As Delta Variant Spreads, Conservative Leaders In The Rural West Continue To Sow Distrust
Rex Steninger began his speech with some blunt words.
“I’m at a very sad point in my life right now because I do not believe a single thing our government tells us,” he said to applause. “They have proven themselves to be liars over and over again and the media covers for them.”
Steninger, a Republican county commissioner in rural Elko, Nev., was talking to supportive, unmasked constituents at a public meeting in early August. He was advocating for the county to refuse to follow the state’s new mask mandate, which was implemented a few days prior to help stymie the surge in new COVID-19 cases in high-transmission counties like his.
Deaths from the virus had risen there in recent weeks. But Steninger argued the severity of the pandemic was exaggerated by Democrats who wanted to beat former President Donald Trump last November.
“Their tactic worked and the Democrats don’t want to give back those gains,” he said. “Now they’re pretending that the pandemic is worsening and they need to reinstate mask mandates and business closures. We can’t let that happen again. We must refuse to comply this time.”
Masks are proven to help reduce the spread of COVID-19 and vaccines drastically reduce the risk of hospitalization and death from the delta variant.
But many rural, mostly conservative communities in the West lag behind the rest of the nation in vaccination rates. In Elko County, only about a third of all eligible residents have gotten their first shot. Commissioners there are also pushing to ban door-to-door solicitations for vaccines and state legislatures. The moves reflect hostility to pandemic restrictions across the Mountain West. Idaho, Montana, Wyoming and Utah have all passed laws limiting state and local governmental power during a pandemic.
“It’s too late. Eroding trust takes minutes. Building trust takes years.”
But as hospitalizations, cases and deaths continue to rise due to the delta variant, low vaccination rates are becoming a concern among some top Republican leaders, including Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte. He’s recently urged constituents to take “personal responsibility” and get vaccinated.
“It’s too late,” said Christine Porter, a public health professor at the University of Wyoming. “Eroding trust takes minutes. Building trust takes years.”
Conservative media and Republicans have spent the past year and a half sending mixed messages to Americans about the severity of COVID-19 and the safety and effectiveness of masks and vaccines, according to Porter. Conspiracy theories and disinformation campaigns about COVID and the vaccine have already taken hold in the minds of one in five Americans, according to a recent survey from researchers at Harvard University and other top-tier schools. That’s why she argues state and federal governments need to make vaccinations mandatory for all eligible U.S. citizens.
“Everyone who has chosen not to be vaccinated has chosen to be a breeding ground and to spread it to others,” she said.
Some of the West’s biggest and most progressive cities are embracing new restrictions amid the delta surge.
The mayor of Salt Lake City, for example, is now requiring masks inside of city buildings. The mayor of Denver is going even further, requiring proof of vaccination for public school teachers, police, firefighters and other city employees.
In Nevada, Gov. Steve Sisolak is requiring either proof of vaccination or weekly, negative COVID-19 tests for all state employees. Meanwhile, the state's mask mandate has been embraced by casinos, the restaurant industry and many frontline workers in Las Vegas, including toy and T-shirt vendor April Comer.
“I think it’s a good thing,” she said. “We get a bunch of travelers from everywhere so better than safe than sorry.”
She’s vaccinated but worries she could pass the delta variant on to her family.
“I care more about them because I’ve had COVID. I didn’t really get sick or anything. But my family could,” she said.
Sean Breckenridge, a vaccinated street dancer, also supports the mandate. But he worries for his fellow countrymen.
“They should have never taken the masks off,” he said. “We’re still losing lives now and it’s going up all over the United States. It’s ridiculous.”
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.