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Central District public health order for 4 Idaho counties comes to a vote — and fails

UPDATED: Wed., Dec. 16, 2020

Protesters gather outside Central District Health's office in Boise, Idaho, on Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2020. A proposed public health order that would have included a mask mandate for Idaho's most populated region was voted down on Tuesday as hundreds of protesters again gathered outside the Central District Health building in Boise. (AP Photo/Otto Kitsinger)  (Otto Kitsinger)
Protesters gather outside Central District Health's office in Boise, Idaho, on Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2020. A proposed public health order that would have included a mask mandate for Idaho's most populated region was voted down on Tuesday as hundreds of protesters again gathered outside the Central District Health building in Boise. (AP Photo/Otto Kitsinger) (Otto Kitsinger)
By Ruth Brown Idaho Statesman

After its last meeting was abruptly canceled over safety concerns, the Central District Health Board of Health met again Tuesday afternoon to discuss and vote on a new COVID-19 public health order – which failed to pass in a 3-3 vote.

The three Ada County representatives on the board supported the order, but Rep. Megan Blanksma, R-Hammett, Boise County Commissioner Ryan Stirm and Valley County Commissioner Elt Hasbrouck voted against it.

Board Chair Betty Ann Nettleton, representing Elmore County, has the discretion to vote in a tie. She chose not to break the deadlock, causing the motion to fail.

Board members met virtually to discuss an order that would have, among other things, mandated masks in Ada, Valley, Elmore and Boise counties in both public and private spaces when physical distancing of more than 6 feet cannot be maintained. It also would have had an effect on gatherings and venue capacity.

Treasure Valley hospital officials have warned the Board of Health that Idaho is on the brink of having to implement crisis care standards, meaning hospitals would be forced to ration health care, if stronger steps are not taken to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

Ada and Valley counties still have mask mandates in place for public spaces. The state has also limited gathering sizes to fewer than 10 people, with some exceptions.

In preparation for Tuesday’s meeting, the Boise Police Department barricaded off the CDH parking lot, on Armstrong Place, where hundreds of protesters gathered again. The decision prevented cars from entering the lot Tuesday, to provide space for people to stand.

The department also sent out a press release stating that it had created a safety plan to keep board members and protesters safe Tuesday.

CDH Director Russ Duke said the majority of comments CDH received about the order were in favor of it. Some commenters said they did not want businesses or schools to close, something the order would not have done.

“I believe orders are necessary to place an added emphasis on the few tools we have to try to reduce the amount of infections we are seeing,” Duke said. “As expected, infections resulting from the Thanksgiving holiday placed tremendous stress on the health system.”

Duke said he’s also worried about the upcoming holidays only adding stress to the system.

Hasbrouck said after the vote that he wanted just the advisory to stay in place.

“You have to listen to the public and the public is saying they don’t want this,” Hasbrouck said.

Hasbrouck said Valley County’s numbers are still low, and he had concern about putting restrictions in place there. He said he also didn’t want to create outrage that could deter people from accepting the COVID-19 vaccination when it is available.

Ada County Commissioner Diana Lachiondo, whose house has been targeted by protesters, supported the order.

“It does mean we all need to make sacrifices to white-knuckle our way through this,” Lachiondo said. “I want to share empathy with the people who are frustrated out there. The people who are sick of COVID, who are tired, who have experienced loss.”

She said she recognizes people’s frustration.

“We are begging you to help us get through the next few months so that we don’t end up in crisis standards of care,” Lachiondo said. “Please help us do what we need to do so we can make it through into 2021.”

Blanksma, who has not supported any public health mandates, said she has seen an increase in mask wearing in her county. The Elmore County Board of Commission was opposed to the order.

“There was very, very little support for this order,” Blanksma said about her county.

Dr. Ted Epperly supported the public health order, and even after it failed, he said CDH still needs to focus on limiting the size of groups meeting and on educating the public.

“I would beseech the community in all four of our counties, all of the citizens, to really hear this: We all have responsibility for the pandemic,” Epperly said. “We are all accountable and responsible to each other. If we can each do that job, of wearing masks, being responsible and accountable for group size limitations, we will do everything we possibly can.”

Controversy simmers

Some Board of Health members have faced personal attacks and protesters outside of their homes during the pandemic, but during recent meetings, the animosity escalated.

Police arrested one person Dec. 8 in connection with a protest outside the home of Lachiondo, an Ada County commissioner. Other warrants were issued, according to the Boise Police Department.

At the board’s Dec. 4 meeting, police reported that protesters attempted to shove the CDH doors open, despite security, when they were told the building was at capacity and they could not enter.

CDH streams all meetings on YouTube because its office has limited capacity for people wanting to watch the meeting. The agenda Tuesday did not have public testimony scheduled, and mostly maskless protesters gathered outside the office again.

Idaho Gov. Brad Little has repeatedly left decisions to local government and local health districts, saying he believed people would be more likely to comply if orders came from the local level.

During a press conference last week, the Statesman asked Little about the issue. When asked whether he would be willing to help CDH, Little said, “yes,” but did not commit to what kind of action he would support.

“Granted, I’m not denying that I do have that authority, and I haven’t said I wouldn’t use it at some point in time, but the secret is compliance,” Little said at last week’s press conference. “I want people to comply to voluntarily go out and do the right thing, whether they’re under an order or whether they’re not under an order, to get the incident rate down.”

Police safety plans

Boise Police created a safety plan for Tuesday’s meeting, according to a news release sent in the afternoon. Police said officers’ goals were to ensure government could function and the people involved in the governmental process could do their job. But police also wanted to ensure people could safely exercise their right to free speech.

Police said they worked with health board members who had protesters outside of their homes before and offered safety advice.

“People involved in tonight’s meeting have felt threatened by protesters, our officers have also been the target of those threats,” BPD said in the release. “For that reason, today officers will be wearing identification numbers rather than their name tags. Those numbers will work the same way as a name if anyone needs to identify an officer during the event or after. The number tags also allow our officers to focus on the event at hand rather than worrying about their homes and their families.”

Boise Police Deputy Chief Ron Winegar provided the media with an update just before the 3:30 p.m. meeting, saying the protest group at CDH seemed peaceful, but officials were concerned a small group of individuals intended to be violent or might become violent.

Police said no arrests were made.

The use of number tags on officers is being done nationally at some protests, and Winegar said their use has been approved by the Department of Justice for these types of events.

What the order could have done

Sports and extracurricular activities would still continue if all spectators wore masks, regardless of whether they were inside or outside, when they cannot stay 6 feet apart from nonhousehold members. Inside a school, masks would always be worn, no matter the physical distance between people.

Businesses would have been encouraged to offer curbside and delivery service whenever possible. Employees should be allowed to work from home, if possible, according to the order.

Visits to long-term care facilities could still have happened, if masks were worn and precautions taken. If positivity is greater than 10%, visitation should occur only for compassionate care, which can include end-of-life situations.

Public and private gatherings of 10 or more people would have been prohibited, but schools don’t count as a “gathering.” There also were exemptions included for acts of “political expression” or religious services for worship.

Bars, nightclubs and restaurants would have stayed open, but bartops and dance floors would have been closed. All patrons would have to remain seated at tables spaced at least 6 feet apart. Staff would have had to wear masks at all times, and the business would be responsible for enforcing physical distancing, under the order.

Many of these restrictions are already in place in Boise.

Gyms and fitness centers would have been required to limit capacity to no more than 50%, including during fitness classes.

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