In COVID-19 era, here’s how we address physical, mental health

A message from Teton County Commissioner candidate, Wes Gardner.

JACKSON, Wyo. — In March, the worldwide pandemic became official, yet it took County Commissioners until July 20 to institute a mask ordinance. According to County Commissioner candidate Wes Gardner, who also owns Teton Toys, this “lack of leadership” left business owners like him in the lurch.

“In May when we reopened the store, we faced a mini-crisis as I tried to figure out what I’m supposed to do in the midst of a historic pandemic,” Gardner said. “Nothing can prepare a business owner for this type of decision.”

Yet Gardner did his best, scanning expert literature, reading, researching, and coming to the conclusion that COVID-19 is most likely transmitted by airborne droplets, which can be largely contained with the use of face masks.

“It didn’t take more than a minute to do what I considered to be the right thing,” Gardner said. “Without a mask, you weren’t going to shop at Teton Toys.”

He screwed on his courage and implemented the mask policy for his store months before the town passed a mask ordinance on July 3 and the county followed suit July 20.

“I think it’s a tragedy and a lack of leadership that it took the county until July 20 to understand the situation,” Gardner said. Especially since downtown Jackson began beating record 2019 numbers by mid-June. With no direction or expertise on their side, nor the backing of a mask ordinance or a government policy, business owners were left to make the potentially life-or-death decision to require masks in their stores themselves.

“We all know how transmissible this disease is,” Gardner said. “The consequence is as high as a consequence can be. I’m proud of the decision I made.”

When elected as Teton County Commissioner in November, Gardner wants to fast-track leadership on pressing issues like COVID-19. When helping lead the county, Gardner said he can better ensure the health and safety of his employees and county residents. Beyond that, though, helping keep Teton County COVID-safe also protects the intricate spiderweb of millions of visitors and their contacts that spiral out from the Antler Arch epicenter. Those potential impacts are mind-boggling.

“In the face of a historic pandemic, decision-making should be done with great humility,” Gardner said, indicating how County Commissioners should rely on experts and take their recommendations more seriously. “I’ll never let arrogance stand in the way of expert guidance in the face of great consequences.”

As a business owner who instituted a potentially costly mask policy in his store long before it was generally accepted, Gardner said, “It is disturbing to me that at County Commission meetings, only one commissioner wears a mask. Leaders have the responsibility to model the behaviors they require of their constituents.”

Because of Gardner’s own modeling through his store’s mask policy during a period of record visits and sales, Teton Toys experienced no cases of COVID-19, his employees missed no time due to the virus and no contact tracing came back to the store.

The other side of the COVID coin reveals mental health issues. A Kaiser Family Foundation study in August pointed out that 53 percent of U.S. adults say their mental health has been negatively impacted by COVID-19.

“There’s no historical precedent for what we’re going through today,” Gardner said.

Even formerly small decisions like going to the store, visiting parents or grandparents, or shaking an old friend’s hand can pile up into massive stressors day-to-day.

“As a community, we need to recognize that individuals need more support than ever,” Gardner said.

Currently, nonprofits like One22, Teton Youth and Family Services, the Community Safety Network, and others have operated independently of Teton County to serve the mental health needs of our community.

“They were stretched thin before the pandemic and now they’re under even more stress than before,” Gardner said. “We’ve seen millions in state funding disappear in the last decade from these excellent local organizations. I believe that investments in this community pay great dividends not only for individuals seeking help but also for the community at large.”

Gardner said that investments in mental health at the community level stave off taxpayer expenses of rehabilitation or incarceration later on.

“When people with mental health issues don’t receive needed treatments, they can become criminalized and enter a system into which they frankly don’t belong,” Gardner said. “Small upfront investments head off long-term costs.”

With state funding for mental health services severely diminished in the midst of the stresses associated with the pandemic, Gardner said he will propose a countywide 1 mill levy to be dedicated to the local mental health community services. Each mill levy represents a cost of $100 per year for each $1 million in property value.

“It’s important that these organizations have a dedicated funding source so they can budget properly not only for this year but for years down the road,” Gardner said. “Without it, they’re flying in the wind a little bit.”

Currently, Gardner said many of these organizations are already partially funded by the county and town through general funds, but they have to apply for funding each year and have no guarantees. In order to keep property taxes low, Gardner suggested reducing the mill levy that contributes to the town and county’s general funds.

Doing so would make funding for critical mental health services more automatic, whereas now, nonprofits have to fight for their funding year after year from the town and county.

“We need to figure out a way to back this up and not make it so wonky,” Gardner said. “Let’s plan a mental-health budgeting process with more thoroughness and longer-term impacts.”

Creating a mill levy for mental health services in Teton County will raise about $2 million. It would equip these organizations with dedicated support similar to other critical services like the hospital, schools, fire department, and library.

If community health and mental health is important to you, please join Wes Gardner Oct. 6 at 6 p.m. on Facebook Live for a discussion of the issues, or vote for Wes Gardner for Teton County Commissioner on or before Nov. 3.

Not ready to vote yet? Read more on Wes Gardner’s platform:

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Paid for by Wes Gardner for Teton County Commissioner

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