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COVID has altered the way we engage with government. What else about that process needs to change?

By Ellen Gerst

Casper Star-Tribune

In the digital world, you can tune in to watch your local government without even putting on shoes. Want to give public input on one of the agenda items? You don’t have to sit through hours of discussion at City Hall to give one comment under the five-minute time limit.

For people who work nights, have to take care of kids or don’t have the means to leave the house at will, streamed meetings that can be watched even after they’re over take a lot of the logistical barriers — or even just annoyances — out of participating in local government.

But the virtual world, citizens and officials have found, can’t completely replace the physical one.

Wyoming Sen. Chris Rothfuss said going entirely virtual means the Legislature loses the chance encounters and shared meals that make its laws better and more collaborative. Casper City Council member Kyle Gamroth said hearing from citizens over email or social media doesn’t have the same impact as seeing them at a meeting. Elsie Herbort of Mills doesn’t even use a computer.

In Wyoming, decision-makers and laypeople agree, government seems to work best when it communicates openly and often with its people. And it’s up to officials to learn the needs and limits of their own communities and find the best way to have that conversation.

‘Silver lining’

In Laramie, City Council member Paul Weaver said locals started participating in their meetings much more once they switched to video conference meetings streamed online during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“That’s been a silver lining,” Weaver said. “I think it’s always good to be able to have people share their views on things with us.”

He said the council has had multiple requests to continue taking public comment over video calls, and some say they’re more comfortable calling in than appearing in person. He says they’re now looking at how to keep doing that even after pandemic conditions subside.

“We probably will do that, so that we can encourage people that might not otherwise want to provide their input to us if they didn’t have that option,” Weaver said. “And we’d like them to be able to do that and feel comfortable doing that.”

In Casper, where remote public comment is available but nearly never used, City Council member Kyle Gamroth says he’s already noticed in his first few months on the dais that there’s a small vocal minority that shows up in person regularly. Their presence, he said, might not leave a lot of space for more measured input from a wider swath of the city.

“I think there’s a lot of people out there that disagree with this very brash, crass, belligerent language and behavior becoming popular these days,” Gamroth said, “but they’re not speaking up, they’re not getting engaged, they’re not raising their voice.”

Weaver admits the virtual model doesn’t work as well in areas where internet access isn’t as common as it is in Laramie, or in places where the population isn’t as tech savvy. Becoming too reliant on streaming or video calls might open up accessibility to some but can in turn leave out lower-income or older populations who aren’t online.

The digital divide

According to census data from 2019, 17.5% of households in Wyoming don’t have access to the internet. Around 8% don’t have a computer at all. And those with internet access are subject to paying high prices for slower speeds, thanks to a lack of sufficient broadband infrastructure in the state.

In Mills, Elsie Herbort keeps up with her town government more than most. She doesn’t have internet and doesn’t use her virus-ridden computer, but she corresponds with Mills officials nevertheless — by way of handwritten notes sent in with her monthly water payments.

“There are a lot of these older people out here that do not have computers,” Herbort said. “I’m not the only one. Most of the people that I know do not have computers.”

Herbort once served on Mills Town Council herself, even spending a few months as mayor. She’s no stranger to the civic process, but now she has to rely on a newsletter circulated by the town and the newspaper to stay updated.

She’s spent more than a year writing letters to the town asking for an explanation for a $4 fee charged with the water bill each month. The answer she keeps getting is that it’s an administrative fee, to cover postage for the bills. She doesn’t buy it.

“I have asked legitimate questions. I honestly got a little bit feisty a couple of times,” Herbort said. “Some people might think four dollars is no big deal, but it adds up. So I thought, well, I’ll just keep writing.”

She said despite her efforts, she still doesn’t feel like her local government is hearing her. And in a town of around 4,000 people, she says it shouldn’t be hard to take everyone’s voice into consideration.

