By Ryan Fitzmaurice
Outdoor dining is now allowed in Big Horn County and the lifting of restrictions for inside dining and worship services is soon to come, county officials said in Thursday’s COVID-19 incident command meeting.
“A lot of stuff is coming down the pike and moving forward,” Big Horn County Sheriff Ken Blackburn said. “The voices we’re hearing is a lot of people want to move things forward. That’s the direction this country is moving. That’s the direction we’re moving in.”
While the statewide orders keeping restaurants, bars and other businesses expected to attract 10 people or more are in place until at least May 15, Gov. Mark Gordon and Dr. Alexia Harrist, the state’s public health officer, said county officials would be allowed to ask for variances to those rules.
County officials said during Thursday’s weekly Zoom meeting and press briefing that a variance submitted for outside dining has been approved by the state, making Big Horn the 14th county in the state to have a variance approved.
With proper social distancing and sanitation efforts, local restaraunts can now serve both food and alcoholic beverages to diners sitting outside, Blackburn said. The existing restrictions for serving liquor and alcohol beverages outside still apply, Blackburn said.
County officials are in the process of drafting two more county variances to submit to the state. The first would allow for indoor dining within Big Horn County, while the second would provide exemptions for religious services.
Variances approved for religious services, such as within Sweetwater county, forbid close contact between members of different individual household groups and require a six-foot distance to be maintained between groups at all times. Within the variances granted, attendance is limited to maintain the six-feet distance between groups, although no exact number is specified and the exchanging of food and drink is prohibited.
Variances approved for inside dining for Natrona and other Wyoming counties specifiy that tables are to be limited to groups of six and that all groups must be seated at least six feet apart. Staff are to wear face coverings at all times.
Blackburn said he aims to have the inside dining variance in place by Mother’s Day, although no gurantees can be made.
“We’re listening to you. We’re hearing you. We understand the frustration. We’re as frustrated as you are,” Blackburn said. “This team has been pushing to protect you and get things opened up to you.”
Testing now widely available
Public Health Manager Hillary Mulley said that PCR testing, which detects genetic information of the virus and alerts the tester if the patient is actively infected, is available to the public within Big Horn County.
Anybody who wants to be tested can be, regardless of whether symptoms are present, she said.
Mulley recommended that anybody desiring a test should first see their provider.
With an increase of testing comes an increase in cases detected within the county. Chad Lindsay, the county’s prevention specialist and public health response coordinator, said the possibility of a spike in cases, amid several other variables, makes the tightening of restrictions in the future a possibility in the county.
But Blackburn was adament that an increase of cases detected would not deter the county from moving forward in lifting restrictions on businesses.
“It’s not going to change our trajectory,” Blackburn said.
“Our goal is to keep moving forward,” Blackburn stated later in the meeting. “Sometimes when you’re climbing the mountain, you take a couple steps forward and a step back.”
Food bank event this Saturday
The Wyoming Food Bank of the Rockies will be providing assistance for families in need this Saturday at the Frontier Mini Storage in Basin.
The Frontier Mini Storage is located five miles south of Greybull or two miles north of Basin. Access will be directed in from the golf course road and exiting to highway 16 and 20.
According to the Basin Chief of Police Chris Kampbell, 400 boxes of food, weighing 85 pounds each, will be handed out to those who arrive. That will amount to 34 to 35 thousand pounds of food.
The event is being held in coordination with First Lady Jennie Gordon’s Hunger Initiative.
“It’s going to be a big event,” Kampbell said. “Get the word out to as many as you can, especially those who need food assistance.”
Only one box will be given per family. An individual can also receive a box for one other family in need, but that requires a proxy form, available on the Wyoming Food Bank of the Rockies website.
The event will be first come, first served.
Status of public festivals unknown
The status of public festivals and celebrations such as Lovell’s Mustang Days, Greybull’s Days of ’49 or Cowley’s Pioneer Day remains murky, county officials indicated.
“I really don’t know,” Blackburn said.
Health orders restricting public gatherings remain in place, Blackburn said, and he is unclear of whether a variance can be sought to hold those activities or what specifics steps might be taken to clear the path for them.
As the county works on the problem, Blackburn encouraged local communities to also continue planning.
“Anyone that is planning an event should continue to have planning meetings as appropriate,” Blackburn said. “…I don’t think anything is going to be back to normal, but how can we modify them to fit within current public orders?”
Restrictions to be loosened state wide
Governor Gordon in his 3 p.m. press conference Thursday said state orders will continue to be relaxed, starting May 15.
Gordon said that bars and restaraunts state wide will likely be allowed to resume table service soon. Dr. Alexia Harrist, the state’s health officer, said the relaxed health orders will likely resemble variances already in place in several Wyoming counties, and that regulations for movie theaters and churches will be relaxed as well.
Although orders are being relaxed, Gordon also warned residents that life will not return back to pre-quarantine conditions, but that residents will have to settle into a new normal.
“It’s important to understand we aren’t turning the clock back to the way things were before the pandemic began,” Gordon said.
Gordon also announced that he will allow his directive requiring those traveling into Wyoming from out-of-state to self-quarante to expire. That order expires today, May 8.
Gordon urged those who travel out of state to remain careful, especially if in contact with those who are vulnerable.
Finally, Gordon called for a special session of the legislature, beginning May 15. The session will be conducted electronically, according to the Governor’s proclamation.
“In these unprecedented times, the legislative and executive branches must work together to best protect lives and livelihoods,” Governor Gordon said. “For this session, I have asked for our legislature’s assistance in determining how best we can use these federal dollars to meet the challenges our state is facing in both the short and long term.”
Gordon said one of the focuses of the session will be to find a way to provide assistance to individuals and businesses that have not found assistance within the federal government’s stimulus packages.
“The gaps are where we’re looking,” Gordon said. “There are people left on the sidelines.”