I don’t know what mystifies me more: Wyomingites who don’t care enough about their neighbors to wear a mask during a surging pandemic, or Gov. Mark Gordon not requiring people to cover their faces in public.

Both, however, anger me. Enough with the endless hand-wringing and excuse-making, all in the name of pandering to those who think they have constitutional rights to selfishness and stupidity. 

Is that too blunt? Sorry, tell it to the daughter whose parent is dying alone on a ventilator because someone decided not to honor what the governor sees as their “personal responsibility” to protect others.

As citizens go to the polls today, the big political question in Wyoming isn’t just who will win a particular race. Voters also want to know if Gordon, who’s not on the ballot, will ever manage to sign a statewide mask mandate. 

The maddening thing about Gordon and State Health Officer Alexia Harrist only encouraging mask usage is that both readily acknowledge that wearing face coverings saves lives. They’ve been saying as much since the spring, when the first state emergency restrictions were issued on certain businesses and schools in the wake of the novel coronavirus.

Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House Pandemic Response coordinator, appeared with the duo at a press conference in Riverton last Wednesday. “I can tell you that the virus is not political,” she said. “We owe it to each other to wear a mask. The virus does not distinguish between young, old, Republicans, Democrats or independents. It’s not about party.”

The doctor holds an extremely political job, though, and stopped short of suggesting Wyoming impose a mandatory mask order. She said it’s good to listen to county, municipal and tribal officials and health officers so decisions can be made at a local level.

I’m personally glad that Teton and Laramie counties have joined the Wind River Indian Reservation tribal councils by deciding to enact mandatory mask ordinances, with Harrist’s approval. Living in Cheyenne, I was dismayed last month to see the number of retail-store customers who wore masks drop precipitously when those businesses relaxed their policies. 

I found it most telling, though, when Birx spoke movingly about the impact of the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic on her own family. “When my grandmother brought [the flu] home to her mother, and she died, that is what you carry for the rest of your life,” she said.

Yes, even the doctor in charge of coordinating the U.S. response to this miserable disease breaks it down to its most basic common denominator: Family is what matters most. Birx added that she now worries about her parents, both in their 90s, and keeping them safe in a COVID-19 world. 

I realize there are many factors determining the best way to manage the health impacts of the pandemic, and mask wearing must be coupled with social distancing, personal hygiene, rigorous testing and contact tracing. But it’s a huge weapon that must be deployed, especially by officials who want to restore the economy by safely reopening communities.

Wherever mask mandates are enacted, Birx said, they are an extra nudge to the public to do the right thing. “It’s not that you need government enforcement, it’s that we need constant reminders when we’re in public to wear our masks,” she said.

A nudge, though, isn’t what we need — a kick in the pants is. And that’s precisely what a new study from the COVID-19 forecasting team at the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation indicates.

Its model predicts that if 95% of Americans wore masks in public, 100,000 lives might be spared through February. Here’s what it would mean on a Wyoming level: It’s likely that several people you know wouldn’t needlessly be victims of preventable deaths.

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Are there really people in this state who don’t believe that’s a cause worth uniting for, regardless of one’s personal political beliefs?

Harrist offered a great example of the social contract we have to protect each other.

“I think it’s important for people to be able to imagine walking into a grocery store and how they could infect someone else,” Harrist said, “and how that chain reaction could end up in an infection in a long-term care facility or nursing home, and lead to a death or many deaths.”

Gordon seems to realize that such an empathetic exercise has inherent societal value. “When we act irresponsibly, we put our liberties, we put our economy and we put our government in jeopardy,” he said at an Oct. 21 news conference in Cheyenne. “It is incredibly important that we take personal responsibility for our actions and understand how those actions can implicate others.”

Yet Gordon balks at telling anyone he or she must wear a mask, despite the fact that 34 other governors — including many Republicans — have had the wisdom and political courage to issue statewide mask mandates.

Active coronavirus cases statewide totaled nearly 5,000 as of Sunday night. Wyoming had recorded 2,246 new cases in the past week — a period that also saw state officials announcing a record 19 COVID-19 deaths as daily hospitalizations rose to more than 100 for the first time.

Gordon referred to how health officials talked earlier about flattening the curve, but described the surge in cases Wyoming is experiencing “more or less a straight line heading upwards.”

If that isn’t an image that changes the governor’s mind about an executive emergency order, what else would possibly convince him?

Being the chief executive of a state is a huge job that requires big-picture leadership — taking a macro view of how the health and safety of the state’s residents and visitors connect to the rest of the country and the world.