At the state level, 2021’s hybrid legislative session saw more people giving testimony and a lot more eyes on the lawmaking process than usual. Sen. Cale Case, R-Lander, said the Capitol felt eerily empty without members of the public milling around this session, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t paying attention.

It wasn’t unusual for committee meetings or floor sessions livestreamed on the Wyoming Legislature’s YouTube to rack up a few hundred views each. The video of the House Judiciary Committee’s discussion of marijuana legalization has been watched nearly 2,000 times. During that hearing, the committee heard testimony from a doctor in California, a concerned parent in Colorado and a former Rhode Island governor — as well as others from all corners of the state who may not have made the long trip to Cheyenne to speak under the 3-minute time limit.

That increase in participation and transparency is a good thing, Sen. Chris Rothfuss, D-Laramie, said — for the most part.

Taking government online also cuts out some of the best parts about it, Rothfuss says. It’s a great way to be transparent and to give citizens a better look inside government processes, but when it comes to giving remote testimony there’s a risk of public comment turning rude and angry, losing the spirit of collaboration and respect fostered by having to sit a few feet away from a legislator and look them in the eyes.

And streaming, he fears, may turn the Capitol into a theater rather than a place for careful discussion. Because anyone can tune in, record comments or testimony, and post them online, the information going to the public may be presented out of context.

For lawmakers, Rothfuss says, going completely virtual would take away the informal hallway conversations, lunchtime discussions and random encounters that build compromise and lead to thoughtful, collaborative legislation. Case, an early proponent for streaming meetings and enabling remote testimony, said that for committee meetings, virtual public input looks more like a queue of short speeches than a conversation between citizens and lawmakers.

Now that the Capitol is fully equipped to stream meetings and allow remote participation, Case said he doesn’t see it going away. For the summer’s interim committee meetings, committee chairs can choose whether to hold meetings virtually or in person. Beyond that, the Legislature’s policy on remote participation has yet to be determined.

“We will likely find that remote participation is going to win out,” Case said. “It’s like a genie out of a bottle, you can’t put it back in. The public expects it, they think its better — and it is, in many aspects. Not in all aspects.”

As lawmakers found, nothing can replace the kind of civic engagement fostered by real-life interactions between a government and its community.

Making contact

For one, it personalizes issues in ways an email or phone call really can’t. Austin Berlin, chairperson of Casper’s Council of People with Disabilities, said showing up to council meetings has paid off. The council is an advisory body for Casper City Council, which means it can offer direct input on issues like transportation and health care access, and City Council members are appointed as liaisons between both bodies.

In January, CCPD member Masha Flynn came to a meeting asking the council to do something about clearing snow from sidewalks so that wheelchair users like her can get around during the winter. A week later, council member Amber Pollock called for a public awareness campaign to urge citizens to do their part in clearing the sidewalks outside their homes.

Berlin said CCPD also usually hosts a City Council member at its own meetings. That gives them an audience with decision-makers outside the time constraints and formal setting of council meetings, and allows CCPD to give input on how current council projects would affect Casper’s disabled residents.

“I think that they have made an effort to really go to most of our meetings and listen to our input and what we are looking for in our representatives,” Berlin said. “I think that they’ve done a good job with listening to us and doing what they can to make things happen.”

The Council of People with Disabilities opened up a line of communication with people in city government, Berlin said. And it’s still relatively new — the council held its first meeting less than two years ago. In 2020, the even newer LGBTQ+ Advisory Committee was created to make it easier for Casper’s queer community to get an audience with local government and staff.

For Casper’s young people, the Casper Youth Council acts as that same kind of bridge. It also started meeting in 2020, and secretary Brooklyn Wistisen says in the short time they’ve been active, she’s gone from not knowing who Casper’s mayor is to regularly attending City Council meetings and even commenting on issues like the city’s new tobacco rules that directly affect young people.

The students meet monthly, and city officials like the mayor, city manager and chief of police have come by to give some insight into how the city is run.

