Menu Close

The Equality State and Health Freedom

I am thinking about equality, especially for women in the “Equality State,” and how many must feel after the Supreme Court’s recent ruling stripping women of constitutional protections to control their reproductive health. The ruling does not jive with my take on equality and freedom for all. Nor does it jive with my life experience, having grown up among and worked with men and women who, usually for professional reasons, chose to have children later in life. To me, these words, “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union” and these words “promote the general welfare,” and these words, “nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law,” protect women’s reproductive rights, including whether to terminate a pregnancy. 

I don’t deny that those very same clauses also protect rights of a viable fetus. Yet for over five decades a tenuous balance protected both the rights of a mother and the rights of a fetus, granting an adult woman the right to protect her health and welfare up to a point when the rights of the fetus prevail. Granted, there is no bright line when that happens. But the Supreme Court could have carved out ground leaving the decision about whether to have an abortion during some period of a pregnancy, up to a woman and her closest family, friends, religious leaders and trained medical advisors. Instead we are left with a draconian interpretation of the constitution that essentially applies rights more strongly to men, who will never face the excruciating decision about whether or not to terminate a pregnancy, because the right to an abortion is not “deeply rooted in [our] history and tradition.”

We are now left with a political and legal morass that strips women in many states of their right to make choices about their health and well-being and puts health care professionals who provide care for pregnant women at legal risk. And if anyone wonders how that’s going to go, one glance at the map showing precinct level results in 2018 makes it clear—the bulk of the nation’s geographic area leans Republican, and the Republican Party has evolved to become almost monolithically opposed to abortion and by extension to male and female health equality. The structure of our electoral system, the structure of the senate, and gerrymandering shift laws and policies right of center, sometimes far right of center, across most of the nation, meaning a minority demographic would impose the will of the state on a women’s freedom to health throughout much of the nation, including Wyoming.

I have read comments such as this one in a retort to a blog post by Andrew Sullivan defending abortion as “a subject for democratic deliberation:” “No mention of the 63 million babies who were murdered in the last 49 years, but oh how well you stand up for women and their right to have as many one-night stands as they want without consequences, guilt, or their morality even being questioned.” This type of comment ignores the spectrum of pregnancies that range from intentional with all the hopes and dreams of carrying a fetus to term and raising a child to completely unwanted pregnancies due to rape or other circumstance out of a woman’s control. Granting the State the power to mandate that every pregnancy along that spectrum must be carried to term feels Orwellian. After all, we’ve moved away from the notion that the state should have the power to even require a vaccination during a global pandemic. Granting the State the power to dictate that a woman will bear a child, especially any and anyone’s child, while restraining it from mandating basic health precautions in my mind just doesn’t jive.

The Constitution at its core is empathic towards the individual. Striving for a more perfect union in 2022 can only mean that equality applies to all, men and women of all races and ethnic backgrounds. We shouldn’t stop striving to ensure that all men and women may equally participate in society and, importantly, the democratic process. The constitution, its authors, and those who amended it, sought to firmly establish equality among all citizens capable at the time of participating in the democratic process (“all men are created equal.”) We fundamentally understand that concept now to include men and women equally, of any race or creed. In its most minimal interpretation, it refers to all able to vote, or all qualified electors. It’s unfathomable to think that, if we wrote the same constitution today, we in any way would not apply the rights it enumerates equally to all men and women, including equal protections of health and reproductive rights. In this country, a woman, with her partner, her loved ones, her priest or minister, and her doctor, should have the final say over her own health for at least the early period of a pregnancy.

Teton County: Compassion for Seniors?

Having been born and raised in Teton County and staying to work here as a mountaineering professional, I’ve always known that our Teton County community is compassionate. Whether it’s donating to non-profits through Old Bill’s, pulling together in times of crisis like the Budge Slide, contributing time, land and funds to house local workers, or honoring a fallen soldier like Rylee McCollum, it’s clear this community has a big heart. So, at the close of the county commission meeting to determine whether the Stage Stop LLC’s application for a Conditional Use Permit (CUP) to use Legacy Lodge for employee housing should be approved or not, I was shocked to hear a scoffing laugh on the part of the applicant’s representative when I mentioned that senior assisted living remained a need for our community.

