The great mask debate

Mask tensions and COVID-19 cases rise in N. Idaho

By Lyndsie Kiebert
Reader Staff

When the Panhandle Health District board met July 23 to vote on a possible mask mandate for Kootenai County to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus, the motion passed 4-2 — the two dissenting votes coming from Bonner County board representatives Glen Bailey and Allen Banks.

Board members from Kootenai, Shoshone and Boundary counties voted in favor of the mandate, which requires people in Kootenai County to “wear a face covering that completely covers the person’s nose and mouth when the person is in a public space and physical distancing of 6 feet from others cannot be maintained,” with a list of exceptions. Chairman Marlow Thompson of Benewah County did not cast a vote, as no tie needed to be broken.

The Kootenai County Sheriff’s Office addressed the mandate on its Facebook page, asking citizens to stop calling 911 to report people not wearing masks.

“We will favor education over enforcement and will take a measured response to enforcement with a strong focusing on warnings [sic],” KCSO officials wrote in a Facebook post, adding that a violation of the order would be charged as a misdemeanor.

The PHD mask mandate comes as several municipalities across the state — including towns as small as Wallace and as large as Boise — are invoking similar rules to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. According to the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare, state case totals reached 19,679 on July 29, including 173 deaths attributed to the virus. 

A Bonner County sheriff’s deputy speaks with anti-mask protestors who attempted to enter Sandpoint library July 28 without face coverings as mandated by library board policy. Photo by Ben Olson.

In Bonner County, PHD reported 139 total cases that same day, 69 of which were active. In Kootenai County, where the PHD approved the mask mandate, 1,415 total cases were reported as of July 29 — 726 of which were active — as well as eight deaths.

The July 23 PHD meeting began with public comment from mostly anti-mask citizens, except for a couple of pro-mandate speakers. After about an hour, Thompson announced the board would be moving into regular agenda items and that there was no more time for public comment. One woman, voicing concerns that not everyone who signed up to speak was able to, attempted to approach the chairman after being told repeatedly that she was out of order. A KCSO deputy escorted her from the meeting room.

Nearly three and half hours of public testimony and discussion about the state of COVID-19 in Kootenai County ended in the 4-2 vote in favor of the mandate. Immediately following the vote, the room erupted in angry shouts from meeting attendees who insisted that they would not wear masks. A group of anti-mask protesters gathered outside the building following the meeting.

People in Bonner County are also making their voices heard at establishments where face coverings are required. About 20 unmasked people attempted to enter the East Bonner County Library in Sandpoint on July 28, but were stopped by library employees. The East Bonner County Library District currently has a face covering rule in place, which protesters alleged violated their constitutional rights — especially since they claimed the library was a public building paid for with taxpayer money and that they were being denied services. Employees explained that the mask requirement was a board policy, and that no services were being denied — they could gather and deliver materials to people who would not or could not wear a mask into the building.

The East Bonner County Library District is an independent taxing district, and the library board — made up of five publicly elected officials — holds the authority to create rules for library buildings. Sandpoint police made that much clear after a library employee called for assistance, and the small crowd eventually dispersed.

Library Director Ann Nichols told the Sandpoint Reader that, when asked whether they were card-holding library patrons, several protesters said they were from out of town — one man stating he was from Seattle. 

“People from out of town are trying to tell our town what to do, and I don’t think that’s right,” Nichols said. “I don’t think people who live here would want that to be happening. Who knows, maybe they do, but it’s hard to tell.”

Nichols said the protesting group “did not come in violently,” but they repeatedly refused to wear face coverings.

“People are very volatile right now, and it’s making people afraid to come to the library, and we don’t want them to be afraid,” she said. “We don’t want them to come into an unsafe environment, and so we’re trying everything we can to give as much access to everything we have to everybody, but there are responsibilities for these people who want everything, and just wearing a mask seems like a small price to pay to keep other people safe.”

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