“Lots of kids want to get out of Casper,” Wistisen said. “They feel like there isn’t a lot of room for growth or opportunities. I was definitely one of those kids, but being a little more involved has helped me see there’s more that Casper has to offer.”

Part of Wistisen’s job as secretary is making short videos summarizing City Council meetings, which get posted on the Youth Council’s social media. She calls herself a liaison between Casper’s young people and the “big dogs” in the city government.

‘Come speak to us’

Council members Gamroth and Ray Pacheco work with the Youth Council and are working on ways to keep all Casperites engaged with the city’s decision-making.

For Gamroth, one of the youngest council members, that means an active presence on social media. For much of Casper’s adult population, he said, Facebook is one of their primary sources for information and news. Decisions made at the city level tend to affect people much more than those that make national headlines, but it’s harder to get the right eyes on those updates.

Gamroth said he gets his fair share of angry or at times threatening messages over email or Facebook, things most people would be too scared to say to a human’s face. But he chalks up his activity on Facebook as a win overall, since it’s allowed him to share important council decisions or answer citizens’ questions directly.

But connecting online, he said, can only do so much.

“If you’re that passionate about something, please come speak to us at a meeting,” Gamroth said. “That way we can have a conversation with you, we can capture it on video and make it accessible to everyone else who wasn’t able to watch those meetings live. Feel free to voice your concerns online, but that to me still isn’t the right forum to have impact or create real change.”

Pacheco said over his six years on the council, he’s seen the national political divide creep into conversations in Casper more and more. The City Council is nonpartisan and the members aren’t elected as members of a party, but he said questions of property or individual liberties even at the city level can devolve into a party-lines debate.

“I think Wyoming and in Casper, people have always been active somehow,” Pacheco said. “But the last few years have seemed a little different. A little bit more pointed, a little bit more vocal, if you will.”

Going virtual doesn’t generally mean there’s more attention on issues that already don’t get much play, Rothfuss said, just more people wanting to contribute to certain contentious discussions. But allowing online input does make governing bodies vulnerable to more inflammatory comments on flashpoint issues.

Wistisen said she’s noticed the same trend in Casper, where most issues in front of the council have no public input but the question of what to do with a small piece of vacant land can bring in several people and their opinions every week for a month.

But the beauty of the smallness of local government is that people are forced to work closely with others who may be their political opposite. Council members who advocate for expanding social programs sit next to those looking to cut every extra dollar from the city’s spending.

“How do we work together to deal with these moments where we disagree?” Pacheco said. “We’re blessed as a council that we get along pretty good. There’s some of us that are politically and ideologically on separate waves, but we’re still friends, and we still respect each other.”

The COVID-19 pandemic illuminated wide mistrust in Wyoming. Experts think person-to-person communication might help.

By Morgan Hughes

Casper Star-Tribune

Confusion and misinformation have plagued the past year. Public officials say so. Epidemiologists too.

“I don’t know what to believe,” said Charles Deal, who works at Walmart and has lived in Casper for four years. He’s been nervous with shoppers not coming to the store masked, but he’s reluctant to take a vaccine.

“I’m kind of skeptical on that,” he said, referencing articles he’s read about people dying or becoming ill after receiving their shot.

Federal health authorities have assured the public that no deaths have been linked to the vaccinations. The federal database to record adverse vaccination reactions “has not detected patterns in cause of death that would indicate a safety problem with COVID-19 vaccines,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Still, Deal said he doesn’t know what to trust.

“I’ve talked to my doctor a little bit and even he’s a little skeptical,” Deal said, but added if his doctor recommended the vaccine, he’d take it.

When asked about frustrations with the pandemic, nearly every person interviewed by the Star-Tribune for this story said getting information they trusted was among their biggest challenges.

Faith Stultz, a Natrona County School District parent who is among those advocating that the district’s mask requirement be lifted, told the Star-Tribune health officials have given her contradictory information too.

