House Republicans speak in a circle without masks on on the floor of the House chamber. Clockwise they are: Reps. Bill Fortner (Gillette), Jeremy Haroldson (Wheatland), Chuck Gray (Casper), John Bear (Gillette), Chip Neiman (R-Hulett) and Pepper Ottman (R-Riverton). (Mike Vanata/WyoFile)

The majority of state lawmakers who attended the kickoff of the 66th Wyoming Legislature in person Tuesday defied public health orders by not wearing face coverings.

Gov. Mark Gordon and Public Health Officer Dr. Alexia Harrist issued health orders Dec. 7 that require Wyoming residents to wear face coverings in indoor public settings. Gordon signed the mask mandate after months of appealing instead to residents’ personal responsibility failed to slow COVID-19 case counts, hospitalizations and deaths. The order, extended on Jan. 9, applies to state government buildings including the Capitol. 

The large majority of lawmakers on the House floor, and many in the Senate, did not wear masks while gathering Jan. 12 to begin the 2021 general session. Public health orders were likewise not enforced among members of the public in attendance, many of whom circulated in the galleries and hallways of the Capitol maskless.

The open disregard for state law came after one former and several  current lawmakers — along with hundreds of protesters — accused Gordon and Harrist of being “tyrants” for issuing such health orders, though they have yet to be rigorously enforced. 

Lawmakers on the House floor during the Jan. 12 opening of the Legislative session. (Mike Vanata/WyoFile)

This public health order flouting took place not in a bar or small business, however, but in the seat of state government and by many of those who write the state’s laws.

An unusually high number of Wyoming Highway Patrol officers were on hand in the wake of last week’s storming of the U.S. Capitol. Officers conducting security checks at the Capitol entrance — a first in recent history — reminded visitors that masks were required but did not enforce the mandate, according to a WHP sergeant. 

The highway patrolmen guarding the statehouse are directed by Gordon. 

“While the Governor directs the WHP inside the Capitol, their primary mission there is security so that the citizens of Wyoming can participate in the affairs of government,” Gordon’s spokesperson Michael Pearlman wrote in an email. 

“The Governor strongly believes that the health orders were carefully considered and should be followed inside the Capitol building, as he is committed to assuring the safety and wellbeing of visitors as well as state employees, and protecting the political process,” Pearlman wrote. “Others may have different agendas.”

‘A job to do’

Legislative leaders chose not to enforce the mask rule on their own members because it would have distracted from efforts to get the session underway and begin addressing Wyoming’s fiscal crisis, Senate President Dan Dockstader (R-Afton) and Speaker of the House Eric Barlow (R-Gillette) said during a press conference. 

“We have a job to do and we needed to get the process started and to venture into whether we have a mask or not just causes more problems,” Dockstader said.

Sen. Tara Nethercott (R-Cheyenne) wears a mask as she is sworn in at the Wyoming State Capitol. (Mike Vanata/WyoFile)

The Legislature’s management council voted in November 2020 not to require lawmakers to abide by health orders, though they directed their staff to do so. Some lawmakers also noted that legislative leadership generally rules over its own spaces, raising the question of whether the order issued by the executive branch legally applied inside the House and Senate chambers. 

For the most part, however, leadership sought to avoid the controversy of requiring masks. Many lawmakers present have argued the Legislature should be meeting in-person for the next several weeks, instead of waiting until March to assess the public health situation. 

“We could’ve spent the whole day dealing with the issue of one or two members not wearing a mask and having to have them removed and seeing the situation escalate,” House Speaker Pro Tempore Mike Greear (R-Worland) said. 

Indeed, enforcement would likely have had to occur on far more than just one or two members. At least 27 members of the House were present in the chamber. All were Republicans with the exception of Libertarian Rep. Marshall Burt (Green River). All the Legislature’s Democrats participated in the session via Zoom. 

Only one House member, Rep. Landon Brown (R-Cheyenne), wore his mask the entire time he was seated at his desk. While some lawmakers in the Capitol wore masks when moving around or speaking to each other, many did not.

Of the roughly 18 members present in the Senate, around five wore masks most of the time. 

