By Susan Drumheller
When I woke up the morning of Aug. 20, it was out of a dream that was almost comical. The protagonist of the story in my slumbering head was my mask, one lovingly made by a friend out of colorful flower-patterned material and cord to secure it over my nose and mouth.
My mask came galloping up over a rise, like Eric Idle’s knight and fellow crusaders in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
I woke and nearly laughed. Here was my mask, the hapless hero — so appropriate this morning after sitting through one of the most bizarre and disturbing afternoons and evenings in Sandpoint, where I witnessed both the best and the worst of our community.
A few hours earlier, I was in the City Council chambers, wearing my flowery mask, and watching deliberations on a very weighty and important question: Whether or not to grant the mayor emergency powers to issue a mask mandate to protect the public health.
In a few short days leading up to this moment, the council had received more emails on the topic than they ever had on any issue: 889. The breakdown was roughly 50/50 for and against masks.
As they thoughtfully considered the pros and cons, you could hear the small but loud mob outside the doors, who was following the proceedings virtually on Zoom, because they couldn’t fit into the council chambers due to the social distancing protocols.
As Deb Ruehle, the council member who proposed the mask mandate, suggested adopting the health district’s enforcement measures, we could hear chants outside the doors: “Recall Ruehle! Recall Ruehle!”
The commotion conjured up images of people brandishing pitchforks and preparing to tar and feather any council member who defied them.
Inside the chambers, a young man behind me wearing black armbands spoke quietly to organizers outside on a radio receiver attached to a cord that snaked out of his shirt. I couldn’t quite read the armband — something like “Regain our Rights.”
At one point, a large older man with a MAGA hat shouted at the mayor, calling him a hypocrite and, as police escorted the man from the room, he spat out a parting insult: “Nazi!” Over our masks, our eyes widened. What was going on?
This wasn’t our home we know and love. It was as if all the vitriol from Facebook leapt off the screen and trampled down the goodwill that has defined this small town — one to which we were drawn because of its warm sense of community. The place where hippies and loggers — though they often disagreed — all generally got along by adopting a live-and-let-live creed.
We had a brief throwback to that time earlier that afternoon. Some friends and I — mostly mothers, a couple teachers and a handful of young people — sat outside City Hall in our lawn chairs, with our masks either on or hanging around our necks, waiting for the doors to open. We knew we had to be there early to get in.
The early arriving anti-mask contingent lined up, too. A few people from each camp knew each other and chatted politely. The ice cream truck came by and we all enjoyed some cool refreshments this hot August afternoon. One of my friends had brought chalk and other art supplies, to help pass the time. The kids of the anti-mask contingent drew pictures and some anti-mask signs.
We disagreed, but that was OK. That was before the more militant people showed up with their black armbands, radios and — I suspected — an armful of QAnon (and other) conspiracy theories.
Why were we here in the first place?
The federal government kicked the can of pandemic prevention measures down to the states. Our governor kicked them down to health districts and mayors. Our library district took matters into its own hands and imposed a mask mandate, earning the ire of Ammon Bundy’s peoplesrights.org group, which stormed the library and harassed the staff. (Bundy reportedly also organized the mob that stormed the state capitol on Aug. 24, breaking a glass door as they forced their way into the gallery.)
Dreading the schools becoming coronavirus petri dishes in September, constituents asked Ruehle to pursue the mandate.
Ruehle, prepared with science, pleas from health care professionals, and other evidence regarding the benefits of masks to protect the public health and ultimately the economy. Her packet of information was backed up by the testimony of Panhandle Health District experts who attended the meeting.
Yet, as Councilmember Shannon Williamson — a biologist — pointed out, no amount of science would convince the mob outside the doors. In an attempt to kick the can back up the road, she reasoned that if it gets bad enough in our county, the health district may come to our aid.
She didn’t have to say it, but the take-home message was we are living through a new Dark Ages.
In the end, with a pained look on her face, Williamson voted against the emergency powers ordinance, and with a vote of 4 to 2, the issue failed.
When I walked through the doors, the anti-mask mob videoed us and cheered as if they had won. A sinking feeling washed over me — not a dread of maskless people and COVID, but of the power of internet rumors and conspiracies to tear our community and our country apart.
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