Her boyfriend contracted COVID-19 in 2020. When he received a positive test, the person who conducted it advised him to take zinc and vitamin C. Some research does show zinc can help with symptoms of the common cold and other coronaviruses, but experts have stressed the substance is not a cure. So the suggestion took Stultz back.

“It is all very misleading,” she said.

Mistrust is not happening in a vacuum in Wyoming. The state is historically among the least trusting of institutions, and it consistently ranks in the top three conservatives states based on national polling, which tends to align with media distrust. In fact, trust of the media is so low in Wyoming the Society of Professional Journalists launched a months-long project in 2019 to examine why. The findings were largely inconclusive.

Enter the COVID-19 pandemic. About 20% of respondents to a Wyoming Survey and Analysis Center poll say COVID-19 is not a major problem. Forty percent say it’s blown out of proportion. Still, nearly 80% say they closely follow news about the pandemic.

But messages have gotten muddled. Wyoming has the most vaccine-hesitant communities in the nation, Natrona County among them, according a recent federal analysis. State and national surveys suggest those reluctant to take a vaccine aren’t entirely resistant, but they want more information about effectiveness and side effects.

Health officials are trying to share information, but skepticism is still high in Wyoming. Some officials say the high rates of vaccine hesitancy here points to a broader challenge: The public doesn’t always trust what experts have to say. While the pandemic has illuminated this distrust, how to solve it remains to be seen.

“The county health department and the state have done a great job of publicizing this, but there has been so much information out there that people start to just hear noise, and they don’t really absorb what they’re hearing,” Natrona County Health Officer Dr. Mark Dowell said.

“Unfortunately this health emergency was changed from a focused health emergency to having a political undertone, and that’s been the biggest problem,” Dowell said. “There’s no easy answer.”

Changing opinions

Officials are hoping more direct messaging will help. But research from the University of Wyoming suggests already hesitant Wyomingites are going to be a tough sell.

University of Wyoming economist Linda Thunstrom has been conducting research on how Wyomingites respond to different messaging promoting vaccination. Her team surveyed both a sample of Wyomingites and a sample of the national population for comparison. They then exposed respondents to different promotional strategies for the COVID-19 vaccine, including highlighting the vaccine’s importance for things like personal health, community health and the economy.

They found nationally, individuals responded positively to public health messaging focusing on the importance of a vaccine to individual and community health. The trend doesn’t hold when the same survey is given only to Wyomingites.

“We unfortunately don’t see much of an effect of any of the messages that we tried out on vaccine intentions in Wyoming,” Thunstrom said.

Thunstrom said while the research was telling, it shouldn’t give the impression that trying to promote vaccines is hopeless work in the state. Instead, it highlights the need for direct, person-to-person intervention, she said. She added the survey did not provide the source of information to respondents, and it’s likely an individual would respond differently to local sources than national.

Indeed, Wyomingites are more likely to trust local health officials, the governor and even local news media over national sources including President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump, according to Wyoming Survey and Analysis Center polling.

But hesitancy toward vaccines is not a new phenomenon in Wyoming. The state ranks in the bottom 10 for flu shot uptake and is in the top half of the U.S. for the percent of K-12 students with a vaccine exemption, according to the CDC.

On top of that, the public’s confidence in most institutions has waned in the last 40 years. Congress, the medical system, public schools, even organized religion have seen steady decreases in public confidence, according to Gallup polls.

And Americans haven’t just lost trust in institutions; they’ve also lost faith in their peers’ ability to make informed choices, according to Pew data.

Acknowledging the broader context around why someone might be reluctant to accept a vaccine or to trust public health messaging might be key to improving that trust, explained University of Wyoming sociologist Jennifer Tabler.

“Just general confidence in an institution I do think makes people more willing to kind of come in,” Tabler said, but added confidence isn’t the only factor.