After an arduous discussion about whether the Legacy Lodge should be converted to employer-leased rental apartments, the commission votes were final. First, we voted yes that apartments were an OK use for the 50,000 sq ft facility, a question presented as an amendment to the Rafter J Planned Unit Development (PUD). Then we voted no, with a two-two tie, to the CUP that laid out the specifics of how the applicant planned to use the facility if it were converted to employee apartments. I voted yes on the former and no on the latter because I didn’t think the application sufficiently achieved the legal findings as an appropriate use in the specific location, a rural, single-family subdivision. I explained how I couldn’t make the findings based on Teton County regulations for a CUP. Then I added that our senior citizens deserve a place where they too can thrive, even when they need assistance to do so. At that the applicant’s representative scoffed.

Teton County, we’re more compassionate than that.

Yet, when it comes to our community vision for seniors, we’ve fallen short. Yes, we have a vibrant and exceptionally well run senior center. But that center meets the needs of a small slice of our seniors who are getting by for the most part without much assistance. Even at that it’s bursting at the seams. The closing of the Legacy Lodge only added to its burden, forcing it to expand home-care services to seniors who need assistance but choose to live on their own.

The lack of vision on how our community should meet the needs of seniors is glaring when one reviews the primary document reflecting our community vision, the Jackson/Teton County Comprehensive Plan, which doesn’t even mention including seniors in our efforts to protect our community’s quality of life. When that document was first drafted between 2010 and 2012 the Legacy Lodge and Senior Center were flourishing, and no one seemed to think that we should put language in the document to reflect the future needs of seniors. And when it comes to housing, other than allowing retirees to remain in the deed restricted housing they paid for and maintained over the years, we have never talked about public-private partnerships for senior assisted living facilities.

Fortunately, our land development regulations, which dictate where specific types of development can occur, include multiple zones in town where such facilities are allowed. But buying land for and building a brand-new facility would cost tens of millions of dollars. Options in the county are fewer because such uses are encouraged to site themselves closer to higher density development. But the one place in the county we know an assisted living facility worked and worked well was Rafter J where the Legacy Lodge and 400 neighboring homeowners lived in harmony for years.

Converting Legacy Lodge to apartments would require, at a minimum, retrofitting all 57 units with a full kitchen, including 220-volt outlets for stoves where there are currently none, and a substantial expansion of the parking lot. The improvements wouldn’t be cheap. Reviving it as an assisted living facility would hardly cost anything at all. Meanwhile the county is about to complete the neighborhood planning process for up to 2,000 new units on 225 acres just south of High School Road, ample opportunity for seasonal employee housing appropriately sited near services and transit.

Exploring whether it’s viable to resurrect Legacy Lodge as a place where seniors can find respite and assistance with basic needs should absolutely be part of the conversation before permanently converting it to residential apartments. And I know, as a community, we’re compassionate enough to have that conversation.

Property Taxes: Demand the Change We Deserve

Huge increases in property taxes without locally available tools to lower them amounts to taxation without representation. Wyoming state law limits the ability of locally elected officials to reduce property taxes and backfill revenue through other taxes or fees. The fix is in the hands of the state legislature. But good ideas on how to do so go nowhere in Cheyenne. They might if we stand together as a community.

The Wyoming Constitution mandates that counties uphold the laws of the state while protecting the health and welfare of their citizens. Over the past few years property taxes in Teton county have risen 100% or more. There’s little doubt these increases are impacting the health and welfare of Teton County citizens. Long-time locals—workers who form the core of the community, educators, critical care service providers, and retirees—are facing a dire choice: pay these higher taxes and spend less on health care, day care, food, and education or sell out and leave.

Property owners in Teton County currently pay a minimum of 57 mills (1/1000th of a dollar) of tax on the assessed value their property. Fifty-seven mills equals $57 in tax on every $1,000 of assessed value. By law, 45 of the 57 mills collected, or about 79%, is for school funding. By law, county commissioners control no more than 12 mills of the total millage. In Teton County we levy 7 of the 12 mills, amounting to 12% (7 out of 57) of the total amount you pay in property taxes. That’s the maximum amount the Teton County Board of Commissioners could reduce property taxes. Twelve percent.

