In Wyoming, a Covid-19 surge, a struggling energy economy and a thriving haven for the rich

As the state becomes the superrich's go-to, residents are out of work and dealing with a massive spike in case numbers.
Image: Wyoming's Famed National Parks Continue Phased Reopening
A man and his dog park at a view area in Grand Teton National Park outside Jackson, Wyo., on June 13.George Frey / Getty Images file

Oil prices plummeted in April as the coronavirus mangled the world energy's markets — and Wyoming's economy went with it.

Anyone who knows the economy of Wyoming, the least-populated state, will tell you it is an energy hub, producing 40 percent of the country's coal and 15 times more energy than it consumes. In 2018, its energy production was third only to Texas' and Pennsylvania's. But by the second quarter of 2020, the state had lost 1 in 5 energy jobs because of price declines.

In Douglas, a small city in Converse County of around 6,000, most revenue comes from sales tax related to the energy industry, City Administrator Jonathan Teichert said. So far, it has netted about a third of the revenue it had by this time last year.

"We've made a 25 percent cut in our budget from last year, and that probably was too optimistic," he said.

The Dave Johnson coal-fired power plant is silhouetted against the morning sun in Glenrock, Wyo., on July 27, 2018.J. David Ake / AP file

When oil tanked, companies shut down wells and laid off workers. Teichert said school enrollment is down this year because unemployed residents simply picked up their families and left. It has been a tough time for many residents who are left without many employment options and are only now grappling with a surge in Covid-19 case numbers eight months into the pandemic.

In much of Wyoming, the energy industry has "already gotten the cheap and easy oil and gas resources," said Kyle Tisdel, a lawyer with the Western Environmental Law Center who studies the state's boom-and-bust economy. So corporations turned to more expensive methods, like horizontal fracking.

"You're talking about a break-even point of $50, $60 a barrel, and oil is floating around $40 to $45," he said. "All signs are showing we aren't going to be up much higher than that for the foreseeable future."

Without profits, the companies leave. "The communities shoulder the burden and are the first to feel the impacts," Tisdel said.

But if you don't live in the state, Wyoming might just seem like the open frontier, where celebrities like Kanye West go to escape and relax or perhaps lease their land rights to fracking companies.

When California was plagued by wildfires, YouTube and makeup mogul Jeffree Star went to his house in Wyoming.

"It's such a weird atmosphere here in California," Star said on his Instagram story. "That means it's time to go to Wyoming, so I'm going to hop on the jet right now and just get away for a few days."

This scenario, in which the energy companies will flee from the state on a moment's notice while the superrich flee to the state, is a signal of "structural decline," Tisdel said.

This summer, as unemployment climbed statewide, Jackson Hole, the popular ski destination and one of the most economically unequal areas of America, had as busy a season as ever. The real estate industry shattered records, with sales up by 14 percent and over $1.5 billion in real estate spending in just the first nine months of 2020.

Still, while corporations might be leaving, the wealthy are coming, in part because of the place Wyoming holds in the public imagination, said Justin Farrell, a sociology professor at Yale University and author of the book "Billionaire Wilderness."

For the rich, Wyoming embodies escape, from both the pandemic and other problems, where open skies and empty pastures can help you clear your mind. As states locked down, Wyoming stayed open. "We have been socially distancing the entire 130 years that we have been a state," Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., said on "Fox & Friends" in April, explaining why Wyoming hadn't issued a stay-at-home order.

The wealthy had already shown up by then, and the way they continue to experience the pandemic looks very different from the experiences of most others in the state. Covid-19, in Wyoming and elsewhere throughout the country, has laid the disparities bare.

If you live on a multimillion-dollar ranch in Jackson Hole, you have access to private doctors. You might have even brought your own ventilator when you fled to the state, Farrell said. But elsewhere in the state, where there are only about 5 people per square mile, residents are left vulnerable to the labor market and broadly lack access to health care. Populations are older and more health-compromised on average, and many people live far from clinics.

Luxury retreats like Jackson Hole translate into more money spent in the community, sure, but the elites who move to Wyoming, which has no income tax, are often doing so to shelter from taxes. Farrell said that the state's politicians are "choosing the ultrawealthy over their neighbors" and that Wyoming needs to do more to hold big corporations accountable that come to Wyoming for its resources, "use it up and leave" and abandon the workers who made them rich.

Visitors wait to watch Old Faithful erupt in Yellowstone National Park outside Jackson, Wyo., on June 15.George Frey / Getty Images file

Now, the virus's spread is out of control in Wyoming, like it is in much of the interior West. The state reported a 475 percent increase in cases in late October, and since then the spread has continued. The state has logged more than 21,300 cases of the coronavirus since the start of the pandemic, over 15,000 of which have occurred since Oct. 1.

"The crisis is here, and it's going to get worse," Farrell said.

In hard-hit New York City, about 1 in 32 residents contracted Covid-19. In Albany County, Wyoming, home to Laramie, it's about 1 in 18. The state doesn't have a mask mandate, but Albany County put one in place early this month, only a few days after a state representative who had tested positive for the coronavirus died and the governor announced that he had had to isolate after having been exposed to the virus during a meeting that included the White House coronavirus task force coordinator, Dr. Deborah Birx.

In Converse County, public health nurse manager Darcey Cowardin and her team are working to flatten the curve of their own case surge. The frontier county of a little over 13,500 people has recorded 396 cases, and as of Friday it had 118 active cases. Those are astronomical numbers for such a small community.

"Our hospital is getting hit pretty hard," Cowardin said. The contact tracer is overwhelmed, the virus is finding its way into schools, and masking is a nightmare to enforce. Most of the spread is coming from family gatherings, bars and local events.

"The bottom fell out," Cowardin said of the energy sector's collapse. "Add the pandemic, and our community and county have been hit very hard."

Part of the problem is that for a long time, the virus didn't materialize too strongly in Converse. In August and September, Wyoming was recording a few dozen cases statewide on a bad day. The crisis that was unfolding across the country didn't seem like it would come, a lot of residents felt. And when it did, tiny hospitals had no way to be ready, and not everybody was on board to stop the spread.

"We are in a community where nobody wants to be told what to do," she said. "There's just this pocket of people that don't want to accept that this is a thing."

Cowardin said a First Amendment group came into the Public Health Department's office in Douglas recently, harassing and videotaping the staff after they were asked to wear masks. The phone lines have been flooded with people, many from out of state, yelling horrible things at employees.

"It's so hard to be in public health right now," she said.

She also said it's hard to meet needs. Food banks and local aid resources are in higher demand than ever. Contact tracing was so slammed with cases that the county is no longer able to reach out to people who need to quarantine, and it is asking people with the coronavirus to do their own contact tracing if they can. People in the county have been left with long-term complications from the illness, and deaths are rising.

Not too far from Cowardin's office in Douglas is drag queen superstar RuPaul Charles' massive ranch, which spans 60,000 acres. RuPaul told NPR in March that the ranch "is really land management." He leases the mineral and water rights to fracking companies and the grazing rights to ranches.

When RuPaul is in Converse County and its surrounding areas, however, he doesn't concern himself much with what's happening around or underneath him.

"I meditate, and I pray," he said. "And I have a lovely time paying attention to the stillness. And there's a lot of stillness on the ranch."

CORRECTION (Nov. 15, 2020, 6:40 p.m. ET): An earlier version of this article misstated when Albany County, Wyoming, enacted a mask mandate. The order was enacted Nov. 6, not last week.