Wyoming, relatively spared by virus thus far, weighs safety and freedoms

CHEYENNE, Wyo. - A steer skull decorated in turquoise gemstones greets visitors inside Teton Jewelers on West 17th Street, the lone jewelry store in the small shopping district here. Standing behind it is Ken Bingham, 67, slim and bald and packing a loaded .410 revolver capable of shooting shotgun shells. He says he’s taking nearly every precaution against the coronavirus.

Bingham's wife, who recently finished chemotherapy, hasn't been within six feet of him in a month. After Cheyenne got its first confirmed case of the virus March 11, Bingham decided to sleep in the store he has owned and operated for 17 years while his wife, son and asthmatic grandchildren are at home. Bingham works double duty, manning the front counter and driving a city transit bus.

The one thing he hasn't done to ward off infection: shutter his jewelry store.

"Jewelry isn't really essential, unless you're about to lose the diamond off your ring," Bingham said. "Then it gets real essential."

Bingham's bottom line: "I can take care of myself. And most people can and most people will. The government should stay out as much as they possibly can. I'm not willing to give up my freedoms for security."

That dichotomy - general concern about the virus weighed against a desire to protect the freedoms at the foundation of the United States of America - is playing out in businesses throughout Cheyenne, in counties across Wyoming, and in communities nationwide. While the virus has been linked to more than 41,000 U.S. deaths, there were protests here Monday arguing that all restrictions should be lifted in the Cowboy State, which has seen the fewest number of confirmed cases in the nation - 317 through Monday - in part due to its low population and wide open spaces.

The death toll in Wyoming thus far: two.


The state is one of eight in the country without a statewide stay-home order, but it does have a limit on gatherings of more than 10 people and has ordered nonessential businesses to close, albeit with one of the broadest definitions of what that means. One Cheyenne store selling gravestones boasted on a sign out front that it is allowed to remain open during the crisis. Used-record stores and Western-wear franchises and mattress retailers operated as normal in Wyoming's capital over the weekend with minor health protections.

"I think Wyomingites are pleased with our governor in not issuing a stay-at-home order," said state Rep. Scott Clem, R-Gillette, who has written numerous opinion articles and Facebook posts lambasting what he calls overreaction to the virus. "We're doing such a good job of social distancing, our hospitals are not overloaded right now. People aren't trivializing the danger of covid-19, but I think more and more people are putting that in perspective as compared to the damage that is being caused to the economy in regards to the government response."

Amid the rising calls for a return to normalcy, there are notes of caution, as the state has experienced a few worrisome outbreaks, such as in the ski resort town of Jackson in the state's far northwest, and at a behavioral facility in Casper in recent days. Some warn that there isn't enough hospital space should there be a serious outbreak.

Cheyenne Mayor Marian Orr, a Republican, has been warning her constituents that the worst is yet to come. A proposal that Orr supported would have allowed city police to issue fines to those violating the state ban on large gatherings, amid worries that it is widely ignored in this city of 63,000. It failed last week in an online city council vote.

Orr says it was President Donald Trump's early nonchalance, comparing the virus to the flu and downplaying the situation, combined with political messaging that this was all a scare tactic, that has caused some in Wyoming to scoff at virus-related regulations.

"At the end of the day, everybody has dinners to cook, homes to clean, kids to feed," Orr said. "So a lot of people just don't follow up on the science and what we're learning, because we're dealing with real life. And that's why we as communities have to be able to rely on health-care experts and top policymakers to do the right job."

At the protest Monday, dozens of people gathered to demand that Wyoming open up fully to allow residents to go back to work, downplaying the threat of the "Wuhan virus" and saying they can do their jobs and take care of their health at the same time.

Unmasked and not following social distancing guidelines, some protesters held "tea party" signs. A semitrailer parked in front of the Capitol had a billboard declaring: "Quarantine is when you restrict the movement of sick people. Tyranny is when you restrict the movement of healthy people."

Gov. Mark Gordon, a Republican, emerged from his office just after noon to address protesters, reading scripture and asking them not to be anxious and instead to pray to God for peace. He calmly answered questions, told them that he is in lockstep with Trump's concerns and approaches, and reiterated that the state needs to move cautiously to control the virus.

After the event, Gordon told The Washington Post that people need to take the outbreak seriously, noting that Wyoming's hospitals are filling and that it has had to send some infected people from the Jackson Hole area to hospitals in Utah and Idaho because of a lack of capacity.

"There's a national drumbeat that's starting up," Gordon said. "What you heard out there, and a lot of the mail I get, is people saying this is no more dangerous than the flu, and about 65,000 people die from that a year. And they use that as a reason we shouldn't do anything. We should not be aiming for 65,000 more people to die. We should be aiming to respond to this."

Some at the protest said Gordon was fomenting uncertainty, and they likened Orr to Chairman Mao Zedong, China's late Communist autocrat, pushing government interests over the people.

Orr said she is trying to do what she can to keep the virus at bay. While she understands Wyoming has been one of the least-affected places, she worries that flaunting that status opens the state up for serious problems.

