By Zach Hagadone
The Sandpoint City Council received a wide-ranging update on how city services, facilities and programs will emerge from current COVID-19 restrictions amid the unfolding of Idaho Governor Brad Little’s four-phase plan for reopening the state economy.
According to City Administrator Jennifer Stapleton, the major challenge is that reopening guidance “is coming out on almost a daily basis, so trying to finalize something … has posed some challenges for us — particularly on the front of youth programming.”
Questions remain over whether Sandpoint youth sports will be able to function on city-owned fields and other sports facilities this summer and fall remain unanswered, even after a conference call April 29 with the Association of Idaho Cities, which issued new protocols under Phase 1 of the governor’s plan related to youth activities.
“It appears that youth sports could be considered under youth activities now in this Phase 1, but there are a number of guidance rules associated with that, so we need to look at what our requirements are going to be so we can get out a policy and procedure and get that to council,” Stapleton said.
The good news, she added, is that “it looks like some of these youth activities, including sports — so long as they meet the guidelines, will be able to resume this summer.”
As for city recreational programs, those will remain closed for the duration — at least until social distancing guidelines and restrictions on gatherings are no longer required.
Meanwhile, the guidelines for retail businesses remain in flux, even as many types of establishments will be allowed to open their doors starting Friday, May 1 (see Page 9 for a deeper look at the governor’s reopening plan).
After a phone call with Little on April 29, Stapleton said state municipal leaders are mulling how to approach the reopening of swimming pools, which would likely be affected by the lifting of restrictions on gyms and workout facilities currently scheduled to occur in Phase 2.
Uncertainty over access to pools may affect the city’s ability to field lifeguards at City Beach, as Parks and Recreation Director Kim Woodruff explained at the April 29 meeting.
He came prepared to ask the council to consider suspending the lifeguard program for the season, citing reasons ranging from COVID-19 social distancing guidelines to concern over access to personal protective equipment to difficulty training and certifying guards on an already crunched timeline — and, potentially, lacking pools in which to train.
However, after listening to a detailed presentation, the council balked at sacrificing the program, which has operated at the beach for more than 80 years. Rather, council members asked Woodruff and his staff to return with more options to somehow keep lifeguards at the beach this summer.
The council also delved into how much authority local officials have in managing the reopening of their communities. In short: local municipalities have no power to proceed with looser policies than the governor’s order to slow the spread of COVID-19 but are able to enact tighter restrictions than the state if confronting community spread of the coronavirus or an outbreak of the disease.
That issue has direct bearing on the continuing issue of people traveling from across state borders or county lines to access recreational or other opportunities elsewhere — at the same time risking transporting COVID-19 from areas with higher case rates to those, such as Bonner County, that have so far avoided widespread infection.
“What we don’t want to have happen is for us to open up more broadly than, say, Kootenai County so now we have people from Kootenai County coming up here and creating unfair practices for business around the state,” Stapleton said.
“We are a very attractive place that has recreational amenities,” said Mayor Shelby Rognstad. “By having that greater liberty at the local level [to reopen more broadly than the rest of the state], we would be attracting that risk that there wouldn’t otherwise be there with statewide consistency with the stay-at-home order.”
Related to the stay-at-home order and Phase 1 reopening protocols, Councilman Joel Aispuro pointed out that many of the governor’s guidelines read as if they are recommendations, rather than mandates, and what that means for legal enforcement.
“I read a lot of the word ‘should,’” he said. “With the word ‘should’ I don’t see any consequences here. … Are there any ramifications? I think the word ‘should’ is a poor choice of words if it’s a mandate.”
Stapleton and Sandpoint Police Chief Corey Coon responded to Aispuro’s question, both underscoring that educating the public on the details of the reopening plan and stay-home order are the priority, rather than issuing citations for those found not following state guidance.
That said, Coon pointed out that “it is technically a misdemeanor to not follow the governor’s order,” yet there is a “gray area” in which law enforcement assesses the severity of a violation on a case-by-case basis.
“As of right now, we have not issued any citations and the businesses we’ve talked to have been very cooperative,” he said.
Councilman Andy Groat touched on the issue of out-of-area visitors and how that might affect potential legal enforcement when he said, “I for one am really tired of being culpable for Washington and other counties coming in and visiting our town. Now is not the time to come.”
“My challenge is all the out-of-state plates that I see and other people potentially bringing whatever’s out there here,” he said, adding that he wouldn’t want to see any local businesses “get put in time out” for serving people who were visiting in violation of stay-at-home orders in Idaho or neighboring states.
Finally, the council voted unanimously for a gradual slackening of in-person restrictions at its meetings.
During Phases 1 and 2 of the governor’s plan, members of the council — as well as committees and commissions — will be able to attend in-person if they so choose, but the public would continue to be prohibited from council chambers. In Phases 3 and 4, members of the public would be welcomed back into the chambers with observance of social distancing guidelines. Even then, council members would be allowed to remain remote participants, as meetings will continue to be accessible via live streaming at the city’s website, sandpointidaho.gov.
While we have you ...
... if you appreciate that access to the news, opinion, humor, entertainment and cultural reporting in the Sandpoint Reader is freely available in our print newspaper as well as here on our website, we have a favor to ask. The Reader is locally owned and free of the large corporate, big-money influence that affects so much of the media today. We're supported entirely by our valued advertisers and readers. We're committed to continued free access to our paper and our website here with NO PAYWALL - period. But of course, it does cost money to produce the Reader. If you're a reader who appreciates the value of an independent, local news source, we hope you'll consider a voluntary contribution. You can help support the Reader for as little as $1.
You can contribute at either Paypal or Patreon.Contribute at Patreon Contribute at Paypal