CHEYENNE—Protestors had not been gathered long Monday before Gov. Mark Gordon descended the front steps of the State Capitol to speak with them.
State troopers wearing cloth face masks — a precaution against spreading COVID-19 that few in the crowd of more than 100 were taking — flanked the governor as he approached the group.
Gordon himself did not wear a mask, though the strings of one dangled from his pocket as he held up a prayer book. “What I’d love to do is ask you to pray with me for a little bit,” he said.
The gesture appeared to win the crowd’s goodwill for at least the length of the prayer. Then many of the protesters began to shout questions and demands at Gordon. The chief demand, echoed by protesters all over the nation this week, was that Gordon rescind orders closing some businesses and restricting gatherings.
“Why have you thrown a stumbling block in front of the people?” someone shouted from the crowd.
Gordon defended his approach, which has stopped short of the “stay-at-home” orders other governors have issued. “We have kept people working in this state,” he said.
“All jobs are essential,” someone yelled.
“I’m not sure when we get back to normal,” Gordon continued.
“Now,” a protestor shouted. “Today,” shouted another.
“I don’t want to lose my home,” a woman yelled.
“This economy is not going to last much longer,” yelled someone else.
“Let me ask you a question,” Gordon began, “65,000 people should die?”
“That’s not the truth,” a protestor yelled.
Gordon was referring to the oft-cited average annual death toll from the seasonal flu. COVID-19 skeptics have used the figure to argue that governmental response to the new virus is overblown, as did protesters on Monday.
“What you heard out there, and a lot of the mail I get, is people saying this is no more dangerous than the flu,” Gordon later told a reporter for the Washington Post.
“About 65,000 people die from that a year,” Gordon told the Post. “And they use that as a reason we shouldnʼt do anything. We should not be aiming for 65,000 more people to die. We should be aiming to respond to this.”
Protestors however were unreceptive to Gordon’s reasoning behind his orders to close in-house dining in restaurants, bars, theaters and gyms as well as his order banning gatherings of more than 10 people.
Though some of the protestors were galvanized by the economic impacts of such orders, many were anti-government activists before COVID-19.
“If we’re shutting down nonessential we should shut down this building too,” one protestor yelled at the governor, referring to the seat of Wyoming government.
Flags, signs and clothing associated with the Tea Party movement were widely present. Several of the protest’s organizers were connected to the 2016 presidential campaign of libertarian political Rand Paul, organizer Ocean Andrew told WyoFile. A few were regulars in Wyoming’s most conservative activism circles. Nationally, many recent protests against the public health orders and guidelines have ties to conservative groups including the Tea Party movement, according to The New York Times.
Andrew, a 26-year-old Laramie resident, said he did not consider the divide in public opinion over COVID-19 a partisan one. It’s not a left versus right divide, Ocean said, but instead a divide between “people who are scared and who like the government to step in and those who like to really hold fast to constitutional liberties.”
Polling data suggest that for now the group on the state house lawn was a vocal minority, not a popular uprising.
Surveys conducted by the University of Wyoming suggests that most state residents support the governor’s actions despite deep economic unease. In the most recent poll, published on April 16, nearly 40% of respondents said they or their immediate family members had lost a job or been laid off, and nearly 60% said they or their immediate family members had lost work or pay. More than three quarters — 75.3% — of respondents said they were “very concerned” about the pandemic’s economic impact.
Despite such concerns, the survey also found that a majority of the state is following and in many cases supporting the same health orders protesters violated Monday. Fully 82% of respondents support the order limiting public gatherings, for example. A large majority of people, 77%, said they were “avoiding physical contact with others, spending more time at home and not attending public gatherings.”
Popular sentiment aside, protesters Monday challenged Gordon’s authority to impose the health orders.
The state needs to “back off,” protestor Bob Ide told WyoFile. Ide works in commercial real estate in Casper, he said. He is the husband of Cathy Ide, who organized an earlier protest in that city and is statewide coordinator of the Wyoming Campaign for Liberty, a group associated with libertarian politician Ron Paul. Though Ide was not trying to “minimize” the virus’ threat, he said, he was protesting “to stand up for our Declaration of Rights and the Wyoming and the U.S. Constitution.”
