do not know how , or do not care doesn’t matter. It’s never hard to know when there is a skunk or maybe four in the woodpile. Follow your nose.

    1. Many thanks on the Dorr Brothers… Never heard of them, but doing a few searches across a several search engines sure lit the screen up!!!! Thanks again Mr. Vanderhoff, I appreciate your posts.

  3. I want to thank our governor for placing restrictions. My children live in Colorado, and work at the hospital. This disease is not like the flu, the symptoms, if you get this disease waver from day to day , weakness is nothing like you experienced ever. Young and old can get this disease. Preexisting diseases, which most people in Wyoming have, how Heathy is your immune system? If we open everything too soon , we will see a surge in cases . I will wait and see how many people get Covid after the protest in front of the capital, April 24, takes 2-14 days.

  4. The protesters have a Constitutional right in terms of the First Amendment to peacefully assemble for their grievances to be heard.This helps to promote checks and balances and questions asked without blindly believing and following everything that politicians dish up to society.The lockdown is ill founded especially in such a sparsely populated state like Wyoming,that naturally has social distancing even if it is to believed that distancing is a cure for the so called pandemic which fortunately never materialised as erroneously predicted.
    The cure has become far worse than the “disease” which has now become the disease which we need to resist and defeat before we succumb to the attacks on our social liberties, such as the right to work,provide for our families and the promotion of the general welfare of “We the People”.

  5. I’m actually a little disappointed in this article. Does it really matter if it’s the right leaning Tea Party or left leaning Occupy Wall Street protesting? Not really, it’s a fundamental right to free speech and I applaud the protestors for expressing their opinion – although I do disagree with the protestors shouting over the Governor. Frankly the protests – from either side – are keeping government leaders honest and from trampling our rights even further during this crisis.

    What we really need in this country is less division and more common ground. Pointing out that it’s the dreaded Tea Party adds to the divide. Maybe if the media spent as much time on trying to find areas we can come together on vs constantly finding ways to divide we could actual come together as Americans instead of Republicans, Democrats, left, right…..and so on.

  6. I am not sure if the divide is Republican or Democrat but between those more hurt and less hurt financially by our current solutions.. Nearly all federal employees saw a pay increase from this. They get free vacation days, some $1200 more in a bonus, and their regular pay. Unsurprisingly Maryland and Virginia polls show a strong desire to error on the side of long quarantine. Many southern states whose residents earn a living in the private sector want to error on the side of less economic damage. Also some rural states may have some protection from inherent population density factors. The truth is in the fog of war we do not know all the answers and our leaders are doing the best they can to balance health and economy. I think Wyoming and Sweden (not a traditional Tea Party nation) with more measured restrictions are doing better than New York and Italy with more strict restrictions. Balancing health and the economy is a tough balancing act but a good rule of thumb is error on the side of liberty.

    I appreciate our governor senators and representative for better leadership than most other states.