“I do think dentists likely do a good job,” she said as an example. However, she said, someone may perceive the dentist as inaccessible. “(Maybe) It’s too expensive, I have to go out of my way. It’s not convenient.”

She continued: “Sometimes we interpret like just these basic barriers to care as if people don’t trust the institution, but it’s more complicated than that.”

The cost of medical care may also contribute to hesitation, she explained. While vaccines are free, most medical care is expensive, even more so in Wyoming than most of the country.

“How do you build trust when you don’t know if they’re putting your needs above theirs? And so I do think that cost of care really erodes trust just in general,” she explained.

And health messaging doesn’t often acknowledge those outside concerns. The focus tends to be solely on health benefits without necessarily weighing the other priorities a person might have. Tabler calls this the disconnect between the health world or “the voice of medicine” and life experience.

If someone needs a surgery that would put them out of work for several weeks, they’re likely going to weigh the cost of being out of work against the cost of a prolonged illness. A lack of familiarity with information can also be a barrier.

“Confidence is usually built through familiarity,” Tabler said. “Confidence can then also be that stepping stone to trusting.”

Research bears this out. A Pew survey gauging Americans’ willingness to get a vaccine shows that as confidence in the method improves, so does likely uptake.

One-on-one

How to develop that familiarity and improve confidence seems to be the million-dollar question. The consensus among those interviewed for this story is that person-to-person communication is key.

“A lot of one-on-one between patients and their health care providers will make a big difference. Peer pressure, if you will. Information between friends and families” will help improve uptake, Dowell said.

Renee Griffith, education faculty at Casper College, said the future educators who come through her classroom are taught to build one-on-one relationships with students, which Griffith said helps when dispelling misinformation and developing trust. But her students are also taught to be “critical reviewers” and how to encourage those skills in their future classrooms.

“I feel that is an important skill set that they also need to teach their students how to be critical reviewers, not to just look at whatever information you Google and (what) pops up on your screen when you’re searching,” Griffith explained.

Griffith looks at it like this: Misinformation exists. Social media is going to help it spread, and there’s nothing she can do about it. So preparing the next generation of educators to be discerning and to teach those skills themselves has become a priority.

“You can find information very quickly today. It’s just we have to develop the skill set to be a critical reviewer of that information,” she said.

Dr. Joshua Hansen, a family physician at Sage Primary Care, said he’s seen the spread of misinformation this past year manifest in his office. More people have more questions.

He’s heard a few far-fetched theories dealing with microchips, but most of his patients want to know if the shots are effective and what the side effects will be like.

“In regards to … skepticism and mistrust of medicine, the medical community, medical advice, I’ve definitely seen an increase of that,” Hansen said. “This is understandable when patients hear multiple different threads of advice and data that says something’s effective or not effective from so many sources. They don’t know who or what to trust.”

When COVID-19 emerged in late 2019, it was entirely unknown. As researchers studied the virus, the collective understanding of what it was capable of and how to limit its spread shifted.

The CDC first said masks were only recommended for the ill or vulnerable and that healthy people should not use them, to ensure health care workers had adequate supplies. When more information about how the virus spread made it clear masks were important for all, some governments mandated them. When variants began to spread, epidemiologists suggested people wear two masks for added protection.

Hansen said it’s reasonable for someone to be confused by the evolving recommendations, particularly in an environment where new information is constant and social media can spread false information to millions of people.

His duties as a family physician have shifted more toward education in the past year because of this. His patients want someone to listen to their concerns rather than explain them away. Hansen added that making it clear medicine is a dynamic industry that changes from month to month can help too.

“(Medicine) is a very evolving process we call it an art,” he said, “but I think of it as an evolving science and process of discovery.”

Article published by The Casper Star Tribune: https://trib.com/news/state-and-regional/govt-and-politics/covid-has-altered-the-way-we-engage-with-government-what-else-about-that-process-needs/article_4969c435-aedd-5b0f-b23d-c1ee69ae415e.html