If we did zero out property tax, we would lose almost $23 million in revenue out of an estimated $60 to $70 million general fund budget. That might not be an issue except that the county is facing several critical needs. Top of the list is employee housing. Ten percent of county positions are vacant, largely due to lack of housing. Wages are also rising, and the public sector must keep up. And we need millions to replace and renovate county buildings that are aging and over-crowded. Most critically, the courthouse, built in 1968, wouldn’t withstand a modest earthquake. If it were to collapse, it would take the Sheriff’s department and 911 services housed in its basement with it. Replacing it will cost $60 to $70 million.

Recent cost escalations driven by inflation and supply change disruptions mean that voter-approved projects like the expansion and renovation of the parks and recreation center and the town and county fleet maintenance facility will cost far more than predicted just three to four years ago. The final price for the rec center is $33 million, $11 million above the $22 million approved by voters. Critical projects for which we have been awarded federal grants, such as the transit center at Stilson, new pathways along Highway 22 on both sides of Teton Pass, an underpass to get students and faculty safely across Highway 22 to Wilson School, and new START busses to replace the aging fleet, will likely cost millions more than predicted.

If county commissioners reduce our portion of property taxes, the Immediate reductions in revenue might stall or delay long-awaited and essential capital improvements only to achieve a mere 12% (or less) reduction in tax bills that have gone up 100% or more.

Other states grant counties the power to directly reduce property taxes by implementing homestead exemptions that apply to full-time residents. Wikipedia has plenty of examples. Other states grant counties the power to make up for the resulting decrease in property tax revenue by imposing fees in other sectors of the economy such as assessing fees on sales of real estate. A 1 to 2 percent real estate transfer fee, even restricted to only those sales over $2 million in value, would be enough to backfill revenue losses from reduced property taxes and fund the development of workforce housing.

But the Wyoming Legislature remains steadfast in their refusal to grant us the authority to fairly apportion taxes that lessen the burden of excessive property taxes. They remain steadfast in their refusal to find alternative means of financing our excellent public school system to reduce its reliance on property tax revenues. They remain steadfast in ramming higher property taxes down the throats of locals, workers, critical service providers and retirees.

Stripping local government of an important revenue stream that would force cuts in services and scale backs to critical capital projects, only to reduce sky rocketing tax bills by a mere 12%, isn’t protecting the health and welfare of county citizens. We need the kind of tools granted to counties throughout the nation that allow locally elected officials to guard against severe escalations in property taxes and still deliver vital local services.

We need to pull together and aggressively lobby state legislators for local control and an end to taxation without representation.

Wet Socks and Mask Mandates

My family and I recently spent four nights camping in rain and snow at 10,600’. Even with baggies as vapor barriers, socks were soaked by the end of the day, so I ordered the boys to sleep with their wet socks next to their body in order to dry them out. Needless to say, my order wasn’t well received, but it ensured that they had at least one pair of dry socks at all times, even by day five.

I also recently voted to extend a Teton County health order (found here) that masks should be worn in indoor spaces frequented by the public. It hasn’t been well received either. After all, in a county where well north of 90% of the people who can be vaccinated are vaccinated, the need for a mask order seems like a bunch of b.s. The perceived infringement of a mask order on personal freedoms is more acute and more hotly debated than ever. And like sleeping with wet socks, wearing masks, even to avoid bad health outcomes, isn’t fun.

Nor is this why I ran for county commission. When I was first elected in 2014, my responsibilities as a commissioner to uphold state law and promote the health and welfare of county citizens didn’t include the responsibility to make complex decisions related to epidemiology. That authority was left to state and local health officers, chosen for their expertise in health, medicine and/or epidemiology. But this year the Wyoming legislature limited the authority of those experts by mandating that no order may remain in place for more than ten days unless extended by the corresponding local elected body, thus placing such fraught decisions in the hands of people like me and my four fellow commissioners, none of whom are trained to make such decisions.

I could have punted and simply followed the strong recommendation of the County Board of Health to extend the order. After all, last winter masking in public indoor spaces was broadly accepted and helped keep our schools open and community economically afloat. But now, with very high county-wide vaccination rates, why should I support a mandate? I decided to do my own research and, while giving significant weight to the recommendation and information provided by the Health Officer and Board of Health, make my own decision. As well, I recognize the weight of a government mandate, value community input, take seriously the intent of the new law that is meant to bring such decisions closer to the people and am, by nature, curious.