Members also failed to maintain the recommended 6 feet of separation. 

‘The science is settled’

During a May special session, the use of masks was far more ubiquitous even as the virus was far less prevalent. Today, Wyoming is just seeing declines from a COVID-19 crisis in the fall that filled hospitals and greatly alarmed health officials. Weekly death tallies remain near record highs in the state.

The virus’s spread initially slowed following the implementation of Gordon’s face mask order but has since increased again. Over the last two months the state has continued to announce more COVID-19 related deaths than it had throughout most of 2020. The Wyoming Department of Health announced 33 more deaths as lawmakers gathered in the Capitol.  

“We feel the science is settled and there is no question wearing masks can be an effective prevention strategy,” DOH spokesperson Kim Deti wrote in an email to WyoFile. “That’s the reason we’ve been recommending them for so long and why they were included in public health orders. We are always somewhat concerned when people gather indoors without masks.”

In his address to lawmakers, Gordon noted the pandemic’s fatal toll on the state. 

“Like you, I will never forget this disease’s heartbreaking cost as we in Wyoming have lost 489 souls who were our parents, families, friends, colleagues and neighbors,” he said. 

Tuesday morning, Speaker Barlow, a veterinarian, had emailed House members and asked them to wear masks. 

“Let’s make this first day a testament to the many that will follow by safeguarding the health of those around us, and the dignity of the Legislature,” he wrote in the email, which was obtained by WyoFile. 

“There’s some folks that it’s just a protest not to wear one,” Barlow said in the press conference. Barlow wore a mask, he said, even though he has already contracted and recovered from COVID-19. Knowing that some lawmakers would not wear masks, the Legislature gave both its members and its staff the opportunity to work remotely and stay out of the chambers, Barlow noted.

A member of the Legislative Service Office staff wears a mask as he works on Rep. Chuck Gray (R-Casper)’s computer. Gray did not wear a mask on the chamber floor. (Andrew Graham/WyoFile)

Still, at several times, legislative staff did come onto the chamber floors to help lawmakers with technical issues. In one instance, Rep. Chuck Gray (R-Casper) huddled with a technician at his computer monitor. The staff member wore a mask but Gray did not. 

Gray, a prominent voice in the opposition to health orders, did not respond to a voicemail message seeking comment. At a Jan. 4 rally in Cheyenne, he said the state was being run by “an unelected official,” in a reference to Harrist. At the same rally, former Rep. Scott Clem of Gillette called on people not to wear their masks and practice “civil disobedience.” 

Several other lawmakers who did not wear masks did not respond to voicemails seeking comment. 

Democratic criticism

Democrats deliberately stayed away to stay safe and make a point about stopping virus spread, Senate Minority Leader Chris Rothfuss said. Lawmakers had set a poor example at a time when many in the state were wearing masks as they went about their own jobs, he said. 

“It’s disappointing to me that we’ve abdicated those [orders] because they’re too hard to enforce,” he said. “That’s what it comes down to… Wearing a mask is very simple. My 6 year old does it every day of school and complains not one whit. All of his classmates wear one all through the day and they’re honestly capable of accomplishing much more work than we were tasked with today.”

Rothfuss and other lawmakers expressed hope that the virus was not spreading on the House and Senate floor, as infections would make their work harder to complete going forward. “A lot of lawmakers … have contracted and suffered through the virus,” Rothfuss said. One lawmaker, Rep. Roy Edwards (R-Gillette), died from the virus. The House passed a resolution to honor his memory Tuesday. 

Tuesday was the only day lawmakers will have exposed themselves, their staff and others in the capitol to COVID-19 for some time. Under a special schedule designed to avoid virus spread by limiting gatherings, the Legislature will not meet again in-person until March. 

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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. Has anybody checked with the CDC with the deaths in America from ANY cause? Sorry folks the death rates have not risen, they have stayed pretty much the same over the last five years. You people that believe the lies coming from mainstream media really need to start researching what you are hearing. Critical thinking is in short supply. I am amazed at the hysterics in the populus. Did we ever shut down our economy for the flu? Nope, yet 60 to 80k died a year from the new strains of flu. Good God people, take care of yourselves, stop panicking, stop trying to control everyone else. Masks do not do a damn thing except possibly stop someone slobbering on you. VIRUSES can NOT be stopped by these medical masks. Take a deep breath, relax, stop eating crap, drink plenty of water, get solid sleep, say your prayers and get on with your lives.

