COVID numbers continue daily climb

Sandpoint City Council hears from PD chief on enforcement of regional mask order

By Zach Hagadone
Reader Staff

Communities throughout Idaho continue to struggle with navigating the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Cases of the virus have skyrocketed in recent weeks, amounting to about 14 million nationwide, resulting in more than 270,000 deaths since tracking began in the spring.

Idaho reported 1,429 new confirmed and probable cases Dec. 2, with 991 total deaths.

The Panhandle Health District, which covers the five northernmost counties, reported 238 new cases on Dec. 2, with 67 individuals currently hospitalized and 122 deaths to date.

More than 7,000 cases have been considered “closed,” that is, by recovery, refusal for monitoring and/or inability to contact, or death.

District-wide, 10,131 known cases have been reported.

Sandpoint City Council member Deb Ruehle noted at the city meeting Dec. 2 the rising death toll due to COVID-19 since the council last met on Nov. 18.

“More than two people have died per day since we last met, 14 days ago,” she said, calling on city staff to produce an ordinance or other administrative action making mask wearing mandatory when entering local businesses.

Ruehle also requested and received a 30-second moment of silence to honor those who have died as a result of the pandemic.

Sandpoint City Administrator Jennifer Staplton and Police Chief Corey Coon led the pandemic update, with the former stressing that the strategy regarding the PHD mask order has been “education, initially, for the first 30 days, and then we can reassess.”

The department is authorized to issue citations and warnings. Per the health district’s order, noncompliance carries a misdemeanor charge with a maximum $1,000 fine and potential jail time.

Yet, Coon said the “plan [is] to educate the public.”

“It’s been kind of a reactive and proactive approach by the police department,” he said, adding that in his visits to local businesses, one issue has been the lack of uniform signage regarding the mask order.

“That’s an area that we could look at,” Coon said, though, “overall, the businesses are fairly happy” while being “stuck between a rock and a hard place.” By that, Coon alluded to the COVID catch-22: merchants want customers to visit their places of business, but mingling out and about is actively — and legally — discouraged.

Council member John Darling pushed back against any notion of a city-directed signage rule, stating, “Each business owner has the opportunity to put whatever signage in their store that they want and will always have that right. … I don’t believe that any ordinance from the city should be able to ask them to put a sign in their business.”

Council member Joel Aispuro — himself a restaurant owner — asked Coon what should be done in cases where individuals, whether customers or workers, cite a medical reason for not wearing a mask.

“The conversation really ends at that point,” Coon said, referring to law enforcement’s ability to inquire after a person’s reason for refusing to wear a mask.

“Everybody has their own challenges in their personal lives,” he said. “We shouldn’t jump to conclusions … not wearing a mask isn’t because they’re not being compliant.”

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