Two weeks ago, Orr's brother in Laramie told her a fly-fishing shop in town had numerous guests requesting licenses from out of state, including counties in Colorado with much higher rates of infection. Orr reached out to the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, which soon after issued a temporary suspension of out-of-state fishing licenses.

"There's no playbook," Orr said. "This isn't a tornado or a flood or, God forbid, a school shooting. So we're throwing everything at the wall and seeing what sticks.

"The message that I'm really trying to communicate is that the feeling that if the president says to open the country we should just open the floodgates and start having baseball and softball tournaments and symphony performances and everything will be fine again, is misguided. "

Orr worries that such thought will increase with calls to "liberate" Wyoming. Even her family has resisted: Her son went on a camping trip with a few friends for his 21st birthday this month.


"If my kids are going to insist on going out and partying during this, then I'm going to insist they don't see their grandparents," Orr said. "Because I like my parents and I want them to live."

David Wheeler, president of the Wyoming Medical Society, last month began lobbying the group to send an open letter to Gordon, advocating for a stay-home order because the spread of the virus was becoming concerning. The letter went out, but the order never came. Days later, Wheeler said, Gordon was thanking him.

"He appreciated the statements I was making because it gave him additional political leverage to strongly encourage people to shelter in place," Wheeler said. "So this is a compromised position that he feels forced into."

Gordon's office said the governor agreed with Wheeler that behavior needed to change, but they differed on how compliance would be best achieved.

Wheeler works at the Wyoming Medical Center in Casper, which has been dealing with a surge of cases from the Wyoming Behavioral Institute, a psychiatric hospital that saw the state's largest outbreak to date. An employee there attended parties after her roommate tested positive for the novel coronavirus, with her own test pending.

Wyoming has few intensive care units, and some hospitals, including Cheyenne Regional Medical Center, have begun talks with hard-hit counties in the University of Colorado health system to take patients from across the border. Wheeler worries an outbreak could cripple the health system if doctors and nurses are affected.

"It's definitely possible that I'm overestimating the severity of the problem," Wheeler said. "I'm guided a lot by what I see as irresponsible behavior amongst the people that live around me and people I see when I drive through town. The fact that people are having parties in Casper completely blows my mind."

"We're just starting to see people die in our hospitals," Wheeler said. "This would be the worst time for people to start congregating."


Wheeler said the issue creates a difficult political problem as more people want to reopen the state. He said continued shuttering of businesses and loss of work will lead to "a ton of pushback from a lot of really powerful people in the state."

U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney, the state's lone representative to the House and the GOP conference chairwoman, has joined the president's bipartisan task force that is aiming to restart the economy. She has been a staunch advocate for small businesses, demanding that Congress "help Americans who are hurting." She also has urged the nation to heed health warnings to prevent the spread of the virus and has warned that any attempt at reopening will have to be carefully managed.

"There will be no normally functioning economy if our hospitals are overwhelmed and thousands of Americans of all ages, including our doctors and nurses, lay dying because we have failed to do what's necessary to stop the virus," Cheney tweeted last month. Her office did not respond to requests for comment.

Wheeler worries that Wyomingites might ignore any order the governor's office might pass down, as it appears they have thus far. He worries that it could lead to violent confrontations if allowed to go on for too long.

"It's a very heavily armed population in Wyoming with a lot of uber-libertarian personalities," Wheeler says. "You can recommend to people we stay in our homes, and they'll say you can't do that, and to prove that, we're going to leave our homes. It's just a gigantic mess."

Clem said he expects growing civil disobedience, which he would understand.

"No one is advocating for violence, but I do think when the government does something repugnant to the Constitution, the people are obligated to practice civil disobedience," Clem said. "People are rising up here. It's bubbling in our state. Government's walking a fine line here."

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Down the street from Teton Jewelers, a mattress store remains open. Though business has dwindled, people are still testing mattresses and pillows by lying on them. Researchers say the virus can live on surfaces for days.

"I don't think people are worried about that," said Jack Spiker, the owner of Bedder Sleep, who also served as Cheyenne's Republican mayor from 2000 to 2008. "We just had a young gal spend $900 for a new mattress. She also bought a pillow, so she went around trying all the pillows, more than four of them."

"We've had two deaths in the state," Spiker said. "I would venture to say we've had more deaths from the common flu in that time. I think people are more worried about the economy and whether they're going to have $900 to buy a mattress, or are they going to need that money for rent next month?"

Bingham, the jeweler, said he is following the letter of the law, and going above and beyond, only allowing three people in his store at a time. He says he understands the risks, and takes the science seriously.


"Some have probably scoffed it off because they don't understand the magnitude of this thing," he says. "If we start experiencing what the rest of the country has, they'll wake up, but they'll wake up late."

Yet he worries about the government telling him, and others, what they can and can't do.

“This virus doesn’t give them the right to stomp all over our freedoms. I guess that’s a Cowboy thing,” Bingham said. “Our Constitution is written in such a fashion to give us the legs to do what we see as fit. We’re not New York, we’re not Chicago. Those cats are screaming. If it gets to the point where we’ve got a huge population of infected in our state and you’ve got trouble, OK, now I can understand. If it gets bad, they’re going to have to do something.”