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Panhandle mask mandate remains controversial as COVID-19 cases rise

Beachgoers flock to the beach on July 9 at Independence Point in Coeur d’Alene.  (Kathy Plonka/The Spokesman-Revie)

With the number of COVID-19 cases continuing to rise in North Idaho, the Panhandle Health District declined Friday to adopt a mask mandate after it met stiff opposition from members of the public as well as members of the Board of Health.

The Panhandle Health District, which covers Kootenai, Bonner, Boundary, Benewah and Shoshone counties, reported 66 new cases on Friday, with total cases now at 1,130. Most cases come from Kootenai County, which currently has 618 active cases. There are 11 residents in the health district’s area currently hospitalized for COVID-19.

About 500 people attended, in person and remotely, the meeting of the Panhandle Health District Board. Those attending overwhelmingly expressed opposition to the measure.

The board opened up the meeting to a small number of in-person attendees, based on social distancing standards, but most people tuned in via Zoom.

Throughout the meeting, those attending in person applauded and shouted “He’s a liar” or “That’s not true” when the effectiveness of masks was discussed.

Those attending over Zoom held up signs reading “I oppose a mask mandate.” A member of the public also hacked an administrator’s screen sharing ability and wrote “NO MASKS” over the graphs. The drawing was followed by loud applause by those in attendance in person.

Katherine Hoyer, Panhandle Health District spokesperson, said no Zoom meeting has been hacked like this before. Hoyer did not know how it happened but said they will work to ensure it does not happen again.

Jeff Lee, the board’s staff epidemiologist, said the number of cases in the district will likely increase during the next two weeks.

“Basically, what we’re seeing is a significant amount of COVID cases coming in everyday,” Lee said.

Dr. Richard McLandress, of Kootenai County, made a motion to have the board, along with legal counsel, draft a mandate that required masks to be worn in public. No one seconded the motion.

Jai Nelson, a nurse in Kootenai County, then moved to table the discussion surrounding a mask mandate until the board’s meeting next week. She said she needed more time to read about the effectiveness of masks. All members approved, except McLandress, who said officials shouldn’t wait another day to mandate masks.

He said he believed in people’s personal rights but said the board also has a right to bring forth a mandate such as this.

“I firmly believe that we as a board need to act,” McLandress said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has strongly advised people to wear masks in public, citing a “growing body of evidence” that cloth masks work.

“The main protection individuals gain from masking occurs when others in their communities also wear face coverings,” the CDC said in a statement issued earlier this week.

Other members of the board did not agree that masks would slow the spread of COVID-19. Board member Walt Kirby, Boundary County commissioner, said individual people should decide if they want to wear a mask. Businesses can decide their own rules, but ultimately, it should be a decision of the people.

Coeur d’Alene City Councilman Dan English said he hopes the health district proposes a mask mandate countywide, but if they do not, he is prepared to bring the issue up at the City Council’s next meeting.

The virus does not care about boundaries, English said, so a countywide mandate makes much more sense.

Spokane Valley Mayor Ben Wick said it would be helpful for both sides of the border to have similar rules for masking and social distancing.

“We are one big community, whether we realize it or not,” said Wick, chairman of the Spokane Regional Health District board.

Wick said he would prefer a more regional approach to battling COVID-19. He noted that when businesses reopened sooner in Idaho, many customers who normally would have shopped in Spokane or Spokane Valley crossed the border.

English said people should listen to health experts who say that masking helps slow and stop the spread, he said.

“It’s not like we’re asking people to cut off their arm,” he said. “Just wear a mask. When you consider the alternative, in my mind, it’s certainly worth the price.”

Jonathan Brunt contributed to this report.

Laurel Demkovich's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.