When the coronavirus pandemic began to impact the economy more than two months ago, there was a lot of uncertainty on how it would play out. Today, as states and communities start to reopen, it’s difficult to predict what the recovery will look like.
That includes Wyoming’s second largest industry, tourism. Memorial Day weekend marks the start of tourism season, and those who work in the hospitality industry are unsure about what to expect this summer.
Kasie Wanke, general manager of the La Quinta Inns & Suites in Gillette, said the past two months have “been a little scary.”
The year started off well with the first two months tracking ahead of 2019, she said. But at the end of March and into April as state and local responses to the pandemic began to accelerate, travel and hotel business “really tanked,” she said.
“Everything changed all the time,” she said. “It hit fast.”
In April, her hotel had an occupancy rate of 18%. Compared to April 2019, that was a 75% decrease. Much of the hotel’s staff had to be laid off and hours were cut. Wednesday afternoon, Wanke was the only person working the front desk.
She hopes to bring her staff back.
“They’re still on our payroll. But we had the hope that this would be shorter-lived than it has been,” she said.
Wanke estimates that 60% or more of the hotel’s customers each year are from leisure travel, and she hopes to see an uptick in visitors this summer.
“We’d like to see things returning to semi-normal,” Wanke said.
But she doesn’t know if that’s going to happen this summer.
“Everything that’s kept Gillette (hotels) afloat — the tour buses, special events, conventions — all that stuff is canceled,” she said.
Regional travel expected
Thanks to the pandemic, 2020 figures to be a much different tourism season compared to last year, when local hotels, motels and campgrounds brought in more than $25 million in revenue, the highest since 2015.
Statewide, visitors spent more than $3.95 billion on travel.
Jessica Seders, executive director of the Campbell County Convention and Visitors Bureau, said business will pick up eventually.
“I think we’ll see a good bounce-back, but it’s hard to gauge when that will be,” she said.
Each state has its own guidelines and restrictions regarding the coronavirus. How soon Wyoming’s neighbors open up also will affect its tourist traffic.
Seders said during the pandemic, the marketing strategy was “to keep Campbell County in the forefront of people’s minds.”
The Cowboy State has a lot going for it. Its wide open spaces, low population and relatively low infection rate during the pandemic all make it a favorable destination. But whether that translates into a good tourism season has yet to be seen.
Seders said she expects to see a lot of regional travel, with people from neighboring states coming to Wyoming, but it will take longer to see visitors from farther away. She also expects there to be little to no international travel.
Tour buses cancel
Wanke said that most of the tour buses that had been scheduled for this summer have already canceled.
Since Gillette is a stop along people’s drives to Yellowstone or Mount Rushmore, how well the city does in business from those travelers depends largely on what happens with those main attractions.
Both Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks partially reopened last week after being closed for seven weeks.
Friday, Devils Tower reopened its trails and park roads and welcomed back climbers. The visitors center and campground remain closed.
Camping at state parks reopened to residents May 15. Thursday morning, 84% of the campsites at Keyhole State Park were booked for Sunday.
Rockpile Museum director Robert Henning said he doesn’t know what to expect this summer. The museum gets about half of its annual traffic in the three summer months, and many of those are people who are just passing through Gillette.
He said it’s possible that for the museum, a tourism season “never really comes” this year, but it’s also possible people will want to travel after being cooped up for two months.
“We may see a lot of people want to come to the museum, or there may not be as much as we might think,” he said. “We’ll have to adjust to that. I can see certainly a decrease compared to normal, but how much that’s going to be I don’t know.”
Henning said small museums around the state have been slowly reopening.
“Everybody’s doing their best to make changes, and a lot of folks really need to be open because they depend on that admission,” he said. “Hopefully, they’ll survive this. Some fear some of the smaller museums may not make it.”
The museums that depend on visitors paying admission need to open their doors to survive, he said. While the Rockpile Museum is free, it depends on county funding to operate. Fewer visitors means fewer tax dollars.
“When those funds are down, you get concerned a little bit,” Henning said.
Sonja Melick, manager at High Plains Campground, said only 5% of her customer base comes from tourism, but she’s still been hit hard by the pandemic. Most of her business comes from transit workers who work in the oil field, railroad, roofing and construction.
With the hits to those industries, she’s lost 80% of her clientele since March. When one loses that much business, “you cut back on everything that’s not essential,” she said. “You name it, we’ve had to cut back on it.”
Melick said she’s gone from having three employees to having to do the work of four people herself running the campground, cleaning and performing upkeep and garbage pickup.
“I never thought it’d be as serious as what they made it out to be,” she said about the pandemic. “I hope it goes back to the way it was before.”
Things have started to pick up a little bit. With a softball tournament in town this weekend, both Wanke and Melick have seen increased traffic. Wanke’s received calls from potential customers. Melick also is seeing some construction crews coming in.
“It’s nothing to get excited for,” Melick said, adding that it’s still better than the last couple of months.
Energy and leisure travel are the two pillars that support the local hospitality industry, Wanke said.
“We lost a lot of crews and workers due to the energy (industry) declining,” Wanke said. “They’re normally our base business for the entire year.”
