CHEYENNE — Wyoming lawmakers advanced a bill Monday that would require additional approval for certain public health orders to last longer than 10 days, as the search for appropriate legislation in response to the COVID-19 pandemic continues in the state Capitol.
The Legislature’s House Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Committee had four bills related to public health orders up for consideration during its meeting Monday. After hearing testimony on the topic, lawmakers opted to advance House Bill 127, one of the less-expansive proposals before the committee.
Under the bill, any order issued by a local or state health officer that “restricts individuals’ movements or their ability to engage in any activity, that applies to individuals not under an isolation or quarantine order and that is designed to prevent or limit the transmission of a contagious or possibly contagious disease” would be limited to only last 10 days without further approval from corresponding elected officials.
House Speaker Eric Barlow, R-Gillette, is the bill’s main sponsor, and he told the committee that his legislation aims to bifurcate health-based and political decisions.
“If I have a communicable disease, this would not affect the order that impacts me within a community,” Barlow said. “That makes sense, because in my mind, those are not political decisions. Those are health decisions. ... It’s orders that would impact the broader population – a community, a county, the whole state – that are not specific to an individual, but we’re trying to reduce transmission by impacting the entire populace; that’s what this bill speaks to directly.”
The bill focuses on those broader orders regulating non-quarantined individuals, such as ones related to travel restrictions, mask usage and gathering sizes, Barlow said. His proposal would also make Wyoming’s public health officer a position appointed by the governor, rather than by the director of the Wyoming Department of Health.
Unlike other proposals, including one that has gained initial support from the Senate, Barlow’s bill would not require the Legislature to convene for an extension of the statewide health orders, instead leaving the decision with the governor on whether to extend an order beyond its initial 10-day lifespan. For county-level orders, the corresponding county commission would have to meet to decide whether to extend them.
As during a committee meeting last week over a Senate bill changing the health order process, Renny MacKay, policy director for Gov. Mark Gordon, told legislators that the governor’s office is supportive of Senate File 30, which would establish a pandemic review task force, as the best option to guide the state’s review of its public health statutes.
Since Gordon announced Monday that the statewide mask mandate will expire next week, the question of when an “after-action” review would take place was on the minds of legislators. State Public Health Officer Dr. Alexia Harrist, who was available for questions during the meeting, told the committee that when transmission levels remain low, and when every Wyoming adult can access a version of the COVID-19 vaccine, a post-pandemic review could get underway.
“We do hope that that time is approaching, although we do have a little ways to go,” Harrist said.
Harrist was unsure of whether Barlow’s legislation would impact the state’s ability to require emergency closures of buildings. She used an example of an illness being clearly linked to a building, and health officials were only able to discover the root cause of the illnesses – in this case, a carbon monoxide leak inside the facility – by issuing an emergency closure.
Like the governor’s office, the Wyoming County Commissioners Association also backed Senate File 30 as the best step forward while taking a neutral position on the other health-order bills.
Sheila Bush, executive director of the Wyoming Medical Society, told lawmakers that her organization of just under 1,000 doctors in the state was in “tentative opposition” to all of the bills before the committee, noting that another section of state statute requires any board-certified physician to protect against the spread of communicable diseases, or risk losing their credentials.
Lawmakers decided against advancing separate bills from Rep. Chuck Gray, R-Casper, and Rep. Dan Laursen, R-Powell, both of which would have required any public health order to be ratified by the Legislature for an extension beyond a period of 10 to 15 days.
The committee then advanced Barlow’s proposal, House Bill 127, without any amendments by a 9-0 vote. With the committee’s approval, the legislation will now head to the House floor for further debate in coming days.