It’s decidedly not OK to abdicate that tremendous responsibility and foist it off on municipal and county officials who are more attuned to planning and zoning issues, snow removal and curbside recycling programs. Simply put, it’s above their pay grade.

Telling people they should accept personal responsibility for their actions is a good catchphrase, particularly if it appeases a population with a libertarian philosophical bent. But a corollary idea is that because we cause our actions, we can be held morally accountable or legally liable.

In a world where many with coronavirus are asymptomatic but can spread it to anyone, anywhere, at any time, no one can ever pin the blame on them if a maskless sneeze sets off a chain reaction of disease and death.

Some will later recognize their harmful actions and, like Birx’s grandmother, may be haunted. But for many unwilling to accept the bare minimum of responsibility to protect others, we’re just letting them off the hook.

If you don’t want to be culpable for pretending this egregious mistake doesn’t matter, I urge you to ask the governor to issue a statewide mask mandate.

Kerry Drake

Veteran Wyoming journalist Kerry Drake has covered Wyoming for more than four decades, previously as a reporter and editor for the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle and Casper Star-Tribune. He lives in Cheyenne and...

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  1. I have been traveling a lot to Wyoming, someone very special to me lives there. I have 10 friends who all wore masks from day 1 of this. All 10 of them got Covid anyway. Yes, family is very important, but why don’t you ask your 80 and 90 year old relatives, i’m sure they will tell you they would rather die, than watch their children and grandchildren lose their careers. There is no such thing as a non essential job. They are all essential to the people that have them and the companies that provide them. That’s how people take care of their families. It does no good whatsoever, to survive Covid, but have to go on welfare and food stamps because your job isn’t coming back, or you lost your business. This is a virus and it’s never going away, people are going to have to learn to deal with loss, probably for a lot of years. I am not a kid and i’m too old to learn a new career. I want my life back and i’m willing to risk dying to get it back. I have gone through $100,000 this year and only made $20,000. If that keeps up, i’ll be broke and on welfare soon enough. Screw the governments hysterical response to this virus, we should blame the culprit (China) and hold them financially responsible. We should completely reopen the economy and take our chances, before we become a third world Communist s**thole and nobody but the politicians have any money. “Land of the free and home of the brave”, or has every worthless wimp in this country forgotten that.

  2. I just returned to New England after a weeks’ visit to my elderly folks in Cheyenne, taking paranoia-inducing flights, rental car, etc., to get there and back. My parents live with (and caretake, with help through medicaid and medicare) my paralyzed, handicapped brother. Why did I fly out? The CNAs weren’t wearing masks coming into a private home, performing personal care assistance in close quarters.. Even the head of the small healthcare agency scoffed at masks, but did agree they would wear masks when in this one particular home, I left the house with signs and supplies, but how horrific it is the Trump anti-masks/anti-COVID skeptics are in healthcare – eek! Nobody can believe it, but that’s the Wild West ethos of much of WY conservatism in the Trump era.

    My Dad and I figured the only way to get the cowboys to change was to bring back the only Western “macho” icon who wore a mask, The Lone Ranger!

  3. I had high hopes for our state when I supported and voted for Governor Gordon. Boy was I wrong! His refusal to imposed a mask mandate for Wyoming clearly shows in my opinion that he’s a spineless coward afraid of offending the far right Trumpian’s in Wyoming.

    Since he relaxed the COVID restriction earlier this year we’ve seen nothing but a steady increase in COVID 19 infections and deaths. And all Governor Gordon has done to reverse these trends is to admonish the public for not being more responsible in their daily lives. ‘Mind your P’s and Q’s” he says, like we are a bunch of school children!

    When Governor Gordon announced in a press conference earlier this summer that a number of rodeos along with Cheyenne Frontier Days wouldn’t take place, he choked-up and nearly cried. It’s too bad that he doesn’t exhibit the same emotions for all the Wyoming residents that have died and that will continue to die because he refuses to require Wyoming residents to wear a mask!

  4. Thank you for stating clearly what is happening with our governor. We are listed this morning as the state with the highest incidence of COVID 19 and yet our spineless governor offers personal responsibility as the only option. This is great if everyone actually took personal responsibility for their actions which we all know is never going to happen. I listen to the Governors press conference this morning and came away with a feeling that he really doesn’t care. It is not that big of a deal to wear a mask when you’re outside your home and I’m sorry my area continues to hold large public events wit no thought of social responsibility. I am angry and I do not apologize for my feelings if people cannot take responsibility for their actions then something must be mandated by the government. This is not going to go away soon. BE RESPONSIBLE

  5. Mr. Butler, please let your friends and relatives know that you do not wish to be on a ventilator should you become ill with Covid. After all, it eliminates an important personal freedom because it breathes for you when you can no longer do it yourself.