So even if tourism does rebound this summer, the uncertain future of fossil fuels will continue to impact local hotels and campgrounds, she said.
Compared to the coal mine layoffs in 2015 and 2016, Melick said this pandemic is twice as bad, and she expects that it will take at least a year to recover.
“It’s like any other downswing,” she said. “Campbell County is strong. It will survive. It’ll just come back a little slower this time.”
After touring Gillette Reproductive Health this week, the two Campbell County Commissioners who are most opposed to using Optional 1% Sales Tax to fund the organization have not changed their minds.
Gillette Reproductive Health Director Julie Price Carroll and Commissioner Del Shelstad have both moved on from their conversation at this week’s commissioners meeting that turned personal and had to be stopped by Commissioner Rusty Bell before it got worse.
Shelstad and fellow commissioner Bob Maul took a tour of the organization Tuesday afternoon. Commissioner Colleen Faber toured it Wednesday.
“(Carroll) showed us around, it was congenial, no big deal at all,” Shelstad said.
The two commissioners also got to sit down with Dr. David Beck, the agency’s medical director.
“They asked a lot of questions, I think they got everything answered, and it was very productive,” Carroll said.
Shelstad said that after the tour, he’s “got no reason” to change his stance on the issue.
“My mind hasn’t changed any,” he said. “I feel I’m more educated than I was before.”
He’s heard different stories on whether the group makes abortion referrals, and “I still don’t know the truth.” He said that lack of clarity is what’s preventing him from changing his mind.
“We need to understand what we’re funding,” he said. “At this point, I don’t agree on that funding for Gillette Reproductive Health.”
Faber said her stance remains the same as well, but she will continue talking to Carroll.
“Our discussions aren’t done,” she said. “But the things that would help me support fund them are going to take them a little time to navigate through.”
She said it was helpful to talk with Carroll face to face instead of over the phone and that the in-person dialogue provided a lot of clarity.
Carroll said she appreciates that the debate has shed a light on her agency and the services it provides.
“I think we just need to keep educating people on the important work that we do,” she said.
What the agency does
The organization has provided more than 57,000 medical visits to more than 19,000 patients in the last 23 years. Depending on the year, about 60-75% of its patients have no insurance.
It requested $35,000 from the county’s Optional 1% Sales Tax this upcoming fiscal year. In the past, it’s received $25,000.
The money the agency receives from the county Optional 1% Sales Tax goes toward wellness exams for women. It helps lowers the cost that women have to pay to get a wellness exam. With the county funding, the exam costs $25. Without it, the cost can range from $145 to $250, Carroll said.
During the county’s budget discussions in April, the commissioners decided to cut the agency’s funding next fiscal year to zero. The decision is only preliminary. It won’t be official until the county’s budget is approved in June.
Shelstad and Faber were the most outspoken because of their anti-abortion stances.
“I asked them last year if they did abortion referrals, they said they didn’t, but I know for a fact they do,” Shelstad said in April, adding that he knew of three people who got referrals.
Carroll has repeatedly denied that her agency does abortion referrals. As an organization that receives federal funding from the Title X Family Planning Program, it’s prohibited from referring patients for abortion care.
Carroll said she and her staff have signed an agreement that says they won’t do abortion referrals.
“We have never provided abortions in this clinic ever, and we don’t even talk about abortions,” she said. “When we talk about (family planning) it doesn’t even enter into our minds.”
The other issue that Shelstad and Faber had was that the agency provides the Plan B One-Step morning-after pill to minors without parental counseling.
Carroll said it’s emergency contraception, not an abortion pill, and is available over the counter. Since 2013, anyone of any age can buy it without a prescription. The difference is if someone gets it at Gillette Reproductive Health, “we will sit down and talk to them about the most effective birth control.”
A petition going around saying that Gillette Reproductive Health has provided the pill to girls “as young as 14 years of age, without parental consent.” Carroll said there is no record of a girl that young being given the pill.
In 2018, when the Optional 1% Sales Tax was up for renewal, some people said they wouldn’t vote for the tax as long as Gillette Reproductive Health was a recipient of it.
“There’s been a small group that have just tagged on to the narrative of misinformation on what we do,” Carroll said.
A couple of years ago, the organization had to fight rumors that it provided abortions. Today, the debate is over referrals.
“I’m glad that we’ve come this far,” she said. “Now people realize that (abortions) are not something we do.”
Shelstad said he understands this is “a sensitive issue.”
“And it’s an election year, so this is what comes out,” he said.
He said he’s not worried about whether the issue will help or hurt his chances at getting re-elected this year. He added that he would have brought it up even if this weren’t an election year.
“I was taught in the military that to be a good leader, you have to let people know where you stand,” he said.
Both sides of the issue were represented at commissioner meeting earlier this week.
Cathy Raney said the organization should not be “funded by our tax dollars, and providing health care is not a function of government.”
Sherri Cyr said there must be “another option to help these people.”
“I do not believe we should support a company that can’t provide a policy that will stick up for the rights of the unborn,” she said.