We received over 600 emails commenting on the order. I read them all or scanned the ones that were obviously duplicates and based on a mass-email template. Throughout the pandemic I’ve read hundreds more emails, many demanding stricter non-pharmaceutical interventions and many calling for no interventions at all. I also did my best to track headlines and read articles and studies on COVID and COVID interventions from a broad array of sources.

Many folks who commented against mask mandates cited statistics, studies and research to back their claim that masks were ineffective. Others for the mandate supported their claim by citing their own sources. On occasion both sides cited the same sources but interpreting them differently. Some emails were from health professionals; most were from folks who had no more training than I in epidemiology. I did my best to review the statistics and read the studies they cited. I respect everyone’s stance and value everyone’s input so long as it reflects a sincere commitment to the best interests of the community.

I ultimately voted in favor of the mandate. Many of you may differ vehemently as to whether there should or should not be a mask mandate. Regardless, I think well of you. What follows is a description of my own path towards my decision.

My commitment as a commissioner is to promote the health and welfare of the community. Regarding this pandemic that means to do what I can within my statutory powers to support policies that reduce deaths, serious illness and hospitalizations due to COVID so that our hospital can sustainably service all the health needs, not just COVID related, of all the people throughout the broader Teton region. When I look back on my role as a commissioner during the COVID pandemic, I’ll need to answer the question, how well did I balance the benefits of actions I supported on COVID morbidity, mortality and serious healthcare outcomes (like overwhelmed hospitals) with the costs, such as the diminution of freedoms and negative socioeconomic impacts? Did I do everything that I could, given my position, to thread the needle between bad health outcomes with higher levels of COVID deaths, COVID hospitalizations, and COVID-related closures (of schools and businesses), and bad outcomes associated with costs to personal freedom and economic pursuits?

Here are some of the pieces of information and data I took into consideration, linked to their sources:

Mortality rates and causes—On state and nation-wide levels COVID has resulted in excess deaths. Data is not specific to Teton County, but as of September 3rd Teton County, Wyoming had recorded 11 deaths due to Covid. St. John’s handles patients from neighboring counties, and some deaths that have occurred at St. John’s were patients from outside Teton County. As of September 5th, Wyoming has had 858 deaths where Covid was listed as the cause or a significant cause of death. In 2020 Wyoming had 5,983 deaths compared to 5,121 in 2019. Out of the 862 deaths, COVID was the cause or a contributing factor to 528. Based on data compiled by the Economist, nationally and globally excess deaths appear to be vastly undercounted. Recently the Economist published a follow up article with more specific numbers. So, while Teton County has avoided the worst of impacts due to excess deaths caused by COVID, state, national and global excess deaths suggest that it behooves Teton County to keep a lid on COVID infection rates.

That said, Teton County is healthier overall than most counties, so it’s in our favor that excess deaths due to COVID are higher in counties that have poorer health. And our vaccination rate is very high. Almost 99% of the population 12 or older has had at least one shot. This is a stunning accomplishment. And rates of hospitalization and severe illness among those vaccinated for COVID are much lower than among those not vaccinated.

Yet on September 2nd, it wasn’t looking good for our local hospital. Levels of COVID morbidity and trends in infections were headed sharply higher. Around 26% of our hospital’s ICU beds were occupied by COVID patients and about 19% of our hospital’s total beds were occupied by COVID patients. The moving 7-day average hospitalization admissions, hospital bed occupancy, cases, infections were all trending up. Public comment at our county meeting indicated that hospital staff, were strained, worn out and stressed.

To a certain extent, the need for a mask order was based on a race between the more virulent Delta variant and our communities level of vaccination. Based on infections and hospitalizations, the Delta variant seems to be winning. Or perhaps something else is going on that’s preventing the vaccine from protecting the community as I expected it would.

Unfortunately, vaccination rates in surrounding counties are mostly below 50%. Since at least 8,000 people commute into Teton County from these bedroom communities every day, this could be driving our higher rates of COVID and COVID hospitalization.

Whatever the cause, high levels of serious illness relative to local hospital capacity can have dire consequences. Hospitals in Rock Springs are canceling elective procedures so staff can focus on COVID patients. Caseloads in Idaho recently reached levels that hospitals can’t handle without additional support from the National Guard. Schools in Hot Springs County had to revert to virtual learning, stranding kids at home and pulling parents away from their jobs. And caring for COVID patients is exceptionally costly ($51,000 to $78,000 based on age), putting additional stress on our small, rural hospital.

