Natrona County Health Officer Dr. Mark Dowell on Thursday announced that health officials have no choice but to implement a mask mandate.

"We have to do this," Dowell said, later adding. "This is a medical emergency."

Hospitals in Wyoming are having to turn away patients from other states because there is no room left. Dowell said same is true for patients from areas like Sheridan who would otherwise be sent to hospitals in Billings.

In announcing the mandate, Dowell said he's in support of the mandate because it protects Natrona County citizens. He added that health officials anticipate more deaths.

"We're not trying to make this into a punishment," Dowell said. "We're trying to keep our citizens healthy and alive."

It's not much different than being asked to wear a seat belt when you get behind the wheel, Dowell added.

Dowell said he signed the order late Wednesday.

Casper Mayor Steve Freel said council members were surprised when they learned of the mask mandate. Council members have not had the opportunity to discuss the mandate.

That said, Freel said the county was well within their authority to issue the mandate.

"The virus has taken over several sectors of our community," Freel said, adding one of the hardest hit areas is nursing homes.

Freel said law enforcement will not go on "masking patrols," but the Casper Police Department will enforce the mandate. Police will still respond to more serious calls like violent crime.

And Natrona County Attorney Eric Nelson said the order is "purely a function of the state health officer's powers and abilities under Wyoming statute."

"I don't want to mislead," Nelson said. "This is a lawful order and carries the weight of law."

Nelson said he doesn't expect citations to be issued for those not wearing masks. None have been issued since the pandemic began in March.

Other counties in Wyoming have indicated that they won't prosecute people for not wearing face masks. That includes Laramie County District Attorney Leigh Anne Manlove who said she had constitutional concerns with mask mandates.

Sheriffs in Sweetwater and Lincoln Counties have also said they won't enforce mask mandates. 

Wyoming Medical Center Chief of Staff Dr. Andy Dunn said medical staff at the hospital wearing down through the pandemic. It's been more than two weeks since Dunn has had a day off.

Dunn said the best way to help hospital staff is to mask up.

Earlier this month, Dunn recalled his experience treating COVID patients at WMC. In one case, he held a tablet so a man could say goodbye to his dying wife. 

The mask mandate, which will run through December 4, includes the following requirements and exemptions:

  • A face covering is defined as a covering made of cloth, fabric, or other soft or permeable material, without holes, that covers the nose and mouth and surrounding areas of the lower face.
  • Face coverings should be worn inside or waiting in line to enter any retail or commercial business and all government facilities. This applies to employees, customers and visitors. Face coverings should be worn while obtaining services or visiting any healthcare operation including hospitals, dentists, pharmacies and veterinarians.
  • Face coverings should be worn while using any form of public transportation or in any ride sharing vehicle. This applies to drivers and passengers.
  • Minors three years and older are encouraged to wear face coverings but not required. Minors under two should not wear face coverings.
  • Face coverings are not required when a person is seated at a restaurant with no more than 8 people at a table, while actively exercising in a gym setting, or when alone inside of a personal office.

This story will be updated.