Dora Samuels of Bell Nob Swing for the Cure, a group that gives financial help to residents who need a mammogram or help in the diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer, said she works very closely with Gillette Reproductive Health.
If the agency has a client who suspects she has breast cancer, it will send her to Swing for the Cure.
“We’re very aware the women who are coming in have nowhere else to turn to,” Samuels said.
Christy Gerrits said “it’s very short-sighted to not provide the best health care possible to these people who don’t have insurance.”
Deb Michaels warned that without the county funding, the community will have a lot more unplanned pregnancies, marital strife and divorces.
“Open your hearts and understand we provide great benefit to the community,” she said.
Stacie McDonald said Gillette Reproductive Health is in the business of informing and educating women. It does not make decisions for them.
McDonald said that when she was the director of Climb Wyoming, she would have Gillette Reproductive Health come in to talk to the women about their health. If women stay healthy, they can keep working, and if they keep working, they can support their families, which ultimately leads to a stronger community, she said.
“I’ve heard a lot of heated debate and certainly some dramatics, but ultimately what we’re looking at is a financial decision,” she said.
If women can’t get a wellness exam at Gillette Reproductive Health, they could eventually end up at the hospital, where treatment will be much more expensive.
“It’s a case of where the service can be provided for the least amount of money,” Gerrits said.
The city of Gillette’s decision to kill an ordinance to regulate “skills” games does not end a larger debate about whether businesses and organizations across Wyoming should be allowed the have the games.
In March, the Wyoming Legislature created a statewide gaming commission to be in charge of the permitting process for in-state gaming. The commission also will set punishments for rule violations.
The new law also eliminates the exemption that allows “skills” games and establishes a sunset date of June 30, 2021, to allow businesses who own the electronic wagering devices to keep them if they comply with new regulations set.
After that date, if nothing is done, then all businesses won’t be allowed to use the machines.
“I don’t think that was the Legislature’s intent,” Wyoming Amusement owner Nic George said about the sunset date. “It was more to get a handle on things. Their fear was if they open it up, there would be too many games too fast for any commission to get their arms around it.”
The Gillette City Council was considering an ordinance that would have charged fees for the games at local businesses. Because of the Legislature’s action, however, the council dropped the measure because it would be moot to regulate devices that won’t be allowed after June 30, 2021.
Business owners and machine operators who submitted their machines to the new gaming commission by May 15 and were compliant can continue to operate until June 30, 2021, but if the machines were not they are illegal.
Enrolled Act 95 states that businesses with the machines can continue to operate until June 30, 2021, if:
The maximum penalties for noncompliance are six months in prison and a $10,000 fine.
“The penalties were set up to discourage illegal activity,” said state Sen. Ogden Driskill, R-Devils Tower.
Driskill is one of two Wyoming legislators on the Wyoming Gaming Commission. The other is Rep. Tom Walters, R-Casper.
If legislators decide to keep the status quo and nothing is done to allow skills games beyond the grace period, business will have to get rid of the machines. The impact for local businesses is unknown.
Bruce Brown, co-owner of Lakeside Liquors and Pat’s Drive-thru Liquor, which has several machines, said he does not know how much his businesses would be impacted.“It would hit us because we get a decent revenue stream from those machines,” he said.
Hopefully, legislators will continue to discuss the issue and not let the sunset date hit without something being done, Brown said.
It would be unfortunate if the machines are taken away because there are some people who come to play to win a few bucks, which is always nice to have, said Center Bar bartender Crash Karns.
“I know a lot of people that enjoy them,” Councilman Tim Carsrud said. “I think people do it for fun. I don’t think they are out to get rich. I think it’s entertainment and that’s it.
For nonprofit organizations like the American Legion, not having the machines could have a big impact.
It would take a lot away of needed revenue, said American Legion Post 42 Commander Buddy Langone.
The Legion only has a few machines and does not have a big crowd like many bars. It also does not collect a lot from the owner of the machines.
“We get a percentage, they get the rest,” Langone said. “The little that we get we put to help a vet and with scholarships, stuff like that.”
A busy process
Wyoming Gaming Commission Director Charles Moore said the process of examining skills games has been long, and isn’t finished.
“We’re still trying to sort through this,” he said.
The commission has received requests from more than 300 establishments and looked at 918 games statewide, Moore said.
“It’s a process whether it’s 10, 100 or whatever. It’s a process,” he said. “It has been time consuming, but it’s probably more volume than it is difficulty.”
Sorting through the games and determining what is legal was the first step. The next phase is to develop a rule-making process for the games. The last step is to create a report for legislators that will be due in the fall.
Skills games may not be dead
The Wyoming Legislature is likely to at the very least re-examine skills games in interim committee meetings and in next year’s general session.
Driskill said he expects numerous bills addressing the games will be drafted, as well as an intense discussion between proponents and opponents.
“I would expect I won’t bring it (up),” he said. “Someone will for certain.”
There are scenarios lawmakers could consider, including getting rid of the sunset provision or extending it in order to do more research on the games and continue the dialogue in search of a possible long-term solution.
“I guess it will be a very robust conversation,” Driskill said.