  2. One addition. Kudos to Senator Tara Nethercott, Representative Landon Brown and others who chose the right path and decided a little inconvenience was worth the safety of others.

  3. This has become such a depressing discussion. Wear a damn mask. 400,000 Americans are dead. I do not want the virus. Mostly I do not want my children or grandchildren to get the virus. Or your children or grandchildren. Grow up and lead by example.

  4. please correct me if i’m wrong, it appears that only the trumplicans are the ones find wearing a mask an assault to their freedoms. nobody likes wearing a mask they are inconvenient for many reasons, i wear a mask because the science proves they work, they help protect me and they help protect everyone i come in contact with.

    is there a way to know whom in our state legislature is showing up unprotected? if so we should keep the heat on these public servants to do the right thing.

    lead by example, Go Joe Pro

  5. Representatives are suppose to represent their districts. Ever Think that the majority of their districts doesn’t agree with the mask mandate either? I’m thankful that my Representative is willing to stand for his constituents and let our vvices be heard..

  6. Very proud of the majority of law makers who can take personal responsibility without fringing on others. If you want to wear a mask, wear one. If you don’t want to wear one, don’t. Either way quit being a judge of others.

    1. By not wearing a mask and being in close proximity to others would be “fringing” on those who choose to believe science and wear a mask.

      Selfishness isn’t something to applaud.

  7. Once again , most of the Wyoming legislature is mostly an embarrassment to most of the civilized world.

    Maybe we need to reframe the whole facemask directive to inform the Republicans that it is very patriotic to wear a facemask . It can be seen right there in the Preamble to the US Constitution : ” We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union…. insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare ….. ”

    If taking a simple painless unobtrusive measure to prevent the spread of a contagion is not in the interests of American commonwealth , what is ? I full well expect president Joe Biden to call for a nationwide facemask mandate the day he takes office, and he should cite the Constitution when he does it in the same breath.

    The Republican party rigidly believes their own smug dogma that their party is the better protectors of the Constitution and the Republic , but that belief is not borne out. Further I would say in Wyoming’s case you can make a substitute … when they claim to be conservative Republicans , think ‘ regressive ‘ instead. It better fits the facts and the results of their actions. It’s an affirmation of one of the oldest sayings in American politics….” You can’t always believe what they say … watch what they do”. Or the Zen of it… what they do NOT do.

  8. They may have already had there shots ? If not they should remember what happened to Roy Edwards.
    It would be nice to get this virus under control ,but as long as people think masks are some how political it will be another long year.

  9. Evidently, caring for your friends and neighbors in the state legislature is as rare as a jack-a-lope.

  10. I’m a native Wyomingite, but don’t live in the great state any longer.

    My message to Republicans: Don’t wear a mask, for the betterment of the human race, help us cleanse the gene pool.

  11. Whiny, selfish maskless babies. Real men and women wear masks. What a small-minded, dangerous embarrassment.

  12. Would it not be ironic if a majority of our State Legislators became ill to the point they were hospitalized during a session that will possibly effect revenue flow well into the future. This possibility might not occur but the possibility of the loss of revenue from mineral resources was not a foresee able problem not to long ago either. Would it be asking to much to error on the side of caution during this health and economic crisis.

  13. What a state! Of stupidity that is, even at the highest levels. No wonder the state is incapable of self-government, except at a primitive, VERY primitive level. It’s a wonder that y’all don’t have to be hand fed.

  14. I am so glad someone is looking out for our freedom! It is about time. We have been losing our freedom since World War Two when liberal tyrants enforced gas and food rationing, asked us to carpool, and recycle metal, called on us to ignore our God-given freedoms, to work together to “save the free world,” (Work together! Really?? That is what the communists preach!). What hypocrisy! They may have been the “Greatest Generation,” but they would never have agreed to wear a mask just because we may unknowingly pass the virus to some old person who could die. I understand I could cause someone to die but what about ME!! When it comes to defending our freedom against the so-called “greater good” (a liberal term for oppression!) I am grateful someone is looking out for the Me Generation!

