NIOBRARA COUNTY – State Health Officer Alexia Harrist, M.D., approved a variance on Dec. 23 exempting Niobrara County from recently implemented statewide public health orders.
The variance allows bars and restaurants to remain open during normal business hours and recommends face coverings rather than mandates them, according to County Health Officer Joleen Falkenburg, M.D., who said she requested the variance due to a low number of cases throughout the county. Students and staff at Niobrara County School District No. 1 are still required to wear face coverings in school buildings per statewide public school requirements.
“(The variance) doesn’t mean you shouldn’t respect other’s needs or fears,” Falkenburg wrote in a post to the Niobrara County Hospital District Facebook page. “If you’re in tight spaces with others, consider masking.”
The Niobrara County Commissioners issued a statement in response to the variance, after submitting a letter to Governor Mark Gordon’s office regarding the statewide orders mandating bars close between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. and that all businesses require face coverings, as well as the difficulty of enforcing such measures.
They also spoke on the county’s low number of cases and the difficulty of reaching the testing threshold previously required to receive a variance, because of the small population.
“The Commissioners are very appreciative of Governor Gordon’s and Dr. Harrist’s willingness to consider Niobrara County’s unique situation, and their efforts to accommodate our citizens’ concerns,” the commissioners’ statement says.
Despite the variance, privately owned businesses can still implement a face-covering requirement if they choose, they said.
“If we are defending an owner’s right to not be restricted by the mask mandate, then we also need to equally defend the rights of an owner to require a customer to have a face covering to enter their establishment,” the statement says.
As of press time, Niobrara County has one active COVID-19 case and 62 total confirmed positive cases since March.
An additional coronavirus-related death was confirmed in the county, an older adult man with health conditions recognized as putting patients at higher risk for serious illness related to the virus, according to the Wyoming Department of Health (WDH), bringing the county’s total to two COVID-19 related deaths.
Niobrara Community Hospital does not have any patients hospitalized with COVID-19 as of press time, according to data from the WDH.
The county’s allotment of 100 Moderna COVID-19 vaccines arrived Dec. 28, according to Falkenburg. Healthcare personnel, nursing home residents and “frontline workers,” including law enforcement, will have the opportunity to be vaccinated first per the WDH’s vaccination plan. She said public health will begin to administer vaccines on Dec. 30.
Due to Niobrara County’s population size, Falkenburg told The Herald she expects the general public will have the option to be vaccinated “pretty quickly.”
“(The vaccine) comes in a 10 dose bottle and once you puncture the vial, you have to use it within six hours,” she said. “My professional opinion, as someone who wants to salvage that vaccination, is that if I knew of someone who was from the public and was at risk and I had two dosages left that were going to be wasted in six hours, I would probably reach out to them. I’m trying to follow a schedule but I’m also trying not to waste the vaccine.”
In their statement, the commissioners thanked Falkenburg, Public Health Nurse Manager Melanie Pearce, DNP, and health care personnel for their work throughout the pandemic.
“We as Commissioners have a great deal of respect for them, and ask that the public be supportive of the difficult decisions that they are sometimes forced to make,” the commissioners’ statement says.