COURSER: Jackson Hole Unmasked

Gloria Courser Contributor
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Jackson Hole may be the most well-known town in Wyoming. This is due to the world-renowned Jackson Hole Mountain Ski Resort and the town’s position as the southern gateway into Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks.  Jackson Hole sits in the northwest corner of Wyoming and boasts a history that is rich with stories of rugged cowboys and cowgirls, fur traders and explorers from the famed Lewis and Clark Expedition. This quaint mountain town draws in 3 million plus visitors every year, and despite a worldwide pandemic, this tourist season is shaping up to be no different.  After months of looking like a ghost town, the town square has come alive again. As soon as the gates to the national parks opened wide, droves of tourists have come bustling in, injecting much needed sustenance into a local economy that was starved for months due to local health order variances requested by the county health officer.

Though Governor Mark Gordon never exacted a state-wide “stay at home order” in Wyoming, Teton County officials effectively did. While the rest of Wyoming was able to keep many businesses’ doors open with a maximum number of 10 people gathered at one time, the Teton County economy was even further pinched under a special variance requested by the local health officer that made it illegal for any individual to gather with individuals other than those living within their own household. This shuttered the doors of many more local businesses that would have otherwise remained open under statewide health orders. To those unfamiliar with Jackson Hole’s unique relationship with the rest of Wyoming, this may be surprising. But ask almost any Wyoming native about Jackson Hole and you will hear a familiar joke, “Welcome to Jackson, a beautiful town just 30 minutes away from Wyoming.”

It is true that the rest of Wyoming often looks upon Teton County, home to Jackson Hole, as the prodigal “child” of the state. The town of Jackson and its leadership often seem to pride themselves on declaring their autonomy from the rest of Wyoming, similar to how a teenager will stubbornly declare their independence while still living in their parents’ basement. This became internationally known when the current mayor of Jackson, Pete Muldoon, infamously used his executive privilege early on in his mayoral career in 2017.  Mayor Muldoon took down photos of President Trump and Vice President Pence from the town hall in what he has since admitted was an act of protest. The photos were restored to their original placement after the Jackson Town Council voted 3-2 on the matter. But that was after the impetuous move of Mayor Muldoon placed Jackson Hole on the map for something other than epic skiing, wildlife wonders and grand views. So, it was no surprise that officials in Teton County would continually request even stricter variances and “shut down” orders during the Covid-19 pandemic than the rest of the red state of Wyoming.

In spite of the developing news about Covid-19 in Jackson Hole continuing to improve with no detectable surge in local hospitals, only one death, 1300 negative Covid tests and the majority of cases recovering quickly; it seemed local health officials continued to spread fear with a mask campaign and a pervasive imitation of Chicken Little running around town shouting, “The sky is falling! The sky is falling!”  In this case “the sky” being the droves of tourists entering town to take pictures in front of the antler arches and eat ice cream as they shopped around the western-themed town square, all while “EGADS!” not wearing masks!  One local resident even sent an email to the county health officer claiming she “nearly fainted from fear” and had to “run for her life while taking out the garbage” when she saw tourists arrive at a condo near hers with all their luggage, children in tow, and no masks to be seen. This sentiment seemed to agree with and encourage the continued push by local health officials to not only recommend masks in public but to ultimately attempt to require them to be worn by ALL residents and visitors of Teton County.

Fortunately, for residents and visitors alike, that attempt was foiled by the efforts of a group of locals that pushed for transparency and oversight through a public records request petition made to the Teton County Public Health Department which received over 1,200 signatures from full and part-time residents as well as visitors to Teton County.  The main questions in the public records request centered around plans for implementation, compliance, enforcement and medical exemptions related to any health order, specifically a mask mandate. The petition specifically requested a plan for how visitors and residents would be advised to wear masks, a signed document from local law enforcement stating their willingness and availability to enforce such a health order and a legal plan of action for how medical exemptions would be proven and handled. Teton County Health Department’s official response to these questions was that there was “no such plan at this time.” The group behind the public records request declared that any such law or health order that was drafted and approved with no clear plan for implementation, compliance, enforcement, nor exemptions would be arbitrary and capricious and indefensible in a court of law. Two days later, the Teton County Public Health officer backed down from his proposed mask mandate to instead update the recommendations for the VOLUNTARY wearing of masks in public.

So, Jackson Hole has made an example of itself once again! But this time the example made was that even though the voice of the freedom-loving public may seem like the minority in a town infatuated with a partisan agenda, public push back and requests for transparency in government policy do work!

The good news in Jackson Hole is that we were lucky to escape the crisis of the pandemic that was seen in other pockets of the country. And if the smiles on the unmasked visitors to Jackson Hole tell any story at all, it seems they are also feeling very lucky to be here while enjoying spectacular views and taking in deep breaths of clean mountain air!

Gloria Esguerra Courser is a bookkeeper, shooting instructor, writer, and hunting guide residing in Jackson Hole with her husband and two daughters.