House approves health order bill

CHEYENNE — The Wyoming House of Representatives gave its final approval Wednesday to a bill that would slightly alter the process through which public health orders are issued in the state, sending the proposal along to the Senate for possible consideration in the coming days.

If enacted into law, House Bill 127, which gained approval by an overwhelming 58-2 vote from the body, would limit the initial lifespan of any order issued by a local or state health officer that restricts individuals’ movements or their ability to engage in an activity to 10 days without further approval from a corresponding elected body. For statewide orders, a decision on whether to extend such an order would be left to the governor, rather than the state Legislature.

House Speaker Eric Barlow, R-Gillette, the bill’s main sponsor, previously told a legislative committee that his bill aims to separate political decisions from those that should be left to health officials.

“If I have a communicable disease, this would not affect the order that impacts me within a community,” Barlow said during a committee meeting earlier this month. “That makes sense, because in my mind, those are not political decisions. Those are health decisions. ... It’s orders that would impact the broader population – a community, a county, the whole state – that are not specific to an individual, but we’re trying to reduce transmission by impacting the entire populace; that’s what this bill speaks to directly.”

His bill focuses on orders impacting non-quarantined individuals, such as ones related to travel restrictions, mask usage, business closures and gathering sizes. His proposal would also make Wyoming’s public health officer a position appointed by the governor, rather than by the Wyoming Department of Health director.

Unlike other proposals, including one that has passed the Senate, the bill would not require the Legislature to convene for an extension of the statewide health orders, instead leaving the decision with the governor on whether to extend an order beyond its initial 10-day lifespan. For county-level orders, the corresponding county commission would have to meet to decide whether to extend them.

While Barlow’s bill will now heads to the Senate for possible consideration in the coming days, only one pandemic-related bill – Senate File 30 – has gained the backing of the governor’s office. That proposal, which has passed the Senate and gained initial support from the House on Wednesday, would establish a pandemic review task force composed of lawmakers and local stakeholders from across the state.

House Bill 127 will now head to the Senate, where it could be considered over the next couple weeks. Senate File 80, which would require an extension of a statewide order by Wyoming lawmakers after 60 days of it being in effect, awaits possible consideration in the House, though it has yet to be assigned to a committee for further discussion.