With COVID-19 cases climbing, North Idaho mayors decline to impose mask mandates

As COVID-19 continues to rapidly spread in North Idaho, elected leaders say they strongly encourage local residents to wear a mask – but stop short of demanding it.

After Kootenai Health reported its intensive care unit reached capacity on Monday, elected officials continued to plead with residents to use a face covering when social distancing is not possible.

Mayors reached by The Spokesman-Review on Tuesday, however, said they would continue to decline ordering mask mandates.

North Idaho has been slow to adopt masking requirements compared to other regions in the Northwest. In Washington, Secretary of Health John Wiesman issued a statewide mask mandate in June. And while Idaho officials have not followed suit, some cities have imposed their own rules.

Coeur d’Alene Mayor Steve Widmyer will not join fellow mayors in cities like Moscow and Boise, which issued a mask order earlier this month. Instead, Widmyer said he’ll leave the decision up to those with public health expertise at the Panhandle Health District and with the state government, even though he “strongly encourages” people to wear masks when social distancing is impossible.

Coeur d’Alene “is working with fellow government agencies and other organizations to provide information and education on all the best healthcare practices to follow,” Widmyer wrote in an email to The Spokesman-Review.

When asked if enough people in his city are wearing masks, Widmyer said, “We are hoping that the information and educational campaign will raise awareness and increase the wearing of masks.”

“There is need for improvement,” Widmyer said.

Post Falls Mayor Ron Jacobson agrees that a local order is unenforceable. If Post Falls issued an order, its residents would visit Coeur d’Alene, and vice versa, he said.

Mask orders are not a civil rights issue, Jacobson said, and he would support it if the Panhandle Health District passed one. But he will not take such action at the city level.

“If individual cities were to issue a mandatory mask order, I just don’t know how it could be enforced. People are going to challenge it and dare you to issue a citation, and then the court system would be clogged up,” Jacobson said.

In a public letter on Tuesday, Hayden Mayor Steven Griffitts opposed a mask order with similar reasoning.

“I believe that the answer is not in mandates or force,” Griffitts wrote. “The answer is in compassion and caring for our fellow men and women.”

The Panhandle Health District Board of Health punted on a proposed mask mandate last week after facing staunch opposition from those who attended the meeting virtually and in person. The board is slated to take a second crack at the proposal at a meeting on Thursday.

The Panhandle Health District covers Kootenai, Bonner, Boundary, Benewah and Shoshone counties.

And while local governments squabble over mask regulations, several national retailers have instituted mandates of their own, including Target and Walmart.

As the scientific evidence regarding their benefit mounts, public health experts and government agencies – including the Centers for Disease Control and World Health Organization – have urged people to wear masks and say they will play a key role in stemming the spread of COVID-19.

Research has found masks help block respiratory droplets that people naturally expel, which can be a method of transmission of the coronavirus. An analysis of 172 studies of viral transmission in health care and community settings, published in Lancet last month, found masks “could result in a large reduction in risk of infection.”

Masks are also recommended because asymptomatic carriers can spread the disease.

Kootenai County Commissioner Bill Brooks said he does not support a mask mandate because he does not believe law enforcement has the capacity or ability to enforce it.

Brooks, who does not sit on the Board of Health, wears a mask in public and always carries one in his pocket, he said.

“It just makes good sense, it’s not going to hurt you, and regardless of what your position is on the science, it may save some lives,” Brooks said. “Let’s be a community again instead of tribes, and let’s see if we can’t do something that might benefit us all.”

Brooks said those on the far-right have politicized masks. He identified as a right-wing conservative, but not “a militia-type loon playing army in the bushes.”

“This is not a political issue, and I see a lot of people, especially on the right – the extreme right – trying to make this a constitutional issue,” Brooks said. “It’s not. It’s a local issue, it’s a community issue, it’s a be-good-to-your-neighbors issue.”