Casper City Council Cans COVID Enforcement Ordinance; Looks at Other Public Health Ideas
The Casper City Council zapped a proposed ordinance that would have fined and possibly jailed people for not following social distancing guidelines to slow the spread of the coronavirus pandemic in the community.
After a more than an hour of discussion at a council work session on Tuesday, council members tabled it, asked the city attorney to review state law, and said they would consider a draft ordinance at the council's pre-meeting on April 21 to deal with people who have tested positive but refused to self-quarantine.
Nobody liked the proposed ordinance. In fact, they loathed it.
"This whole ordinance, no, thumbs down for me on it and I'll tell you my reason why again," Mayor Steve Freel said via the city's YouTube channel.
"I don't think we need to be arresting our way out of it, I don't think we need to be giving people fines," Freel said. "It's just asinine. The rules are in place. The state law is in place if we need to deal with it."
But they also wrestled with how to keep the community safe from the COVID-19.
Freel and council members said they've received hundreds of emails, calls and texts from residents opposed to the draft ordinance that would have made it a misdemeanor punishable by a fine and jail term to violate the orders from Gov. Mark Gordon and state health officials to close public places, certain businesses and prohibit gatherings of more than 10 people.
State law grants cities and towns the authority to regulate conduct jeopardizing public health, and the power to enforce it, but Casper is still waiting to hear from state authorities about just how that should be done.
Charlie Powell said before he and others intended to voice their opposition to the proposed ordinance, he asked for the reasons behind it.
Police Chief Keith McPheeters said the vagaries if not conflicts within the state health laws prompted the idea. State law -- 35-4-105 -- says escape from quarantine is a misdemeanor and that law is adequate, he said.
On the other hand, officers are very concerned about infringing on civil liberties, but the police department lacks the tools too stop someone who is a threat to the community, McPheeters said. "The officers are in a tough spot."
Freel, a former police chief, rhetorically asked where an arrested person go. If the jail, then the jail population is at risk, he said.
Of the 34 confirmed cases in Natrona County, 22 of them have been linked to the Wyoming Behavioral Institute, Freel said.
Some of those who have been released are homeless, and the city set up a quarantine area at the former Westwood Elementary School.
However, no legal means exists to keep them there until they are deemed healthy, Freel said.
He and other council members said the proposed ordinance was way too broad and needed to be narrowed to deal with those who may be infected but don't stay self-quarantined.
However, Shawn Johnson and Ken Bates said the city has no right to keep people in a place, especially when an alternative ordinance would just single out people at Westwood but not people at their homes.
Powell asked Johnson what he would say to a clerk at a grocery store or someone working at an essential business who may be infected by someone with COVID who is exercising their right to go into the public.
"The stakes are very high here,' Powell said.
Natrona County has had a low rate of infection, but that could change quickly, he added.
Powell and others acknowledged the emails they received from public and were grateful for the comments.
But some of those emails said that council somehow was taking pleasure in being able to take away people's rights, and Powell said that was utterly wrong.
Mike Huber added that the public needs to pay attention to the local media that have been reporting about COVID-19 because some of the emails were from people who had no idea about the issues involved.
Finally, Steve Cathey urged the public to act responsibly with social distancing and respect others.
"People need to go to their proctologists and find their heads," Cathey said.
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