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Masks now required in Kootenai County, despite public opposition to health board mandate

The Panhandle Health District meeting in July on a mask mandate is pictured in this screenshot.   (YouTube)

Masks are now required in public in Kootenai County after the Panhandle Board of Health passed a mask mandate Thursday, despite stiff public opposition.

The board tabled a similar motion last week after hearing opposition from the public. On Thursday, more than 1,000 people tuned into the meeting’s live stream, with even more present in person.

Those who turned out online and in person overwhelmingly opposed a mask mandate at both meetings.

The mandate, which passed 4 to 2, requires a covering of the nose and mouth to be worn when social distancing cannot occur in Kootenai County, only one of the five counties the Panhandle Health District covers.

After the vote, those in attendance shouted at board members.

“I’m not doing this!” one person declared. “We demand your resignation!”

COVID-19 is a public health crisis, said Jai Nelson, a nurse and board member from Kootenai County. As a public health board, it is time to come together and act.

“It’s time to do the right thing,” Nelson said. “In the case of this pandemic, the right thing is to require face coverings.”

The Panhandle Health District reported 81 new cases on Thursday, for a new total of 1,412 confirmed cases in the five-county region. The majority of cases are in Kootenai County.

The district also reported two additional deaths of residents from COVID-19 on Thursday, bringing the total death count to three.

Dr. Richard McLandress, of Kootenai County, said he fully believes in personal rights, but the board had a great opportunity to try to stop this virus through mask requirements.

“What about the ethics of me protecting my neighbor? That’s who we’re talking about here,” he said.

Two board members opposed the motion. Glen Bailey, board member and Bonner County Commissioner, said the board should focus more on educating the public on social distancing, washing their hands and wearing masks.

“In my opinion, I do not see that mandating the use of a mask is the answer to this,” Bailey said.

Board member Allen Banks, also of Bonner County, said he does not believe the testing and case numbers are accurate. He also said such a mandate would go beyond the role of the health district board.

The mandate is overly restrictive, he said.

The health district’s legal counsel Marc Lyons said the health district has broad powers in the case of an emergency, such as the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I believe there is the authority to do this,” Lyons said. “It is up to the board to decide to exercise these powers or to not exercise these powers.”

Those in person had the opportunity to share their thoughts during public comment, with most people showing opposition to a mask mandate. The board chose speakers randomly from public comment requests submitted before the meeting.

Lyons reminded those in attendance that the board offers limited opportunity for the public to speak. The meeting is for the public, he said, but not with the public.

“As long as there is order, there will be a meeting,” said Chairman Marlow Thompson, of Benewah County. “If there is not order, there will be no meeting.”

Some argued, against the scientific consensus, that masks are ineffective at stopping the spread of COVID-19. Others called a mask mandate unconstitutional, with one person comparing it to a dictatorial government. Another urged the board to focus on educating people about the benefits of wearing a mask rather than requiring they do so. Others worried about how enforceable a mask mandate is.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has strongly encouraged people to wear masks in public, citing increasing evidence that cloth face masks prevent the spread.

“Cloth face coverings are one of the most powerful weapons we have to slow and stop the spread of the virus – particularly when used universally within a community setting,” CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield said in a statement last week.

The board usually allows 20 minutes for public comment, but because of the number of requests as well as technical difficulties, Thompson allowed the comment to go on longer.

However, those in attendance criticized the board for not allowing everyone to speak, including one woman who approached the board and was escorted out by security.

“There is no way we’re going to be able to please everyone,” Thompson said.

The decision to require masks comes as hospital officials expect hospitalizations to continue to increase in the coming weeks. Kootenai Health’s current inpatient capacity for COVID-19 patients is 32, and more COVID patients than that will mean cutting back on other elective medical procedures, like some non-urgent surgeries.

“We are at that tipping point,” Jeremy Evans, executive vice president at Kootenai Health, told board members Thursday.

“Continued spread of the disease in our region will continue to stress our system and could limit access to elective-type services,” he added.

The hospital could accommodate up to 93 COVID patients, but that would mean a hard stop on all non-urgent procedures in the medical center and a major redirection of resources.

Kootenai Health still hasn’t caught up with the backlog of procedures that were put on pause when the CDC asked hospitals to stop elective procedures in order to accommodate COVID patients earlier this year. They estimate that they still have about a third of patients to treat from that backlog.

Arielle Dreher 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.