    1. Mike, Are you saying you not wearing a mask is more important my life? I hope not. I just want to be clear as to what you are attempting to say.

      1. I was trying to be sarcastic. I guess I have to try harder. I was trying to point out that the me generation is selfish and we need to embrace not only individualism but concern for our fellow Americans, fellow humans.

      2. Mr. Lieb,

        I am not trying to answer for Mr. Bressler, but I think sarcasm is sometimes difficult to judge with written responses.

        Cheers

    2. “WHAT ABOUT ME”???? How utterly selfish and self-centered. You have zero rational for your statement! There’s no question here of “saving the free world”–the question at hand is caring for and saving suffering and death for your fellow Wyomingites! There is no “liberal oppression here–just a lethal virus that doesn’t give a hoot about your politics or you right-wing beliefs!

  15. Born, raised, and educated in Wyoming, I find it preposterous that the current legislators believe their masks are only for themselves. My high school and college education taught me to respect others.

  16. The irony here is that for all these people complaining about being “forced” to wear a mask is no one is in fact “forcing” you to wear a mask. It doesn’t matter what “mandates” are in place if there is no enforcement. So please quit being “offended” about mask mandates as obviously no one is infringing on your personal decision to endanger others with your behavior.

  17. Unbelievable! Somehow these people who represent our counties are pandemic experts, such as the current POTUS. The sheep who follow and claim their rights are taken away with wearing a mask are indeed a sad bunch. These clowns were probably against wearing seat belts when that became a law. Sad indeed for the rest of us who are trying to do our part on ending this pandemic with absolute morons in Cheyenne flapping their pie holes about their rights being taken away.

  18. Following the photographs and rude behavior of the so-called GOP, I’m not sure i want to be a member of the Wyoming Republican Party any more, although I have been, for my long life….much of this noise is old-fashioned bullying. Wyoming moderates will have to speak up, move away from this faction.

    1. Don’t beat up on yourself. The democrats are not that much better. Both are sold out completely to the wealthy robber barons, from whom both get the bulk of their funding.

      What we need is a party that represents us. Eliminating ALL donations from businesses and limiting donations from wealthy individuals along with providing free air time for ALL candidates by making doing so a condition of broadcast licenses would help. So would elimination of the electoral college, that does nothing more than give states with small, often backward, populations far too much representation, in congress as well as the despicable electoral college, which is based on the number of congressional seats allotted each state. Until things like that happen, we are stuck in the filth of the corrupt system we now have, where the two ruling parties are no more than sides of the same filthy coin.

      1. There wouldn’t even be a Constitution had there not been a Great Compromise to insure that small states had representation. Under a Republic a minority has certain rights. Thanks be to the Bill of Rights and the Electoral College to protect the rights of the individual and the small states. The Founders had great inspiration in making our Constitution .

        1. The document was written by well-to-do with ONE element in mind above all: preserve the power of the wealthy few for as long as the document exists.

          Congress, all of it, should be apportioned strictly on the concept of one person, one vote. The electoral college must be abolished. States with small populations should not be allowed electoral power and representation disproportionate to their population size.

  19. Good for them not wearing a mask! It’s time to take back our freedom. If you want to wear a mask, feel free to do so, but don’t force it on others.

  20. Looking at the picture of Chuck Gray ant the LSO staff member. There is no way the LSO staff should have to comingle with these clowns that believe their freedom is being infringed upon while not caring one bit about anyone other than themselves.

  21. If those maskless legislators are indicative of the level of intelligence in the Wyoming Legislature our State Government is pretty much screwed.

    1. And no enforecement? “WHP inside the Capitol, their primary mission there is security…”Wouldn’t that include health and safety of people inside the Capitol? Why is it “restricting” your personal liberty to wear a mask? Thank goodness you wear shirts, blouses, trousers, and skirts!

  22. How small of a mind must you have to call our Governor a tyrant for mandating wearing a mask and endangering others by not wearing a mask.