Along with heavy commuter traffic, we are a tourism-based county, and tourism appears to heighten the risk of COVID. I did not find scientific studies on this topic, but many news stories suggest there is a correlation between tourism and higher COVID caseloads and levels of morbidity, mortality and severe health outcomes. Blaine County is similar to Teton County in winter and has experienced worse spikes than Teton County. Coastal cities with high levels of tourism suggest there’s a link between tourism and high caseloads. And heavily visited Black Hills counties in South Dakota experienced spikes in August.

I reviewed economic activity as well. Over the course of last winter, with a mask mandate in place, economic activity was robust. Lodging has been at or above historic levels. Airport traffic is setting records, and sales tax collections are up even compared to 2019. It doesn’t appear a mask order would in any way suppress economic activity.

Furthermore, schools in Teton County are open five days a week for in-person learning, and universal mask wearing appears to be playing a role in that success.

Specific to masks, I think the evidence is compelling that masks, when properly worn, reduce the amount of COVID transmitting aerosol and the distance that it travels upon expiration: “We used a cough aerosol simulator with a pliable skin headform to propel small aerosol particles (0 to 7 µm) into different face coverings. An N95 respirator blocked 99% of the cough aerosol, a medical grade procedure mask blocked 59%, a 3-ply cotton cloth face mask blocked 51%, and a polyester neck gaiter blocked 47% as a single layer and 60% when folded into a double layer.” (Lindsley WG, Blachere FM, Law BF, Beezhold DH, Noti JD. Efficacy of face masks, neck gaiters and face shields for reducing the expulsion of simulated cough-generated aerosols. Aerosol Sci Technol. 2020; in press). And in this study, “Our results indicate that surgical face masks could prevent transmission of human coronaviruses and influenza viruses from symptomatic individuals.”

But masks aren’t perfect: “Airborne simulation experiments showed that cotton masks, surgical masks, and N95 masks provide some protection from the transmission of infective SARS-CoV-2 droplets/aerosols; however, medical masks (surgical masks and even N95 masks) could not completely block the transmission of virus droplets/aerosols even when sealed.” Precautions other than simply wearing masks likely play a much larger role in stemming infections. The fact that COVID cases rose dramatically last fall and winter, with mask mandates in place, clearly suggests that macro factors and levels of adherence to other precautions against COVID can outweigh the effects of a mask mandate.

However my read of much of the science literature on masks and community spread supports a correlation (not necessarily causation) between community wide use of masks and a decline in infections and hospitalizations, other things being equal. In the mask order before us on September 2nd, sources 30 through 40 support a statistically significant correlation between community-wide masking and reductions in mortality and hospitalizations.

There is also evidence, though perhaps less compelling, of a non-trivial probability that, on state-wide or community-wide bases, mask mandates work. For example, this study finds that “Evidence suggests that the potential benefits of wearing masks likely outweigh the potential harms when SARS-CoV-2 is spreading in a community. However, mask mandates involve a tradeoff with personal freedom, so such policies should be pursued only if the threat is substantial and mitigation of spread cannot be achieved through other means.”

This European Center for Disease Control paper was cited by those opposed to the mandate as evidence that mask mandates are ineffective. My take on it is that, while the ECDC concluded that mandates had a low to moderate probability of a positive impact, it gave them a strong nod of approval: “Although there is only low to moderate certainty of evidence for a small to moderate effect of the use of medical face masks in the community for the prevention of COVID-19, the balance of results towards a protective effect across the wide variety of studies reviewed, the very low risk of serious adverse effects and applying the precautionary principle leads us to conclude that face masks should be considered an appropriate nonpharmaceutical intervention in combination with other measures in the effort to control the COVID-19 pandemic…..The evidence regarding the effectiveness of medical face masks for the prevention of COVID-19 in the community is compatible with a small to moderate protective effect, but there are still significant uncertainties about the size of this effect.”

