A Pinedale gym owner who was cited in April for reopening her business in violation of a state health order says slow government aid and threat of eviction forced her hand.
Jennifer Ramsey is one of a very few Wyoming residents so far subjected to enforcement action of COVID-19-related restrictions. Her case has become something of a cause celebre for Wyoming conservatives protesting “government overreach” and pushing for officials to reopen businesses.
As of late last week, gyms are once again authorized for operation, but county officials have not dropped the charges. Ramsey is fighting the misdemeanor citation and its penalty of $100 or six months in jail or both, she said. A court date is for sometime in September, she told WyoFile in a phone interview last week.
Ramsey received a citation from the Sublette County Sheriff’s Department on April 15 for violating Gov. Mark Gordon’s order closing bars, restaurants, gyms and other businesses. By May 1, the governor had reopened gyms, along with beauty shops, barbers and other personal care businesses.
Sublette County Attorney Mike Crossen declined to comment on the charges.
Whether the rarity of Ramsey’s case stems from lax enforcement or low violation instances is not well documented. But many officials, from the governor down, have expressed a reluctance to use force or legal instruments to enforce the health orders in Wyoming.
“We ask people rather than tell them what to do, and Wyoming people have really stood up and I would expect them to continue to do that,” Gordon said during an April 29 press conference to discuss reopening some closed businesses. He noted, however, that the orders were enforceable.
‘I have to do something’
Ramsey is a former Sublette County sheriff’s deputy who served more than six years on that force, she said. Audio of the encounter between her and Undersheriff Lance Gelhausen, who visited her business to enforce the order, highlights the potentially tense interactions in small town Wyoming if business owners defy the pandemic-driven health orders.
Though Ramsey cited economic concerns as driving her decision, she also described the government’s response to the virus as oppressive and capricious.
“I don’t understand why grocery and liquor stores would be open and crowded and gyms aren’t,” she said.
The government left her without viable options besides defying the order, she argues.
Ramsey initially closed her Iron Bar gym in accordance with Gordon’s order, she said. She applied for unemployment insurance and a government assistance program through the Small Business Administration — the loan program she applied for was offering up to $10,000. The unemployment money was slow in coming, she said, and the loan from the SBA was based on the number of employees the business had — which was one: Ramsey herself. The SBA found her eligible for $1,000 through the program, according to an email reviewed by WyoFile.
The gym owner reached out to county public health officials to pursue an exemption to the order but did not feel she got clear answers, she said.
Dr. Brendan Fitzsimmons, the Sublette County health officer, told WyoFile he spoke with Ramsey on the phone “only vaguely” about the possibility of an exemption. At the time, Sublette officials were not ready to grant exemptions to any businesses, he said.
Sublette faces a particular concern when it comes to COVID-19 because the county does not have a hospital. Fitzsimmons previously noted that the lack of medical care made measures to slow the virus’s spread even more important in the rural county. If Sublette residents get severely ill, they would have to go to hospitals elsewhere — hospitals that also faced the risk of being overwhelmed by local surges in patients.
“At one time we worried that we’d have no place to send people,” Fitzsimmons said in an April 30 phone interview.
Subsequently, the county has put into place a process for businesses to apply for exemptions, he said. Ramsey never applied, he said.
Ramsey had put off March’s rent on her gym space, she said, certain money would come in. Then, on April 13, she found an eviction notice in the mail, she said.
“And so I opened,” Ramsey said. “I really didn’t know if law enforcement would shut me down or not but I’ve got a business to run and a family to feed and we’ll see what happens.”
Like many who have protested against the restrictions around the state, Ramsey also considers concerns about the virus overblown and the government’s response ham-handed and oppressive. COVID-19 is “obviously serious and it obviously is killing people,” she said. “We’re all going to die at some point.”
“I feel like we’re being treated as children that we don’t know how to take care of our own health,” she said. “Most of us are capable of knowing what kind of risk we’re putting ourselves in.”
Two gym members, who live together, came and worked out during the time she was open, Ramsey said. She took sanitary precautions, she said — requiring clients to change shoes when they entered the gym, use hand sanitizer and carry a spray bottle of bleach and a rag to wipe down equipment after its use.
In a police report, Sublette County Sheriff’s Department Sergeant Travis Bingham said he was informed via social media on April 14 that the Iron Bar had made a Facebook post about being open. He called Ramsey, who told him “I don’t care,” according to Bingham’s affidavit.
“I have to do something they are going to evict me,” Bingham quoted Ramsey as saying. Bingham informed her she could be cited. “Well then come cite me or bring me to jail,” Ramsey said, according to the affidavit.
The next day, Undersheriff Gehlhausen visited the gym. “I’m doing everything I can to open legally,” Ramsey told him, according to a video and audio recording of their encounter that Ramsey posted to Facebook.
Gehlhausen told Ramsey she was forcing the agency to act and that he knew it was hard for her to stay closed but that “everybody in town” was in the same boat.
“I understand,” Gehlhausen says in the video as Ramsey goes to a set of drawers to show him bills or her eviction notice. “I know it’s hard,” he said.
“No you don’t understand,” Ramsey says.
“Enjoy your government paycheck because I’m getting this stuff,” she says of the bills.
A county attorney issued a summons and citation for Ramsey that day.
Bingham also declined to comment on the incident, because it remains part of an active court case, he said.
In some respects, the confrontation with her old employer was a result of her frustration, she said, and “more my fault than anything.” When Ramsey spoke to her landlord, they renegotiated the lease to help her pay less and stay in the building, she said.
Now, Ramsey has opened again, this time legally. Her own sanitary measures were more stringent than the ones under the newest order, she argues.
Ramsey wondered if her defiant response would negatively impact her gym’s standing in Pinedale, she said, but hasn’t found that to be the case except with those “few that are very worried about the virus,” she said. Her members are eager to get back into the gym, she said.
Ramsey maintains that her action was driven by economic concerns and wasn’t political. However, “it definitely kinda turned into that,” she said.
She was afterward contacted by members of the group “ReOpen Wyoming,” which has been organizing protests around the state, she said. She posted a GoFundMe on Facebook, to raise money to keep the business afloat. Lawyers from within the state have reached out to her to offer to represent her, she said, though she declined to elaborate.
Meanwhile, the governor and State Public Health Officer Dr. Alexia Harrist are reopening some parts of the state’s economy.
Gordon and Harrist have cited the success of the orders they did put in place, as well as the efforts of Wyoming citizens to follow public health guidelines, for so far staving off a worse COVID-19 impact in Wyoming. Relaxing standards too fast could reignite the virus’s spread and lead to more restrictions with worse impacts for Wyoming business owners, they’ve warned as they call for a cooperative effort between citizens and the government.
“The point here is not can we go against the government,” Gordon said on Wednesday. “The point is how do we get all our businesses open, running well, how do we make sure people continue to think of Wyoming as a great place to come to?”
A Gillette bar owner was cited last week after police received reports of about 50 people gathered outside and drinking, the Gillette News Record reported. Another bar owner was warned.
CORRECTION: This article has been updated to note that a federal agency is the Small Business Administration, not the Small Business Association as originally written. —Ed.