With a second sewage test coming back negative for the COVID-19 virus in the city of Cody, the Park County commissioners have made it clear to the county’s health officer Dr. Aaron Billin they would like to see an easing of restrictions on local businesses.
“We are hampering a lot of our economy … by restricting them in any shape or form based on the two cases we’ve really had,” said Park County commissioner Lloyd Thiel.
The test performed May 21 followed a first test April 28, which also came to the conclusion there was no SARS-CoV-2 presence in Cody. Another sample was collected Wednesday morning at the Cody Wastewater Treatment Center.
For now, the sewage tests are sent to BioBot Analytics, a wastewater epidemiology company based in Somerville, Mass. The Wyoming Department of Health is working toward performing its own testing that will allow Wyoming communities to perform tests for free.
It was announced during the commissioner meeting a survey will soon be made available for county business owners to give their perspective on what regulations, if any, should be put in place regarding the next round of health order restrictions that begin June 16.
On Wednesday afternoon, Gov. Mark Gordon increased the gathering limit to 50 for one confined space and to 250 for an indoor event with social distancing and increased sanitization measures in place.
Kim Deti, public information health officer for the Wyoming Department of Health, said this does not apply to restaurants and bars, which now have no gathering limit, and must only adhere to social distancing guidelines. All prior social distancing requirements are still in place.
Billin said he is willing to sign a variance requesting the State allow fewer restrictions in Park County than the statewide order entails. The commissioners plan to submit a letter of support along with the variance request.
It is still unknown what the new limits will be, but Billin said in conversations with state Health Officer Dr. Alexia Harrist, she communicated her desire for a gradual relaxation of restrictions, so Billin does not expect a drastic change in the gathering limits.
Results of the survey will be presented by the commissioners at their next Tuesday meeting for Billin to consider when he crafts the variance request.
“We’re not economics experts – the survey may be able to give us guidance,” Billin said.
Whatever the reasons, Park County has done remarkably well with its rate of infection for COVID-19. Only two confirmed cases in county residents have been reported and both have recovered, while two Big Horn County residents have tested positive at county hospitals, including one Saturday at Powell Valley Healthcare.
No Wyoming county has been spared from the disease, and the four counties that have fewer cases than Park County also feature populations of at least 18,000 fewer people.
“We are very, very lucky,” chair Joe Tilden said.
Tilden said he is afraid of loosening restrictions too early as it could cause a spike of cases, which might cause businesses to close back down.
Because of the county’s stellar results, Billin said Park is a model candidate for variances and exceptions.
On Monday, Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove of the World Health Organization said the spread of the virus among asymptomatic persons is “very rare,” but on Tuesday, she and the WHO walked back that statement and concluded asymptomatic transmission is “a big open question.” The original comment received strong pushback from other health officials.
Billin expressed little faith in the WHO’s findings on Tuesday, and did not show much interest in making plans around them.
“I think most people in here would agree (the WHO) got a lot of things wrong early in this,” he said. “It’s tough for us ... to digest this.”
In a Facebook post made Tuesday night, Billin further explained that scientific studies suggest transmission from asymptomatic individuals is significant and may account for up to 40% of all transmissions.
Variances and exemptions
It was Thiel’s request the commissioners sign a letter to Billin, asking he write a variance that removes all restrictions besides large group gatherings. At the meeting, Thiel said the county “overreacted” in its restrictions, and he pushed for a variance that would loosen economic restrictions on local businesses, to where “they could do business as normal,” without any effect on their financial independence, he said.
“I don’t think what’s happened has proven the fact of where we are right now,” he said to Billin, Crampton and Director of Homeland Security Jack Tatum. “The side effects of what is going on right now, socially, economically and mentally, I think is very serious, at least more serious than what is going on with the virus right now in Park County.
“Why do you get to tell (businesses) can or can not?”
Billin and the other commissioners may be looking for more of a middle ground.
“Public policy is a risk to benefit analysis,” Billin said. “The correct response … is usually somewhere in the middle of the road where we help some people and hurt some people but do the least damage.”
Powell Mayor John Wetzel, who was also at the commissioners’ meeting, shared the sentiment.
“I think a compromise to the present is best for moving forward. Tearing the cover off is not the greatest idea,” he said.
Even with no restrictions in place, it’s unlikely many Park County businesses would be able to make average profits. Commissioner Jake Fulkerson said one business owner told him revenues are down by 65%, while Yellowstone National Park reported a 30% drop in traffic at the South and East entrances from May 18-May 31, despite those gates being the only two providing Yellowstone access.
“‘Open’ may only be 75% – that’s something to keep in mind,” Fulkerson said.
Thiel reiterated his position that Powell businesses should be given special treatment when it comes to their restrictions because they receive less benefit from tourist travelers.
“A business in Powell ... they make their money two days a week, he said. “They have to make their money from a full house from locals.”
Billin opposed this view.
“It’s highly politically charged to consider communities differently,” he said.
Wetzel said the Powell City Council could consider submitting a citywide exemption request, but he would not yet commit to supporting it.
Variances are countywide orders while exemptions are specific businesses, but Billin said a group of similar businesses could apply for an exemption or variance together.
While the county has approved every exemption request that has been submitted, only four requests have been made.
“There’s been nothing but bellyache, but these businesses could have been requesting exemptions all along,” Billin said.
Distancing vs. occupancy
Through June 30, restaurant and bar restrictions state that tables must be spaced six feet apart with no more than six patrons at each table.
Fulkerson and others criticized the gathering limit as it doesn’t take into account the size of a room. Billin, who said there could also be a consideration for a 25% of fire occupancy gathering limit, agreed spacing alone would likely be the best measure to focus on in the next county variance.
The county is also testing employees of businesses with a lot of tourist contact, and is performing surveillance efforts for the virus.
Underutilized, Billin said, has been an “almost unlimited” amount of COVID-19 testing now available locally, with pre-symptoms no longer required to qualify for a test. To get a $25 nasal swab, he recommended visiting the Cathcart Medical Center’s urgent care clinic.
He said in recent months people with serious medical problems have been hesitant to go to local emergency rooms and children’s vaccination rates have also been drastically down.