This study from the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly report finds a correlation between mask mandates and a reduction in hospitalization growth rates due to covid. “…in this study mask mandates were associated with a statistically significant 5.6 percentage-point decline in COVID-19 hospitalization growth rates (p-value = 0.02) ≥3 weeks after the implementation week. Among adults aged 40–64 years, mask mandates were associated with a 2.9 percentage-point reduction in COVID-19 hospitalization growth rates (p-value = 0.03) <3 weeks after the implementation week. Hospitalization growth rates declined by 5.6 percentage points (p-value = 0.02) during ≥3 weeks after the implementation week.”

And this study finds that “Mandating face mask use in public is associated with a decline in the daily COVID-19 growth rate by 0.9, 1.1, 1.4, 1.7 and 2.0 percentage points in 1-5, 6-10, 11-15, 16-20, and 21 or more days after state face mask orders were signed, respectively.”

Finally, results from a massive study done in Bangladesh found a clear correlation between increased mask wearing and reduced infections: “The increase in mask-wearing reduced infections, showing that mask-wearing avoided 1 in 3 symptomatic infections….This was the first large-scale randomized evaluation to demonstrate the effectiveness of masks in a real-world setting.”

That said, some of the science cited in the health order is not as clear as I’d like it to be. For example, the study cited in this order specific to an outbreak on the USS Theodore Roosevelt study did find that “The findings reinforce the importance of nonpharmaceutical interventions such as wearing a face covering” but also notes some caveats, including that it was a convenience sample: “First, the analysis was conducted on a convenience sample of persons who might have had a higher likelihood of exposure, and all information was based on self-report, raising the possibility of selection and recall biases.”

But the studies cited as evidence against the need for masks were not unequivocal. For example, this study was cited by folks opposed to a mask mandate. It’s based on a review of 67 studies on physical interventions to reduce the spread of acute respiratory viruses and found that “The high risk of bias in the trials, variation in outcome measurement, and relatively low compliance with the interventions during the studies hamper drawing firm conclusions and generalizing the findings to the current Covid pandemic.” My emphasis. Part of the reason for not generalizing to this pandemic is that none of the 67 studies were conducted during the current pandemic.

At least one email cited an article from the New York Magazine Intelligencer section casting doubt on the effectiveness of mask mandates specifically for students in schools. The article focused on this study that looked at a sample of schools with about 50,000 students where masks were required versus a sample of schools with about 43,000 students where masks were recommended but optional. Adjusting for county-level incidence, COVID-19 incidence was 37% lower in schools that required teachers and staff members to use masks, and 39% lower in schools that improved ventilation, compared with schools that did not use these prevention strategies. It’s true that the study did not find a statistically significant lower incidence of COVID-19 in schools with mandates specific to students only (my emphasis): “…the 21% lower incidence in schools that required mask use among students was not statistically significant compared with schools where mask use was optional…” But, “…this study highlighted the importance of masking and ventilation for preventing SARS-CoV-2 transmission in elementary schools and revealed important opportunities for increasing their use among schools. A multicomponent approach to school COVID-19 prevention efforts is recommended (2), and requirements for universal and correct mask use among teachers and staff members and improved ventilation are two important strategies that could reduce SARS-CoV-2 transmission as schools continue, or return to, in-person learning.” That seems to me to say that requiring masks can’t hurt.

I also considered what other agencies were doing, especially those critical to national defense. Indeed COVID interventions practiced by the US Military include a mask mandate very similar to Teton County’s.

I also chose to weigh costs (specifically those associated with infringements on personal freedoms) and benefits by comparing fatality rates due to COVID with fatality rates due to motor vehicle collisions. After all, we’ve adopted widely accepted mandates to wear seat belts and set limits on blood alcohol levels while driving. In 2019 there were 36,096 deaths from highway vehicle crashes, or just under 3,700 per day. In 2017 an estimated 14,955 deaths were avoided by wearing seat belts. In Wyoming in 2019 there were 147 highway fatalities or 25.4/100,000 people. Regarding COVID, as of August 28th Wyoming had 835 deaths due to Covid and WY’s 7-day moving average of Covid deaths per 100,000 was 144, or almost the same number of total highway fatalities in one year. If requiring seat belts to reduce highway fatalities in Wyoming by 70 or 80 is reasonable, is it reasonable to require masks to help bring down COVID mortality rates?

Finally, I believe a mandate is fairer than voluntary compliance to a request. For example, under voluntary compliance, one bar might hold concerts where no one wears a mask, quite possibly raising infection rates and hospitalizations and forcing more workers to quarantine. Meanwhile those in the community who voluntarily wear masks shoulder the load for trying to lower infections and hospitalizations.

