Fremont County residents, legislators support proposed law banning mask, vaccine, testing discrimination

Five Fremont County residents appeared in front of a state legislative committee last week to voice their support for a bill prohibiting mask, vaccine and testing discrimination in Wyoming.

Four local legislators have signed on to the proposed legislation as well: Wyoming Reps. Pepper Ottman, R-Riverton, Sarah Penn, R-Lander, and John Winter, R-Thermopolis, and Wyoming Sen. Tim Salazar, R-Riverton.

Penn is a member of the House Labor, Health and Social Services Committee, which approved House Bill 66 in a 5-4 vote last week after entertaining hours of public testimony and discussion on the topic.

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Federal conflicts

HB 66 prohibits any “person” from denying services or goods to an individual based on vaccination status, the use of a facial covering, or their refusal to submit to medical testing.

But Wyoming Business Alliance president Cindy DeLancey said those rules could come into conflict with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, which requires employers to make accommodations for workers with disabilities, including people with compromised immune systems.

HB 66’s ban on mask and temperature check requirements removes the “most accessible” options available for employers looking to accommodate workers with suppressed immune systems, Wyoming attorney Bradley Cave said.

The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration further obligates business owners “to protect employees from known hazards in the workplace,” DeLancey continued.

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During the COVID-19 pandemic, she said business owners were able to comply with that regulation and keep their doors open by requiring masks and temperature checks. But HB 66 would remove those options from the table.

“Passing this would really preclude any kind of ability to have conversations to keep our businesses open should we ever be faced with a situation like we’ve been faced with previously,” DeLancey said.

The bill could create a conflict for local airports too, Wyoming Airports Coalition vice president Devon Brubaker said, reminding the committee that federal regulation required masking at airports nationwide during the pandemic.

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If a similar situation were to occur in the future, Brubaker said HB 66 “would basically pit airports between complying with state statute, or federal regulation.”

Wyoming Bankers Association president Scott Meier said banks would be in the same position.

“We are subject to all the federal rules,” Meier explained. “This bill can very well put us in conflict between the federal and the state laws, (impacting) the ability to do banking in this state. … We stand in opposition to this bill.”

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Hospitals

In the medical world, Wyoming Hospital Association president Eric Boley said HB 66 could jeopardize the federal funding that comes to the state from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which requires adherence to federal public health guidelines.

“If we want to move this bill forward … then I would ask you to amend the bill and put the state on the hook for anything that we lose as far as revenue, and penalties that are levied against our facilities,” Boley said, estimating that the amount could exceed $1 billion “if all of our facilities fell out of compliance” with federal rules and were denied federal funding.

Sarah Dike of Lander offered another perspective on the public safety requirements that were implemented at local hospitals during the pandemic, however, informing the committee that her husband “was refused treatment at SageWest hospital in Lander because he wouldn’t wear a mask.”

“He was in severe pain, (and) he’s claustrophobic,” Dike explained. “They wouldn’t even see him. They said, ‘If you’re in that much pain, sir, you’ll put on a mask so that we can help you.’”

Her husband was eventually diagnosed with diverticulitis, “which can be life-threatening,” Dike said.

Darcie Gudger of Mills shared a similar story about her mother, who suffers from interstitial lung disease and still was required to wear a mask when she went to the hospital.

“How many times must I watch my mother pass out in (a) health facility because they force her to wear a mask?” Gudger asked. “Since when does policy trump the medical oath to do no harm? …

“We the people have a right to receive goods and services (without) being forcibly suffocated.”

Education

As a teacher for the deaf and hard of hearing, Dike concluded her testimony by talking about the negative impacts masks can have on “the language development and the social development and the education of children with hearing loss – (and), I would argue, all children.”

“I really hope that this bill passes to prohibit requiring masks, because it is bad for people, and it is bad for children, and it is bad for education,” Dike said.

Taylor Jacobs of Lander also talked about the impacts of COVID-19 regulations on children – specifically the students she served as a school psychologist before she lost her job in 2021 for refusing to take the COVID-19 vaccination as her employer had mandated.