Wyoming law appears to give State Public Health Officer Dr. Alexia Harrist broad powers to stem public health threats. Statute gives Harrist the authority to “establish, maintain and enforce” isolation and quarantine, and “to close theaters, schools and other public places, and to forbid gatherings of people when necessary to protect the public health.”
There have been no legal challenges to the health orders that Wyoming Attorney General Bridget Hill was aware of, she told WyoFile on Tuesday.
Not all conservatives agreed with the protestors’ stance.
Amy Edmonds is a conservative who has worked for U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney and the libertarian think tank the Wyoming Liberty Group as well as serving in the legislature. She writes columns decrying government overreach and growth in state government budgets. She also thinks protesters’ concerns of a power grab were overblown as the majority of the state sacrifices to try and slow the spread of a deadly virus, she told WyoFile.
“There are Republicans all across the state that very much want to stay in place and are abiding by all the rules,” Edmonds said.
“If folks want to exercise their freedom of speech and do it in a way that violates the governor’s orders they can do that,” she said. “I don’t agree with them but they can do that.” Edmonds did not see any tyranny in the orders, many of which aren’t being enforced.
“What we all collectively decided to do is go into our homes to try and protect our healthcare systems,” Edmonds said. “I have not seen anybody be arrested in Wyoming or anything like that.”
“I know my governor is not a dictator and he’s not out to grab power,” she said.
Wyoming Highway Patrol officers and Cheyenne City Police Department officers, including Chief Brian Kozak, watched during the protest. A spokesperson for the WHP told WyoFile the protestors had secured a permit from the city of Cheyenne. Kozak told WyoFile the people were “voluntarily” violating the health orders and there was no need for enforcement.
Rep. Tyler Lindholm (R-Sundance), a prominent libertarian-leaning politician, told WyoFile he saw some government overreach in the business closures but that the orders were an “understandable” reaction to a virus about which much is still unknown.
“I do think this is a very authoritarian time that we’re living in,” Lindholm said. Orders closing restaurants, for example, were a step too far, he said.
But he disagreed with people he believes underestimate the virus. It killed a 39-year-old friend of his in Colorado, he said.
Protestors and skeptics who point to seemingly low rates of deaths and infections in Wyoming are ignoring the fact that the rates are a result of the same health guidelines eschewed Monday. “A lot of people are poo-poo’ing [the virus] right now because of what I view as a success,” Lindholm said.
Protests are OK if participants take measures to protect themselves from spreading or catching the disease, he said. “You can accept the reality of the disease and accept that there is an inherent danger while at the same time practicing your civil liberties and making sure that [officials] hear your grievances.”
Only a few protestors on April 20 wore masks and many did not keep their distance from one another. One protestor mocked reporters and photojournalists who approached the rally wearing cloth masks to prevent them from coughing or sneezing on protestors. “Watch out guys you might get a cold,” the protestor, an older man seated on a bench, said.
More rallies are planned in towns around the state on Friday, according to social media posts.
In a Twitter post later in the day, Gordon wrote that he was “disappointed” in the protestors. “While I disagree with their choice to violate a public health order,” he wrote, “I nonetheless thought it was important to listen to their concerns.”
Gordon announced Thursday he is outlining a “measured approach” to ease the public health orders and will “continue to prioritize the health and well being of our residents.” Steps to reopen the economy will be “slow, incremental and thoughtful” and will not be driven by politics, he said.
What his decision to descend the Capitol steps earned him with the protesters is unclear, though several applauded his courage to step forward and listen during the mostly shouted exchange between governor and activists.
“I don’t think that he’s impressed with our choice to work, now,” protest organizer Susan Graham told WyoFile.
“I respect him for [coming out],” said protester Blaine Rasmuson, 23. But, “it’s probably PR and damage control,” Rasmuson said, “I think at heart he’s a Democrat.”
Greg Flesvig, a furloughed railroad conductor living off his savings while waiting to go back to work, said Gordon was “trying” to do the right thing in the face of the crisis.
“I like him,” Flesviq said of Gordon. “I’d expect that he would come out just to address the people.”