  6. Thank you, Kerry, for an excellent column and to Cowboy State Daily for publishing it.
    It is long past time for a Wyoming mask mandate.
    It’s a matter of simple human consideration for everyone.

  7. Typical leftist fascist anti constitutional push for power and against freedom. May the duck man and fascist governor stroll hand in hand with their masks on down the path to la la never never land.

    1. Do you drive on the left side of the road and ignore traffic signals too? Don’t those restrict your freedoms???? Pretty sure there’s nothing in the constitution about masks or viruses. Also pretty certain that the virus doesn’t care whether you are a “leftist” or a “rightist.”

  8. I’m waiting for the other cowboy boot to drop.
    What happens if Wyoming leadership caves to the right wing personal freedom and constitutional liberty dogma—misguided as it is . If Wyoming chooses not to enforce the rudimentary but stricter public health measures like public facemasks, distancing and occupancy – and we do it in a state that stupidly turned down Medicaid Expansion – will the big For Profit insurance companies jack up everyone’s health insurance premiums in Wyoming because the Governor went with politics instead of public health ? I presume they will do just that as health care costs and available services get distorted by the pandemic Wyoming has never been a good place to do medicine for hire.

    All these red blooded Wyomingites who feel their singular life is more important than community care and pandemic prevention are disconnected from reality. Their belief in personal responsibility has to include assessing them for the all encompassing consequences of their wrongheaded actions and shortsighted inactions. In a pandemic , everyone is affected coming and going no matter how hard they try not to be. The hermits and cave dwellers may get an exemption but the rest of us are fully involved 24/7/365 for the time being. Wyoming needs to step up, not step away.

  9. Our Governor is not governing in the interest of the well being of it’s citizens and visitors. His pay grade mandates he takes the leadership regarding the protection of all of Wyoming against the pandemic. The irresponsible dangerous burden placed upon Wyoming’s health care worker’s due to surge in Covid 19 infections, rest on his shoulders,. Our responsibility is to remember those who have suffered or died at voting time.

  10. Kerry, if this state ever becomes a dictatorship, the dictator won’t be someone you like. Join me in standing up for freedom.

  11. Westerners are proud of their heritage and the “Code of the West. Have they forgotten and/or ignored that part of the Code that states, “Take care of your own”? It certainly seems so.

  12. I wrote the Governor a couple of weeks back asking him to impose a statewide mask mandate. I never heard back. I am a school board trustee and I can attest that kids wear masks all day long in our schools–all the way down to kindergarten age with little fuss. Masks, social distancing, hygiene and testing and contact tracing are our best defense and have enabled some face to face learning in our schools. Unless the community, in this case, our state, buys- in to mask wearing on a large scale, it is unlikely that schools can remain open. Small businesses are at terrible risk of their employees getting sick and worse, people dying.
    Urge your county and city/town officials to make masks mandatory since the Governor seems unable to make this life saving decision.

  13. Another great piece Kerry. I currently know a ninety year old individual that has covid and is probably going to die. It has destroyed her lungs and if she makes it she will need assisted breathing the rest of her life. I am really glad that our county health people put a mask mandate out for Laramie county. I am also glad I can now ask people to put a mask on. I am helping retail establishment enforce it.
    I am still shocked at the resistance. I am also shocked that when I tell people to obey the mandate that they then pull a mask out of their pocket and put it on.

    We have to join together as a community and just ask others to obey the mandate.

    I am saddened by the fact that this mask issue has become so political. I know it is a false hope but if our current president would put a mask on many of his cult members might follow.

  14. I heard the governor say at one of his briefings that you don’t have the constitutional right to infect another person. I was very happy to hear that.
    It is now obvious he doesn’t really believe that. It was a good sound bite though! ??
    Excellent column, Kerry.

  15. Is it just me or does it seem every mask advocate who quotes models, fails to mention actual measurable preventative measures like vitamin d supplements, and hcq with zinc.

    1. If you want to take your taxes to be prepared by your mechanic, thats your choice.

      I’ll take my medical advice from doctors. I’ll also listen to infectious disease experts (not radiologists) when they are talking about the benefits of masks in regards to covid.

      Hydroxychloroquine, as real doctors and experts have said, is worthless in treating covid. It doesn’t matter how many suspect websites and Facebook posts you’ve read on that state otherwise.

      Don’t be selfish, wear a mask.

