Pandemic Feedback Reaches Fever Pitch

Mar 13, 2021


Dissatisfaction with how Wyoming handled the pandemic has reached the legislature. Bills and budget amendments have been crafted to remove the power of the state health officer and to put legislators and county commissioners into the driver's seat.

Gillette Republican Sen. Troy McKeown got the ball rolling with his legislation that originally limited the governor's ability to extend statewide health orders beyond 30 days without legislative approval. It would have also limited a local health order to 15 days without local government approval. McKeown said the health orders, especially those that closed or limited business operations, were harmful.

"I think it all started out with frustration of small businesses and some of the decisions that were made statewide that may or may not have made sense," said McKeown.

Following some amendments, the bill now allows a statewide order to run for 60 days before legislative involvement and 30 days before local officials get involved. It also requires 48 hours of public testimony before an order goes into effect.

"I don't want to pick on anybody or say somebody did something wrong, because they did what the statute says," McKeown added. "I think we kind of wandered away from the state constitution and that kind of bothered me."

McKeown is among those in the legislature who doubt that the health orders had much of an impact on slowing down the spread of the novel coronavirus, and he said people shouldn't live in a bubble. Fellow Gillette Republican Sen. Jeff Wasserburger said whether things went right or wrong depends on your perspective.

"If you listen to the medical profession, it was a lucky thing in the state of Wyoming that we didn't have a higher death count than we ended up with, and the restrictions saved lives," said Wasserburger. "But the small businessmen lost all kinds of money and restaurants had a difficult time and hotels, and they're still angry about it. And I can understand why."

"Overnight the most powerful person in our state became an unelected official issuing these mandates, it is just totally wrong and inconsistent with our constitutional republic. That's what we've been trying to correct here."

The target of their ire is State Health Officer Doctor Alexia Harrist. Roughly a year ago, few people had ever heard of Harrist and then suddenly she became one of the most famous people in the state.

High school tournaments and activities were cancelled, businesses were closed and Wyoming residents started working from home. She told a legislative committee this week that they needed to take a strong approach when the pandemic broke out because they didn't know what they were dealing with.

"We didn't have the testing capability that we needed, so severe actions were needed at that point to protect the public health. But I do think our response has examples of how we learned more about activities that were important, but take reasonable balanced measures to protect public health at the same time," said Harrist.

That would include the statewide mask order implemented in December when hospitals were near capacity. But Casper Rep. Chuck Gray sees things a different way.

"It has been out of control. It's inconsistent with our constitutional republic," he said.

Gray is a familiar voice for the Republican right and he has targeted Harrist by trying to eliminate funding for her position in the state budget and require that her position get Senate confirmation. He said Harrist and local health officers caused tremendous economic damage to the state.

"Overnight the most powerful person in our state became an unelected official issuing these mandates, it is just totally wrong and inconsistent with our constitutional republic. That's what we've been trying to correct here," said Gray.

House Minority Leader Cathy Connolly said she believes that some of Gray's actions have been out of line.

"How incredibly insulting to an individual who has been doing her job. I mean that was just an insult," she said.

The Laramie Democrat has not been surprised by the response, but she has found it alarming.

"We need to trust the experts and the people we have put in charge and are knowledgeable about those issues and those bills reverse that and instead insert politics into it. It's a wrong choice all the way around," said Connolly.

Wasserburger likes a bill that passed the Senate on Friday. It would require a review of the pandemic response and study what went right and wrong. But he thinks that should be conducted when emotions aren't quite as strong.

"Actually every month when we get further away from the pandemic the better things are going to be and then we can look back with a clear head and make better decisions for the future and the next pandemic," said Wasserburger.

McKeown said he doesn't like the bill, and said that the committee is loaded up with the same people with the same ideas that got the state into the mess in the first place.