Lawmakers discourage out-of-state visitors from recreating in Wyoming

CASPER, Wyo. — The number of residents with COVID-19 continues to climb in Wyoming, with 222 confirmed cases reported as of Wednesday morning. Though testing shortages have likely contributed to an undercount, the number of cases in the state still pales in comparison to neighboring hot spots like Colorado, where cases have surpassed 5,420.

Public officials here appear intent on keeping Wyoming’s infection rates well below its peers. Travel for recreation and retail within Wyoming has declined by 37% since the state issued a public order, according to a Google mobility report. But lawmakers have been outspoken against the out-of-state visitors venturing into the Equality State to recreate or flee the pandemic. 

During a recent press conference, Gov. Mark Gordon said border communities had witnessed “an influx of out-of-state visitors seeking refuge in Wyoming.” He issued a directive urging any residents not from Wyoming to observe a 14-day quarantine upon arriving here to protect the health of locals. 

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“This visitation poses a threat to our communities and our residents, trying to act responsibly,” he said Friday. The governor’s directive will not apply to individuals commuting for work from states bordering Wyoming.

Gordon continued to discourage vacation travel to Wyoming during a press conference Monday. In addition to the quarantine directive, Gordon has ordered state parks to close overnight camping.

“One of the challenges remains discouraging day visitors from neighboring states, including Colorado, who choose to make day trips to Wyoming despite a stay-at-home order that is in place in their states,” Michael Pearlman, the governor’s spokesman, said by email.

As oil prices tank and tourism nearly ceases, Wyoming has a lot to lose during the pandemic. The precautions taken to stall the spread of the virus have nearly paralyzed the economy. The leisure and hospitality industry is one of the largest industries in Wyoming, next to energy, providing roughly 34,000 jobs, according to the Wyoming Department Workforce Services.

Striking a balance between maintaining the safety of residents, and not debilitating the state’s economy has been a central challenge for state leaders during the pandemic.

The surge in visitors taking advantage of Wyoming’s prime recreational outfits has also caught the attention of other lawmakers, including Cheyenne Mayor Marian Orr. She’s concerned the persistence in vacation travel across state lines poses a real threat to public health here. 

“Tourism is really critical for us, we don’t want to turn people away and we want them to come here; we just want them to come here at the right time,” she said in a phone interview Tuesday. 

Orr was first alerted to the issue when her younger brother told her a Laramie fishing shop was seeing an unusual increase in out-of-state residents purchasing fishing licenses. 

Though non-resident daily fishing license purchases are down by 21% compared to previous years, annual licenses for non-residents remain steady. The Wyoming Game and Fish Department sent an email to 4,300 non-resident license holders asking them to abide by the quarantine directive, or stay home.

“We are asking non-residents who cannot quarantine for 14 days upon arrival to Wyoming to delay their trips and stay home — regardless of if they are fishing, hunting, planning to collect antlers, boat or otherwise recreate,” said Sara DiRienzo, a spokeswoman for the agency. 

The governor said Monday he was recommending the department consider suspending the issuance of non-resident short-term fishing licenses too. 

In an announcement Tuesday, the agency also encouraged Wyomingites to observe social distancing and “be extra vigilant” when recreating, ideally as close to home as possible. 

“If you arrive somewhere that has a full parking lot — find somewhere else to go,” Director of the Game and Fish Department Brian Nesvik said in a statement. “We are dealing with an unprecedented set of conditions, so you must strike a balance between getting outside and avoiding as many people as possible.”

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All fishing and hunting opportunities are still open for use in Wyoming, according to the department. Parking facilities, trails and trail heads at national forests and in Wyoming state parks, remain open too.

Other states, like Texas and Florida, have taken stricter steps, like setting up check points or border screenings to alert travelers from coronavirus epicenters they must self-quarantine for two weeks.

But to Orr, more stringent measures in Wyoming would probably be unrealistic given the number of essential workers commuting across state lines. Closing state parks may be a better alternative, Orr said.

Kathy Emmons, the executive director of the Cheyenne-Laramie County Health Department, told the Casper Star-Tribune that “a significant enough amount” of the 48 confirmed COVID-19 cases in Laramie County could be linked to inter-state travel, including between Colorado and Cheyenne.

On the other side of the state in Jackson, Mayor Pete Muldoon issued a public video online discouraging visitors from coming to the mountain town, which usually sees an influx of some 2.6 million tourists each year. 

“I’m here today to ask any would-be visitors to Jackson hole to please stay home and shelter in place,” he said. “Give our small mountain town a chance to get through the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Yet some small businesses nestled in towns across Wyoming that rely on revenue from tourism could be victims of the drought in guests. 

Adam Clarke, manager of Valley Foods in Saratoga, has been worried about travelers from other states spreading the virus in Wyoming. But he also doesn’t want to risk losing business down the road at his grocery store, especially if tourists no longer feel welcome in Wyoming.

“It’s a fine line for a business,” he said.

Visitors, especially those with summer homes, have trickled into the area earlier than usual. 

“When this (pandemic) is over, I still want customers,” Clarke explained. “We’re in a tourist area, I need those people from out of state to survive.”

Star-Tribune staff reporter Seth Klamann contributed to this report.

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