UPDATE: This story was updated on Tuesday morning to indicate Gov. Mark Gordon’s nasal swab test also came back with a negative result. —Ed.
As Wyoming’s COVID-19 problem continued to worsen last week, sports fans visited the state’s most infected community — Laramie — for a football game.
It was the University of Wyoming’s first home game of the season and the Cowboys delivered, trouncing the University of Hawaii 31-7.
What the event might do to the COVID-19 scoreboard, however, remains to be seen. For some, the event was emblematic of a disconnect between the record-breaking virus spread in Wyoming and state officials’ reluctance to enact health orders to stem the tide.
“It is grossly irresponsible to hold an event like that, in these conditions of pandemic,” Christine Porter, UW’s Wyoming Excellence Chair in Community and Public Health, told WyoFile last week.
The virus’s spread has even impacted the top officials responding to it in recent days: Gov. Mark Gordon announced Monday evening that he would be entering a 14 day quarantine period after a potential exposure to COVID-19. Gordon learned of the exposure on Monday, tested negative in both an initial rapid test and a more thorough nasal swab test, his office said. His announcement followed one from the Northern Arapaho Tribe that Lee Spoonhunter, chairman of the Northern Arapaho Business Council, had tested positive for COVID-19 and was experiencing mild symptoms.
The two men were at a meeting in Fremont County last week. Gordon’s spokesperson said the two announcements were connected. Participants in the meeting, which also included White House Coronavirus Task Force coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx, wore masks.
State officials have taken no action in recent weeks to reinstate public health restrictions put in place early in the pandemic to stop COVID-19 transmission. Public health orders have been eased, not tightened, as infection numbers have skyrocketed and health professionals ring the alarm bell about pressure on the state’s hospital system.
“A lot of the places where we’re seeing transmission wouldn’t necessarily be impacted by the current orders,” the state’s health officer Dr. Alexia Harrist said at an Oct. 21 press conference. “We’re seeing [disease spread] in informal gatherings, in families or in social settings,” she said.
That’s another reason not to invite people into the state’s virus epicenter, Porter said. Cases have been ticking up in Laramie since UW convened in the fall, as the university conducts rigorous testing but has struggled to regulate students’ off-campus behavior.
On Oct. 30, game day, the county reported 743 active COVID-19 cases, by far the highest in the state, according to Wyoming Department of Health data. Seven COVID-19 patients were hospitalized in Ivinson Memorial Hospital.
Close to 2% of Albany County’s population actively was known to have the virus as fans descended for game day, according to a calculation by WyoFile using 2019 census data. With such statistics in mind, Porter worried about people visiting Laramie to see the game contracting the virus and carrying it home to other parts of the state, and vice versa.
“These cases that may be spreading locally within families or you know, social groups? Well, now, all those cases are going to carry from wherever they are to Laramie and from Laramie,” she said. “And that is, I think, wrong, in every sense technically and ethically, that we’re aiding and abetting that.”
Even before Friday’s game, some Wyoming health officials were expressing frustration that the state had not enacted stronger measures to slow the virus’s fierce rate of spread.
Wyoming’s surge has been growing unabated for two months. Last week, the state announced 19 deaths — more deaths than in any single week since the pandemic began — hospitalizations surpassed 100 for the first time and active cases grew to a new high of more than 4,000.
“We have community spread involving businesses, nursing homes, assisted care living places, healthcare providers, other healthcare workers, other families, the fire station and all other kinds of scenarios that you can imagine,” Natrona County Health Officer Dr. Mark Dowell said in a Facebook video on Oct. 13. “This is a huge deal.”
Dowell advocated for mandatory masks in businesses, with strict enforcement, but said neither he nor other health experts were able to make such decisions. “The state health officer has her hands tied at this time in being more aggressive,” he said of Harrist.
“I think it’s very clear how the DOH feels about face coverings and how important they are,” Harrist told reporters in Fremont County on Oct. 28, during the visit from Birx. Harrist is not in quarantine after the meeting, DOH spokesperson Kim Deti wrote to WyoFile. She was not in close contact with the person who might have exposed Gordon to the virus, Deti said.
Dowell called for large gatherings to be rescheduled, and in lieu of official action, asked residents in his county to “put pressure on your family members to go along with this.” On Monday, Dowell was shouted down by hecklers as he attempted to give an update of his county’s COVID-19 spike at a public meeting, according to a report in the Casper Star-Tribune.
Responding to increasing cases and hospitalizations, the Wyoming Medical Society Board on Oct. 24 endorsed a request from the state’s county health officers for statewide mandatory masking, Dr. Tracey Haas, president of the Albany County Medical Society, told WyoFile in an email. “Many of us are frustrated that restrictions are loosening,” she wrote.