Jacobs said she informed her boss that she would be requesting a medical or religious exemption to the COVID-19 vaccine requirement, but she “was told verbally that, rather than dealing with the process of me applying for those exemptions, they were letting me go.”

She suffered a financial loss as a result and was “shamed and ostracized” by her colleagues – but Jacobs said it was the “children” who were “truly impacted,” because they lost access to the specialized services she had offered.

Mandates

Registered nurse Patricia Kostreva of Riverton refused to comply with her employer’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate, too, and her job was “terminated” as a result.

“The choice I was given was take the shot or get fired – which meant complying, or losing my livelihood,” Kostreva said. “I lost my livelihood. (But) due to financial and other pressures, many of the employees I worked with went ahead and took the COVID vaccine.

“Their liberty as citizens of the United States … was clearly violated.”

Jennifer Scribner of Lander also used the word “violated” to describe the loss of “personal liberty and medical freedom” that citizens of the United States have experienced over “the last three years especially.”

“I’m in full support of this bill,” Scribner said, criticizing the federal government for imposing inadequate safety controls on the vaccine production process in general. “I have lost all trust in our federal health agencies and government health policies, (and) I don’t understand … how any mandates could ever be forced on any of our public. We deserve bodily autonomy, and we deserve medical freedom.”

Nick Scribner of Lander echoed her skepticism regarding the safety of vaccines, encouraging the committee to support HB 66 in order to “discourage history repeating itself and protect medical freedom for Wyoming citizens.”

‘Guts the bill’

After hearing from the public, the committee voted on amendments to the bill, including one change that removed all criminal penalties associated with the proposed legislation.

Wyoming Rep. Jeanette Ward, R-Casper, who sponsored HB 66, said removing the penalties essentially “guts the bill.”

“If there’s no penalty for not obeying the bill, then it’s not really a bill, is it?” she asked.

The committee also removed the portion of HB 66 that would have repealed Wyoming statutes mandating immunizations for children attending childcare facilities and schools.

‘We are rising up’

After all of the proposed amendments were processed, Wyoming Rep. Ken Clouston, R-Gillette, announced his intention to vote “no” on HB 66.

“We can all agree that (COVID-19) was handled poorly,” Clouston said. “We’ve lost the trust in the (Centers for Disease Control). A lot of our personal rights were violated. …

“I just don’t want to handcuff us in the future, that if something worse with COVID comes on, that we’re not able to take precautions that we may need.”

As an alternative, Clouston suggested Wyoming “get together” with other states that could “rise up” as a group and let the federal government know that “we’re not going to let these past mistakes happen” again if another public health emergency occurs.

But Penn argued that HB 66 “is the states rising up.”

“We are rising up, and Wyoming should be the first to lead that charge,” she said.

Pulling out her Wyoming Constitution, Penn pointed to the section that states, “Each competent adult shall have the right to make his or her own health care decisions, (and) the State of Wyoming shall act to preserve these rights from undue infringement.”

The same section says, “the legislature may determine reasonable and necessary restrictions … to protect the health and general welfare,” Penn continued.

“So, what’s reasonable here?” she asked.

When the pandemic first began, Penn recalled, government officials implemented public health measures in an attempt to “protect people” from COVID-19 – but now, she said, “people are identifying the threat as being some of these implementations that have come across, these mandates.”

“We didn’t know – we didn’t anticipate that these would be the outcomes,” she said. “We didn’t realize that there was going to be the difficulties and the risks involved with some of these measures. But this is why the protection of liberty is so important – because we don’t know, and we can’t know, what the future holds.”

At this point, she said, the public health mandates surrounding COVID-19 constitute “an exhibition of absolute and arbitrary power.”

“It’s not OK to let fear steal our liberty and to govern us,” Penn said. “Let’s use an abundance of caution to protect liberty first.”

HB 66 was placed on General File in the Wyoming House of Representatives on Tuesday.

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