By Zach Hagadone
Schweitzer President and CEO Tom Chasse took a headline-grabbing hard stance on masking and social distancing protocols to lessen the spread of COVID-19, issuing a widely reported statement Dec. 3 that the ski mountain and resort would close for the season if patrons and visitors refuse to wear face coverings and keep their distance.
“If we cannot get this under control, I’m willing to shut down the entire operation until we’re able to open additional lifts and terrain,” Chasse stated in a news release.
The Panhandle Health District, which sets public health policy for the five northernmost Idaho counties, in November handed down a requirement that masks be worn in public “when social distancing of six feet cannot be maintained.” Before that, Idaho Gov. Brad Little moved the state back two stages in the Idaho Rebounds reopening plan, reverting to Stage 2 — though with modifications to continue the operation of bars, restaurants and churches.
At Schweitzer, where much of the activity occurs outdoors, resort operators have even “step[ped] up our game, by requiring masks in the lift lines, creating narrow points of entry with signage” and relying on executive team members to staff lift lines until midday on weekends. “Additionally, we have our mountain host team working the lift lines in an effort to remind everyone of our expectations,” Chasse stated.
These measures have so far worked, with about 90% of mountain users masking up in the lift line — “a huge improvement from opening weekend,” Chasse wrote.
However, the general furor around COVID-19 protocols has reached even Schweitzer’s elevation, as Chasse stated, perhaps in understatement, “that the pandemic has become somewhat of a political issue locally.”
Specifically, he referred to the recent — though so far sidelined — effort of Bonner County Commissioner Steve Bradshaw to “defund” the county’s contribution to the PHD, in an effort to make a statement about what he and many others in the region consider heavy-handed extra-legislative authority being exerted by the health district members. Likewise, Bonner County Sheriff Daryl Wheeler has been vocal in his opposition to enforcement of a mask order; as a self-proclaimed “constitutional sheriff,” he holds himself bound only to uphold the laws he determines to be in line with the founding document.
Indeed, Idaho Code gives sheriffs, as well as county prosecutors, wide latitude in interpreting the enforceability and enforcement actions related to state law.
Meanwhile, the city of Sandpoint has gone on record repeatedly that it will enforce the mask order, but pursue an “education first” strategy.
Sandpoint City Administrator Jennifer Stapleton told the Reader in late November that Sandpoint police will focus until the end of the year on making people aware of the mask order, but, “We may issue warnings.”
As Chasse stated: “The conflicting messages in our community create challenges for us and we can only do so much to get everyone on the same page in order to keep our operation going all winter long.”
The apparent disjointed nature of local governments’ response to COVID-19 — as well as opposition to COVID-19 protocols from “certain portions of our community,” in Chasse’s words — has served to undermine “all of the work we have put in to be proactive in support of the PHD mandate.”
“Bottom line — if you’re uncomfortable with our current process, procedures and expectations relative to COVID, I would be more than happy to roll your season pass to next year as long as you do so by Friday, Dec. 11, 2020. The decision is yours,” Chasse wrote, directing a hypothetical question to anti-mask advocates, “‘do you want to be the reason we can’t ski/ride all season?’ Like seatbelts, or taking your shoes off when you enter someone’s home, it’s a simple request.
“Skiing and snowboarding are not essential functions during this pandemic but we understand the importance of having some normalcy in these unprecedented times,” he stated. “We need everyone to do their part. Hopefully we can all slow the spread and continue to shred.”
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