“It seems odd to be loosening restrictions – while our numbers are soaring and then having mass gatherings,” Haas wrote: “While this opinion is not shared by 100% of the healthcare community – I can confidently tell you it represents the majority viewpoint.”
Gordon himself has continued to advocate for relying on the personal responsibility of Wyoming residents, and has doubled down on his calls for mask wearing and other measures at recent press conferences.
“I don’t see limits in personal responsibility,” Gordon said during the Fremont County press conference. “What we saw in the emergence and progression of this disease is, initially people saw the challenge, they responded and we took our caseload down. Throughout the course of the summer we did remarkably well.
“People began to think this isn’t that big a deal,” he continued. “And now we see how infectious it is, we see the growth and the spread.”
Porter agreed, in part. The state had a successful shutdown in the early days of the pandemic’s spread, when little was known about the virus and when necessary medical equipment, protective gear for healthcare workers and testing supplies were all in short supply.
At the time, Porter said the response by Wyoming residents both surprised and impressed her. Now as the disease surges, she is concerned, not impressed. “I’m not seeing or reading about a public response that is appropriate in terms of personal behavior,” she said.
But the public’s response correlates with officials’, she said, and in that regard, the Gordon administration has also fallen off. “The strength of the leadership that we heard from the state” at the pandemic’s beginning, “I don’t feel like we’re seeing that in the same level now,” she said.
“The statewide public health orders that they have are incredibly weak and are going to be far from sufficient to keep us from turning into Italy,” Porter said.
There were 6,232 people in attendance at War Memorial Stadium, according to the University of Wyoming athletic department. UW offered 1,000 tickets to students. The stadium can hold around 30,000, but the university offered only 7,000 tickets to maintain social distancing in the stands. Masks were required to enter the stadium, and tailgating parties were prohibited in the parking lot.
Spectators at an outdoor sporting event wearing a mask and staying at sufficient distance from each other are likely fairly safe from contagion, public health experts, including Porter, say. The UW professor considered gatherings in hotel rooms, bars and restaurants, or at houses and in yards around town to be the spaces where COVID-19 could spread among football fans.
“It’s not the game itself that is the problem,” she said. “It is all the attendant travel and social activity.”
It’s hard to pin down just how many visitors the game drew. But managers and staff at three Laramie hotels told WyoFile they saw increased occupancy Friday night driven by game goers, reporting half or more of their rooms filled by such guests.
Bars and restaurants downtown saw an uptick in customers on Friday night as well. The Buckhorn Bar & Parlor, a mainstay for rowdy Pokes fans, had a good crowd for the game, though its capacity is capped at 50 people, staff there said. The Crow Bar and Grill saw a large brunch crowd on Saturday morning, though restrictions on its capacity meant longer wait times, not necessarily a fuller house.
Altitude Beerworks and Chophouse, however, did not see an increase in guests, an employee there said. Space at the bar, where fans would traditionally gather around television screens, is limited these days, she said.
The lack of official mask mandates has put undue pressure on bar and restaurant workers, Crow Bar manager Emily Madden said. “Servers and line cooks should not be frontline workers tasked with enforcing mask wearing,” she wrote in comments recently directed at the Laramie City Council. “This is a public health effort that falls on the shoulders of local government.”
Parking lots in front of War Memorial Stadium, normally packed on game days with brown-and-gold-clad revelers, including visiting politicians, were empty. Three people tossed beanbags in a game of corn-hole, a popular tailgating activity, on a nearby street.
“I don’t typically wear a mask but I’m going to wear a mask for the game,” corn hole player Jeff Clint, from Aurora, Colorado, told a WyoFile photographer. “I will do whatever is necessary to get into the game,” he said.
Gordon attended the first quarter of the football game, his spokesperson said.
UW president Ed Seidel, who was himself in voluntary quarantine, did not. Seidel placed himself in quarantine for two weeks after a person at a small gathering he attended tested positive for the virus, according to UW. Attendees of that gathering wore masks and practiced social distancing, UW spokesperson Chad Baldwin said.
UW was cautiously optimistic the school’s measures would prevent spread at the game, Baldwin said. The school plans to review before the next home game, on Nov. 14.
“There will be an assessment done after this one to make sure that we can continue with this approach,” Baldwin said. “It doesn’t make financial sense to have a game completely without any fans but I’m not going to rule that out as a possibility either.”
On Thursday, the Cowboys travel to Colorado State in Fort Collins. Fans won’t be allowed into the stadium because of state, county and university guidelines and public-health orders, according to a report in the Coloradoan.
Mike Vanata and Katie Klingsporn contributed reporting to this story.