Though case numbers painted a better picture about COVID-19’s health impacts, week 12 of the pandemic in Wyoming brought stark warnings from Gov. Mark Gordon about inevitable budget cuts that will have major implications across the state.
Meanwhile, protesters — most in masks, some not — gathered in towns across Wyoming to express outrage over the police killing of George Floyd and police brutality in what have so far been peaceful events. Health experts fear the nationwide protests, many of which have escalated into violence, risk accelerating the virus’s spread.
By Thursday evening, the state reported 709 confirmed and 212 probable COVID-19 cases. With recovered cases surging this week, recoveries now far outpace active cases in the state. Active cases are estimated at fewer than 200, while recoveries number more than 700, according to the Department of Health.
Hospitalizations of COVID-19 patients fell to just four as of Thursday — the lowest number since record keeping began on April 7.
Health workers have conducted more than 26,777 tests. With 709 confirmed cases, that gives Wyoming a 2.6% positive test rate, which is low compared to other states. The state’s death count rose by two since last week and is now at 17.
Improving case numbers aside, Gordon was blunt in his assessment of Wyoming’s financial future, which is imperiled by a combination of declining mineral revenues and the outbreak’s impacts.
After convening a special meeting to revise its projections, the state’s Consensus Revenue Estimating Group now expects a $1.5 billion reduction in revenues through June of 2022.
Wyoming “is facing the largest revenue decline that it has ever seen,” Gordon said during a Thursday press conference. “That means we have to take action.”
Gordon has alerted all agency heads to prepare to cut 20%, or one-fifth, of the state budget, he said.
“There will be layoffs. There will potentially be furloughs and other things,” he said. “This will not be easy.”
When asked about potential tax increases, Gordon indicated they are not off the table. “We are looking at all options because we know we can’t cut our way out of this crisis,” he said.
The University of Wyoming on Tuesday released a draft plan for resuming on-campus education this fall. The plan envisions an educational experience with new health measures at every level of operation and a mix of online and in-person learning. It entails daily temperature and symptom checks of students and staff, and makes face coverings and social distance compliance mandatory in communal spaces on campus.
“There are risks associated with bringing students back to campus, but the risks of not doing so are greater,” Acting UW President Neil Theobald said in a press release.
It won’t be cheap. The university estimates the plan will require nearly $79 million in state funding to implement, the Laramie Boomerang reports.
Two weeks after opening its two Wyoming entrances to limited use, Yellowstone National Park tested 43 employees for COVID-19. All tests came back negative.
The front-line employees who were tested have been interacting with tourists since the park opened on May 18, according to a park service press release. The surveillance testing will continue through the summer, as outlined in the park’s reopening plan.
Yellowstone opened its Montana entrances Monday. The park’s primary concessionaire, Xanterra Travel Collection, announced it has begun a phased re-opening of its operations as well — including lodges, campgrounds, dining and tours.
So far, travel data shows fewer visitors streaming into the park. Vehicle traffic from May 18-31 through the two Wyoming entrances was 70% of the volume for the same dates and entrances in 2019, according to the National Park Service. Vehicle traffic entering the three Montana entrances on June 1-3, meanwhile, was 45% of the same days in 2019.
While many major rodeos have been cancelled this summer, the Cody Nite Rodeo won approval to start as early as June 15. Officials of the Wyoming State Fair in Douglas report that event is still scheduled for Aug. 11-14.
Gordon on Thursday called these developments bright spots.
“We’re very hopeful that this economic recovery will start to help allay some of the fears that we have,” he said. “But I have to be honest, these are scary times.”