Despite Criticism, Hospitality Officials Praise Handling Of COVID-19 Health Orders
Since the start of the pandemic, some Wyoming residents and business owners have indicated that state officials, especially the Governor and the state health officer, had a heavy handed approach to health orders.
While much was made of the state's economic losses, the pandemic had a devastating financial impact on the rest of Wyoming as well. Numbers are still being sorted out, but David Bullard, who's a senior economist with the research and planning section of the Wyoming Department of Workforce Services said that new numbers show that, in the first month of the pandemic, over 24 thousand jobs were lost.
"I have not seen anything like that before in one month, that sharp of a contraction in employment."
Bullard added that the losses were across all sectors.
"The largest job losses were in leisure and hospitality, particularly restaurants and hotels from their retail trade. We saw job losses in local government in health care, natural resources and mining," said Bullard. He noted that other sectors were also impacted.
This coincides with a March 27 health order that closed all restaurants, bars, theatres, gymnasiums, child care and all schools, including higher education. In mid-May, 2020, most of those businesses were allowed to open with restrictions. But with the rest of the country also struggling with COVID-19, Wyoming's tourism and restaurant industry took a huge hit.
"The pandemic has been disastrous for the hospitality and tourism industry," said
Chris Brown,the executive director of the Wyoming Lodging and Restaurant Association. Brown said that the COVID outbreak led to cancellations and losses that ranged from 10 to 50-percent for hospitality businesses across the state. And that's even with federal help.
"If it weren't for the relief programs, you know, that came down from the federal government many it would have been much worse. I mean, many more businesses would not have survived," said Brown.
Nobody really knows how many Wyoming businesses have actually closed due to the pandemic. And the other piece is nobody knows what impacts the health orders had. At the start of the pandemic, state auditor Kristi Racines headed up a task force that assessed the impacts COVID-19 was having on businesses in the state and what needed to be done to provide assistance. She said some businesses did close for good, but it's unclear what impacts either COVID-19 or health orders had. For instance, Racines recalled that some owners decided to do things like retire early.
Racines admitted that it's difficult to sort out what impact the health orders of 2020 actually had on businesses.
"The health orders certainly did things that reduced revenue and closed people down and limited customers, said Racines. "That being said, I think even after those (orders) were lifted, I think there are many businesses that just experienced such a drastic drop in customers because many folks just weren't ready to come out whether there were health orders or not."
When the legislature met this year, some lawmakers put the blame squarely on the state health officer for the state's economic difficulties during the pandemic. They specifically complained about health orders that Gillette Sen. Troy McKeown said, "didn't make sense."
McKeown and others brought legislation to try and give legislators the ability to approve health orders. Others wanted to punish state health officer Alexia Harris by stripping her funding and requiring her position to be confirmed by the state senate. Eventually, lawmakers approved legislation requiring the governor to sign off on state health orders and county commissioners to sign off on local orders.
Dr. Harrist followed the legislation and contends that her health orders were not as far reaching as her critics think.
"Really since early summer of 2020, no businesses have been closed, though we have asked for those higher risk businesses to take certain precautions," noted Harrist. "Usually distancing, sometimes mask use to lower the risk of transmission in those environments."
Harrist said she also tried to keep things as normal as possible.
Open schools, the return of falls sports, and allowing some fans at University of Wyoming football games were examples of this.
"Our focus at the Department of Health, of course, is primarily the public health and how we can protect that," said Harrist. "But we always tried to balance as much as we could all of the other concerns and take the minimum precautions and measures necessary to protect the public health."
Harrist notes that the only time they did a statewide mask order was when COVID-19 numbers exploded around Christmas and hospital space was limited. She added that every decision she made she got input from state health officials, the governor and other stakeholders. And while those on the outside think Harrist was heavy handed, that's not what those in the hospitality industry think.
During the mask order, the hours bars could be open were reduced. But Mike Moser of the Wyoming State Liquor Association said that the governor limited that impact.
"Things like enabling CARES act money to assist for the period of time where we have to restrict hours of operations for bars, where they had to close at 10 p.m. I don't know of any state that did that," said Moser.
He added that Dr. Harrist often consulted with those in industry before she issued her orders.
"The survival rate that we've had of our hospitality businesses has frankly stunned me. I mean, partially because the restrictions were fewer and our customers stayed loyal," said Moser. "And so the attrition rate that I've been seeing in other states happily wasn't reflected in Wyoming."
Chris Brown said Harrist was put in a difficult situation and handled things well. He added that she and the governor had "their hand on the pulse of what was best for the public and the business sector."
Brown added that Wyoming handled things better than almost every other state.
"I'm grateful for their approach," said Brown.