Masks are now required in North Idaho.
The Panhandle Board of Health – which represents Benewah, Bonner, Boundary, Shoshone and Kootenai counties – voted Thursday to reinstate a mask mandate for the entire district. The mandate requires a covering of the nose and mouth to be worn when social distancing cannot occur throughout the five-county district. It will be in effect for 60 days and discussed further at the board’s January meeting.
The board voted 4-2 to pass the mandate, with one member, Walt Kirby of Boundary County, abstaining.
“We are not defenseless against coronavirus,” board member and Kootenai County nurse Jai Nelson said. “Face coverings work. They’re the most powerful weapon to stop and slow the spread.”
The health district originally passed a mask mandate for Kootenai County in late July, requiring a covering of the nose and mouth to be worn when social distancing cannot occur.
Nelson made the motion to implement a districtwide mask mandate, urging her fellow board members to “leave their attitudes and personal beliefs at home.”
She called out other board members who have been against a mask mandate since the beginning of the pandemic.
“Your attitude of carelessness is driving up the infection rate,” Nelson said.
Board member Glen Bailey of Bonner County called Nelson’s speech “scare tactics.” He said the board should focus on educating the public, allowing them to make a decision for themselves about a mask.
Bailey said he disagreed with a mandate that would force residents to wear a mask, arguing that more people would refuse to wear them if it were required.
“That to me is totally wrong,” he said.
Kirby announced he would be recusing himself from the vote, citing “political pressure” on both sides. Kirby has voted both in favor and against a mask mandate in the past, which he said has caused him to receive email and phone-call threats from people across the country.
He also said he would resign from the board, as well as from the county board of commissioners, if the threats did not stop.
“I don’t want to hear any more crap from the world out there,” he said. “I will not vote.”
COVID-19 case numbers in the health district have steadily increased since the beginning of October. The district confirmed 189 new cases on Thursday. There are currently 62 people hospitalized in the districts, including 49 patients at Kootenai Health.
All counties in the district are currently in the red “substantial risk” category, meaning there is a seven-day rolling average of more than 30 cases per 100,000 people, more than 20% of COVID-19 tests that are positive or hospital capacity consistently at or above 100%.
The national and local “waves” of COVID-19 cases are similar, epidemiologist Jeff Lee said. The first wave beginning in April, the second in July and the third and current is in September.
“We’re all experiencing the same thing,” Lee said.
However, incidence rates in Idaho and Kootenai County are higher than other parts of the country, Lee said.
Washington has had a mask mandate in place since June 26.
The incidence rate in Idaho is 2.5 times the rate in Washington, with Idaho having about 4,837 cases per 100,000 people, while Washington has 1,769 cases per 100,000 people.
Kootenai County also has an incidence rate about 1.5 times the rate in Spokane County, with Kootenai County having 3,791 cases per 100,000 people, while Spokane County has 2,525 cases per 100,000 people.
“We are far over the tipping point,” said board member Dr. Richard McLandress of Kootenai County.
McLandress said the community has not responded effectively to fight the virus, adding that a mask mandate is not about denying one’s liberties.
McLandress, Nelson, Shoshone County Commissioner Mike Fitzgerald and board chairman Marlow Thompson of Benewah County voted in favor of the mandate. Bailey and Allen Banks of Bonner County voted against it.
Idaho Gov. Brad Little announced last week the state would return to a modified Phase 2 of the reopening plan, limiting social gatherings to 10 people or fewer. The limit did not apply to businesses or schools, he said.
The change came from a concern that the state’s hospitals would soon reach full capacity. Hospitals in the state already have begun pausing elective surgeries, but Little said in a news conference he was worried that hospitals would eventually have to discontinue all but essential services.
Little declined to enact a statewide mask mandate, but urged Idaho residents to wear them.