There’s little to enjoy about having to instate a mandate. Vaccinations were supposed to bring life back to normal. But state, regional and local COVID infection levels, illness due to COVID and hospitalizations indicate we need to do more to avoid the worst costs of this pandemic. In the community update prior to our decision, the District Health Officer pointed out that wearing masks is like putting on a puffy jacket for an additional layer of protection in sub-zero weather. That may be true if masks are worn consistently, properly and when it matters most—indoors at close quarters and in conjunction with other important interventions such as avoiding large indoor gatherings. But I fear compliance will be low in this community where patience with health mandates has worn thin, when mask wearing is highly politicized, and tempers are high. Alas, a mask mandate is likely more like a layer of dry socks. It’s not the one thing that will save your life. But given the alternative, I think it’s worth the effort.

Navigating a Dangerous Winter

The formation of snowflakes, the delicate, complex crystals of ice that will hopefully soon blanket mountain slopes and provide days of gliding joy, winter escape and alpine adventure, can be modeled using fractals.

So can the spread of COVID 19.

Like the stellar arms of snowflakes, COVID spreads in clusters, arms branching off of arms, new surfaces continually forming as every new infected individual becomes another potential growth vector.

Unfortunately, here in Teton County, across Wyoming, and throughout the nation, COVID, rather than snow, is blanketing our communities.

Fellow residents, we have two to six weeks to stem this tide. Unlike summer where visitors fan out across public lands, our winter economy focuses visitors and locals on three mountains with lift access, Jackson Hole Mountain Resort preeminent among them.

If we allow COVID into the ski areas, if we cripple this one essential industry, our winter economy could collapse. With ski resorts idled, visitor volume plummets, customers drain from hotels, restaurants already teetering on the edge of viability have to close. Workers are laid off. The economy grinds to a halt.

We have one shot. This winter won’t come around again. Yet this winter could break small businesses, strip families of a season’s worth of income, and tragically take lives. But not if we return to the disciplined behavior we practiced earlier this year.

The ski area has examined every aspect of its operations and scientifically calculated capacities, in everything from lift lines, to gondola rides to restaurant seating. There’s even going to be a bootpack to the top of Rendezvous Bowl for those of you seeking a tram-free, lung bursting addition to your powder skiing day.

But, critically, as a community we need to take the right steps. The need for comfort, friendship, family, companionship, entertainment with friends, the touch of a loved one runs deep – bottomless, as we say of a post dump powder day. And it’s the Holidays. How can we not be with friends and family? You can. But our visits have to be limited, thought out and within reasonable guidelines with respect to pandemic behavior.

If limiting our family and social gatherings feels like a letdown, the alternative is far worse. We simply cannot jeopardize our winter economic lifeline, the ski areas. Our winter economy is supported by one rope. We cannot let it fray or break.

No matter our values—conservative, liberal, ski-bum—we know that as a community we are capable of voluntarily doing the right thing. Governor Gordon implored Wyomingites to vote for President Trump and to wear masks and follow other protective measures. Senator Barrasso too has pleaded that we wear masks and practice distancing, and we all know he’s no socialist. And if Old Bill’s giving is any indication, we know Teton County is capable of working together as a community.

We can do this.

Here are the health recommendations. We’ve read them. We know them. Let’s practice them.

We’ve got one shot, Jackson Hole. This winter’s not going to come around twice. We have less than six weeks until the busiest weeks of the winter season to lower infection rates and reduce hospitalizations. It’s the off season, relatively free of outside visitation. Of any time of year, now is when we can control our destiny. For six weeks, let’s practice the discipline we know we’re capable of.

And then, this one winter, let’s stay focused. We simply can’t let a New Year’s celebration or a fiftieth birthday party or a mid-winter wedding or apres-ski visits to the bar turn into super spreader events, into growth vectors for another exponentially growing arm of the COVID pandemic.

We know what to do. Don’t go out when you don’t feel well. Avoid packed crowds and crowded indoor spaces. Wear a mask unless medically unable. Wash hands. Clean surfaces. And if you do test positive, be forthright about where you’ve been and with whom you’ve been in contact. For this one winter.

Older Posts
↓