COVID Community Update: Masks encouraged, GTNP prepares to open

JACKSON, Wyo. — The favored message among health and elected officials at Friday afternoon’s COVID community update was resounding: wear a mask in public.

“The community use of masks is a public good,” said Teton County Health Department Director Jodie Pond, meaning everyone benefits if everyone contributes.

St. John’s Health CEO Paul Beupré said remembering to wear his mask can make him feel like a “ping pong ball” — getting out of his car, realizing he forgot his mask, turning around to get it. But “it’s the right thing to do, and I do it gladly,” he said. “Because I love this community.”

As more and more businesses begin to reopen under modified public health orders, Teton County Health Officer Travis Riddell said the responsibility is on individual community members now more than ever to help slow the spread of COVID-19. Riddell said he is giving “serious consideration” to a “more fair and uniform face covering rule for Teton County” that would mandate patrons wear masks in local businesses as well as employees.

Riddell pointed to a “growing body of scientific evidence in support of face coverings.” The point, he reminded, is not to avoid contracting the disease, but to avoid spreading it if you are an unknown carrier. People can carry the virus and spread it to others before they start showing symptoms, and may even never show symptoms. One study Riddell cited from UC Berkley’s International Computer Science Institute and Hong Kong University of Science and Techology suggests that if 80% of a community wears masks, the rate of infection in that community decrease by a factor of 12. If only 40% of a community wears masks, the infection rate is minimally affected.

Still, the trend in Teton County made Riddell feel comfortable easing health restrictions. Riddell did not ask for any variances to the new state health orders.

“Economics can affect people’s health and wellbeing just like pandemics can,” Riddell said, and he wants to see Jackson’s economy come back.

That doesn’t mean the pandemic is over. Riddell said he has “little doubt” that Teton County will see more cases of COVID-19 as restrictions ease. But as long as St. John’s Health and the Health Department are equipped to handle them, Teton County will cautiously keep moving forward.

County offices and services will also begin to open this month, though not as quickly. The Rec Center, including the pool, will open under certain health restrictions May 26. Teton County Parks & Rec summer camps will also move forward with restrictions. Teton County Library is moving into a four-phased approach to reopening, starting with an open book drop. The outdoor rodeo arena will open by appointment only.

The Teton County Sheriff’s Office is increasing its county-wide enforcement to “pre-COVID levels,” said Sheriff Matt Carr.

Beaupré said St. John’s Health saw one COVID-19 patient this week who was discharged “within a couple of days” and is doing well. There are no COVID patients in the ICU, and there were no transfers this week. Beteween the hospital and its 11 specialty clinics, St. John’s continues to do ” a tremendous amount of Telehealth visits,” between 60-100 per week, Beupré said. And even after the pandemic has subsided, Beupré said he suspects “telehealth is here to stay.”

Then, there was the big news: Grand Teton National Park is opening its gates at noon Monday. GTNP Acting Superintendent Gopaul Noojibail was on the line Friday afternoon, for the first time, to offer some clarity on the “Phase 1” opening. The gist: GTNP will be open for day use only. No campsites, lodging, food, or visitor centers.

“We want to do this thoughtfully, methodically, and slowly so we’re in the best position we can be … if something turns the wrong way,” Noojibail said.

GTNP hopes to enter “Phase 2,” which includes more backcountry access and amenities, in June. He admitted the park may not reach “Phase 3,” essentially a full reopening, at all this summer. The park’s main concessionaires have announced that they will likely not open at full capacity all year. But the park’s ability to expand its offerings depends, in large part, on the responsibility of its visitors and staff.

GTNP will operate with a fraction of its usual seasonal staff — its seasonal staff is reduced by about 60%, Noojibail said. If that staff becomes endangered and the park can “no longer run front-line operations,” it could trigger a closure or a further reduction in services.

“We’re not going to be able to be social distancing police,” Noojibail said. “But we will do everything we can to make sure visitors understand the expectation. We will be models.”

Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Anna Olson echoed that the Chamber is working hard on messaging that reminds visitors “that we are an area with small community health resources.”

“We’re encouraging thoughtful behavior when you’re coming here,” Olson said. “The wellbeing of our residents is top priority.”

Finally, Buckrail will not publish a community update next week because there will not be one. Updates have been reduced to every other week. The next is scheduled for May 29.

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