      Cheers

    2. Sorry but Zinc and other supplements and vitamins don’t prevent Covid. The myths and science of this terrible disease are constantly being floated then debunked.. in Europe they are now saying thst baby aspirin and melatonin may help but I don’t buy it. What will help is a vaccine but I wonder if libertarians will succumb to it. They are saying 50 percent won’t and then they are also saying that they will be distributing the vaccine according to population– lowest populations last.

  16. Here’s a simple fashion question–which would look better–wearing a mask or wearing an ventilator?

    I too am weary of covid–I live alone, and have almost never ventured out since late February. I miss human contact, I miss new sights, I miss all of the simple pleasures of being around my fellow humans.

    I am angry–no, your right to risk your health ends when your “rights” infringes on mine. You have no, NO constitutional right to pass your disease on to me. You have no legal, moral or ethical right to inflict harm, real or potential, on me, in your pursuit of your personal happiness.

    You do have an obligation to respect the rights of others. Your failure to respect those rights relieves me of the obligation to respect the rights you claim for yourself. Is that how you wish to live?

    Mark Gordon has failed in his most basic obligation as governor in deciding to not to mandate the single most effective way of mitigating this health crisis in Wyoming. And he needs to pay the political and personal price for that failure.

  17. In case you missed it, Governor, I will say it again, a little LOUDER this time, the much-vaunted “Wyoming Way” ain’t working. C’mon, we’ve given it close to 8 months now, more than enough time to try an obvious something else, how’s about a mandatory mask mandate. You are supposed to protect Wyoming’s citizens first, not the Republican kingpins out there who truly run this state.

  18. I would like for the governor to stand up for my right to move freely about my community without fearing for my life. I’ve heard him swear by god, and pin his hopes on personal responsibility, and we can see that that approach is fully ineffective. What will it take for him to exercise the authority we have granted him and issue the orders required to end this toddlerism among the maskless?

    And, thank you, Kerry, for sharing my anger.

  19. Kerry,
    You’ve put into words what I’ve been thinking for quite a long time, right up to the kick in the pants. Honestly, many here really do not care if they or someone they love become ill – “it’s just a bad cold.” To their way of thinking, they ARE being responsible citizens by declining to stop COVID. They figure ‘we’re all going to die someday’ so who cares who or when… Breaks my heart. For those who share my concerns about bringing it home or passing it down the line, thank you for caring not only about yourself but for others… compassion and kindness are essential..

  20. Masks aside, we had a phased-in reopening this summer when things looked better. Now that things are looking as horrible as they are, wouldn’t it make sense to phase back in to more protective requirements?

  21. I just got done voting. What I saw was a joke. The majority of poll workers were wearing masks, but there was still a good chunk that weren’t.

    In the line of 100 or so people that were lined up outside the armory building, I counted 9 masks. I gave the benefit of the doubt to people. I thought they just didn’t have their masks on since we were still outside, standing in line, but within 6 foot of most. A few people pulled masks out of their pockets once we got inside, but far from a majority.

    In years past, it was always good to see our local senior citizens volunteering to help with the elections. This year it made me sad and anxious for them. The seniors I saw had their masks on, but other poll workers behind them had nothing. Unmasked workers handing ballots to masked up seniors makes no sense. Nevermind the people who were voting that refused to wear a mask.

    This selfishness and ignorance will contribute to “super spreader” instances all over our state. Local cases are already on a fast uptick, this will only make it worse. People should be embarrassed and ashamed.

  22. It is time for the governor to issue a statewide mask order. It would be a small inconvenience for everyone and would save a lot of lives.

  23. Anti-maskers protesters yesterday shut down a public information meeting called by the Natrona County Commission and joined by the Casper City Council. Masks trample their constitutional rights, they shouted.

    It’s always “Me! Me! Me! with this crowd. Society is responsible to them, they claim. They owe the community nothing – except they take, take, take when it comes to public services.

    These silly Know-Nothings have always been with us. We have a bumper crop this year.

  24. I have to say there will never be a law against stupid and it is stupid not to wear masks and take precautions. Come on, people, wake up.

  25. Another good column, Kerry.
    Our leaders who inspire Wyoming people to ridicule or fear the mask appeal to the worst of human nature. It’s too bad that gets more traction than our governor’s appeal to science and the best of our nature that we need to take care of each other. (I wonder how we would have handled the self-sacrifices required of the home front during WWII. Germans? I don’t see any Germans. Don’t tell me what to ration!) I feel sorry for the employees assigned the job of telling people to wear a mask or leave a store.
    Sigh. It’s just a mask, and it is a vital piece of living with this horrible virus. And if we need an order, so be it.