Health officials in North Idaho are strongly urging residents to redouble efforts to stop the spread of COVID-19, including donning a face covering in public, after a recent uptick in lab-confirmed cases have prompted concerns about stress on the health care system.
The Panhandle Health District issued a position statement Wednesday acknowledging a “significant recent increase” in COVID-19 cases in Kootenai, Boundary, Bonner, Shoshone and Latah counties and making strong recommendations for residents to practice social distancing and vigilantly wash their hands, and for businesses to “require (or at least encourage)” their customers to wear face coverings while receiving service.
That was before Thursday’s announcement of an additional 97 cases in the region, the largest single-day increase since the outbreak began.
The district called a special meeting after a surge in cases was reported over the past several weeks, said Katherine Hoyer, public information officer for the health district. Community spread, which occurs when a person is infected by a carrier who can’t be identified, has been observed in Kootenai, Bonner and Benewah counties, Hoyer said.
“We do have rapid and widespread community transmission,” she said.
Kootenai County cases neared 600 this week, up from fewer than 100 in mid-June when Idaho Gov. Brad Little announced the state could move into its fourth stage of reopening.
The rate of infection in Kootenai County now rivals that of Spokane County. In Kootenai County, the infection rate is 360 cases per 100,000 residents. In Spokane, that number is 363 cases per 100,000 residents.
Just as in Spokane County, a majority of the cases in North Idaho are among younger people, below the age of 39. One man in his 70s, a resident of Kootenai County, has died, according to the health district.
Little put the continued push toward full reopening on pause Thursday as he rolled out plans for students to return to school in the fall. And in Coeur d’Alene, city officials have been receiving an earful from residents on whether to issue a requirement to wear masks, as cities including Boise, Driggs, Hailey, Ketchum, McCall and Moscow have done.
“We’re hearing very strongly on both sides,” said City Councilman Dan English. “There’s some that say, ‘Why in the world haven’t you done a universal face mask order?’ And there’s some that say, ‘Don’t do that, you’re going to infringe on my freedom.’ ”
While Idaho’s seven health districts have all encouraged the use of face masks to slow the spread of the virus, there hasn’t been a statewide order like the ones in Washington and Oregon requiring masking. In mid-June, Little’s administration made the decision to give local health districts and governments authority over how to address their own coronavirus concerns, leading some cities and counties to consider their own orders.
That’s the case in Moscow, where Mayor Bill Lambert last month issued his own emergency order requiring the use of masks after Latah County saw an increase in cases from seven in June to 31 as of Thursday. The Moscow City Council voted unanimously earlier this week to extend the order through Aug. 4.
“I’m all about keeping our community safe. And I’m going to tell you something, folks, we’ve got 30,000 college kids coming between these two university towns in the next five to six, seven weeks,” Lambert said following testimony from several citizens criticizing his mask order at the Moscow City Council meeting on Monday, referring to the University of Idaho and Washington State University in nearby Pullman.
No such action has been taken in Coeur d’Alene, and Mayor Steve Widmyer has indicated any order would come in coordination with the local health district. Widmyer, who could not be reached for comment for this story, told the Coeur d’Alene Press last weekend that the city would follow the advice of health officials, noting that the question of wearing a mask had “unfortunately” become politicized.
The Panhandle Health District, in its statement Wednesday, said it was not advocating for a change in public requirements right now, but left that door open in the future.
“PHD will continue to monitor the situation and while not currently endorsing mandatory rules and/or a COVID19 Recovery Stage roll-back, PHD may consider such actions if necessary to protect the health of our community,” the statement read.
Hoyer said any such decision would require collaboration between the health board members and local elected officials, including mayors and county commissioners.
English, who raised the question at the Coeur d’Alene City Council meeting on Tuesday evening, said he believed it was just a matter of time before the local government would have to tackle the mask question.
“I think it’s not a matter of if, but when,” English said.
He said he preferred an option that would allow businesses to designate times for at-risk people wearing masks to shop, while those not wearing masks could attend at other hours of the day.
Some local business owners said they’d welcome such an action from the local government.
Terry Borchard, owner of The Long Ear record store on Government Way, said he’s been requiring customers to wear masks in his shop since they reopened June 1. The response had been mostly positive, said Borchard, who’s in his 70s and has health issues.
“That should have been mandated on the national level,” said Borchard of masking requirements.
The Long Ear, which opened in 1973, has limited its hours to noon to 6 p.m. so it can staff the store with enough employees to ensure hygiene is followed, Borchard said. Even in the absence of government requirements for masking, Borchard said he’s instituted the rules to protect himself and his employees.
RJ Rueber, operations manager and head roaster at Calypso’s Coffee in downtown Coeur d’Alene, said so far the business has taken to posting signs outside encouraging customers to mask up before entering.
“I for one am totally against government overreach, and making sure nobody’s rights are being infringed,” Rueber said. “But if the government can require you to wear pants before going into a business, they can require you to wear a mask.”
Hoyer encouraged residents to continue to self-isolate if they believe they’ve been exposed to the virus. Testing should be done between four and eight days after exposure, to ensure that the virus has reached a level that can be detected through testing. While waiting for a test or if feeling sick, people should remain at home, she said.
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