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Protesters at Capitol demand reopening the state

CHEYENNE – A large crowd of protesters gathered at the front steps of the Wyoming State Capitol on Monday to demand a full reopening of businesses, schools and other industries that have temporarily closed amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The rally, one of several that have taken place across the country during the past week, drew more than 100 people. Though a statewide public health order has banned gatherings of 10 or more people, the leaders of the rally obtained an expedited permit from city officials Monday morning to allow them to peacefully protest.

Wyoming had 317 confirmed COVID-19 cases, of which 170 had recovered, and two confirmed deaths related to the virus, as of Monday afternoon. The state Department of Health also reported 111 probable cases, of which 67 had recovered.

The crux of the protesters’ arguments was the societal costs of the closures, such as skyrocketing unemployment and uncertain child care situations, outweigh their public health benefits.

Fred Schlachter, a Cheyenne resident whose wife helped organize the rally, said he would like Gov. Mark Gordon to reopen the state “today or tomorrow.”

“We think waiting until May 1 to open Wyoming up and to open up business and put people back to work is much too long,” Schlachter said.

The protesters were eventually joined by Gordon, who came out of the Capitol to lead a prayer and then try to address some of the crowd’s concerns. After his prayer, the governor reminded the crowd that Wyoming is one of just a handful of states that have not issued a shelter-in-place order for its residents.

“I relied on the good people of Wyoming, who I knew would do the right thing, and I’m looking at success, even as we speak,” Gordon said.

The governor told the crowd he had just been in a meeting that morning to discuss how to reopen businesses in a safe way. Gordon said he has been in talks with the governors of the seven other states without shelter-in-place orders, adding the public should expect to hear from the group soon.

“I am not sure when we get back to normal, but I can tell you when we’re going to work, and it’s as soon as we possibly can,” Gordon said, with some protesters responding with yells of “Now!” and “Today!”

Despite the crowd’s frustration, some in attendance thanked Gordon for coming out to speak with them – something other governors haven’t done during similar rallies across the U.S. But he remained steadfast in his desire to only lift the orders once health data indicate it is safe to do so.

“When we go back to work, we want to make sure we can continue to work,” Gordon said near the end of his appearance.

Protesters came from across the state to show their solidarity in the rally. Standing at the edge of the crowd, Ben Zeller drove all the way from Cody on Monday morning to attend. Zeller, a small-business owner, said he’d felt the impact of the shutdown when having to cut employees’ weekly work schedules.

“Everyone’s income supports their family, and there’s a way to do this without shutting the whole economy down,” said Zeller, holding a sign that read “Every job is essential to someone.”

Some people in the crowd donned hats and shirts in support of President Donald Trump, with his “Make America Great Again” slogan printed on the front. M. Lee Hasenauer, a former Laramie County commissioner and organizer with the Wyoming Tea Party, said he wants to see a reopening like ones implemented this week in Texas, Florida and elsewhere.

“Just allowing curbside (pickup), that’s got to stop,” Hasenauer said. “Today, you’re hearing people who want the choice to go back to work and get this economy moving in the right direction.”

Hasenauer was joined by his daughter, Joanna, who was carrying a “Wyoming Tea Party USA” sign. Joanna, a sixth grader, said it’s been difficult to follow her school’s learning plan from home.

“For the new things they put online, sometimes there’s things that we can learn easily, but most of the time, it’s hard,” she said. “At our house, we didn’t have much Wi-Fi, so we had to find some kind of Wi-Fi for us to continue our work online.”

Though COVID-19 is now on track to kill far more people in the United States this year than the seasonal flu, protesters repeatedly questioned the severity of the coronavirus. Susan Graham, the wife of Schlachter who helped organize the rally, noted the state Department of Health hasn’t released its weekly report on the flu since early March.

“How many weeks have we not had comparable flu information?” she asked. “You know the flu. The flu is not scary.”

Later during the rally, Graham read a favorite quote from C.S. Lewis that she found apt: “Of all tyrannies, the tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victim may be the most oppressive.”

“That sounds like virtual signaling to me – cancel culture,” Graham said. “I’ve got facts, but oh, it doesn’t matter.”