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Bonner County Sheriff refuses to enforce mask mandate as commissioner proposes defunding health district

In this file photo, Bonner County Sheriff Daryl Wheeler, speaks at a press conference on Wednesday, July 16, 2012 at the Bonner County Sheriff's office in Sandpoint. KATHY PLONKA  (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)

After Bonner County Sheriff Daryl Wheeler said he would not enforce the Panhandle Health District’s mask mandate despite a surge in COVID-19 cases, a county commissioner proposed slashing the health district’s funding.

Bonner County Commissioner Steven Bradshaw motioned to remove funding from Panhandle Health District at a commission meeting Tuesday. The commissioners approved $256,985 in funds for the health district in August to cover the 2021 fiscal year. The health district has received about the same amount from Bonner County since at least 2017.

Bradshaw said the health district’s enactment of a mask mandate last week was an “overreach of powers.”

There have been 872 cases of COVID-19 in Bonner County, with 23 new cases reported Monday, according to the Panhandle Health District, which serves Kootenai, Benewah, Boundary, Shoshone and Bonner counties.

Bonner County is currently classified as a “substantial risk,” meaning the test positivity rate is more than 20%, hospital capacity is consistently at or above 100% and the weekly rolling average positivity rate is more than 30 per 100,000 residents. The seven-day moving average incident rate for Bonner County was 28.7 Tuesday, according to the Idaho Division of Public Health.

After weeks with most counties in the “substantial risk” category, the Panhandle Board of Health passed a mask mandate Thursday. Officials in the city of Sandpoint were supportive Tuesday, saying they would embark on a monthlong education and outreach effort.

City leaders including Jennifer Stapleton, city administrator, Mayor Shelby Rognstad, and Police Chief Corey Cook acknowledged rising COVID-19 cases counts and strongly encouraged residents and visitors to Sandpoint to follow public health guidelines, in a statement Tuesday night.

“It is a matter of life or death for some of our most vulnerable community members and others who don’t view themselves as vulnerable but may be impacted by long-term effects,” Rognstad said.

The focus on education and compliance comes just a day after Wheeler refused to enforce the mask mandate.

“The Bonner County Sheriff’s Office is working at maximum capacity on real crime, and it cannot enforce the unenforceable mask rules,” Wheeler wrote in a news release. “Most law enforcement agencies around the country are either passively or actively refusing to follow these types of directives.”

Many law enforcement agencies in the region have taken an educational approach over enforcement, including the Kootenai County Sheriff’s Office and multiple law enforcement agencies in Spokane County.

On Tuesday, Bradshaw proposed reducing funding to the health district to stand up to their “overreach.”

“Panhandle Health District is not a legislative body, therefore they can’t legislate law,” Bradshaw said. “It was passed under illegitimate authority. And then they claim, you know, erroneously that they have this ability to issue mandates.”

Idaho State law gives health district boards broad authority including the ability “to administer and enforce all state and district health laws, regulations and standards.”

“I think the citizens of this country and pretty much worldwide are endowed with the inalienable rights endowed by our creator,” Bradshaw said. “And, you know, it starts with our first breath of life and goes to our very last one. And I don’t believe that anybody has the power, or any government agency has the power to regulate this fundamental right.”

When asked which inalienable right he was referring to, Bradshaw said, “the right to breathe freely as we choose to, with or without a mask.”

Bradshaw’s issues with the health district are not just over the mandate, he believes the number of cases, especially in Bonner County, do not indicate there is an actual pandemic due to COVID-19.

More than 257,000 people have died from COVID-19 in the United States alone, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Worldwide, more than 1.3 million people have died from the virus, according to the World Health Organization.

“It’s not a risk to the general public,” Bradshaw said. “There is nobody healthy who has actually died from it. They’ve all had other conditions that were tied to it.”

While people with pre-existing conditions are at a greater risk of death or serious complications if they do contract COVID-19, in at least 6% of the people who died with COVID-19, the virus was the only cause mentioned.

“That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be careful,” Bradshaw said. “It’s our own responsibility to protect ourselves.”

Bradshaw said there were six people hospitalized in Bonner County. Individual county hospitalization numbers are not readily available on the Panhandle Health District website.

“Is that a pandemic number? No,” Bradshaw said. “It’s bad that any of them should have it but that’s not a pandemic number. I’m sorry.”

Unlike larger counties, which are also stretched thin, Bonner County has smaller medical resources. The main hospital in the county, Bonner General, is considered a critical access hospital with 25 beds.

Despite the implications to the health care system, Bradshaw said he wants to move forward with defunding the health district.

“If it was up to me, I’d reduce it to $1 a year; I think that makes more of a statement than just taking it all away,” Bradshaw said.

The motion will be on the agenda at next week’s Bonner County Commissioner meeting, Bradshaw said. In the meantime, Wheeler has his full support in balking at mask mandate enforcement, Bradshaw said.

While Wheeler said the mandate is “unenforceable,” Sandpoint Police Chief Corey Coon took a different stance.

“We have been following the lead of other communities around our state and beyond in terms of a best practice law enforcement approach,” Coon said in a statement. “Most law enforcement agencies have first taken the education approach, and this is consistent with what we do when a new law comes out that citizens may not be fully aware of, or adapted to. Think of recent laws around texting while driving, for example.”

Sandpoint police will issue warnings to individuals who are not in compliance with the new order before issuing a citation, a strategy Coon adapted from issues in Kootenai County.

The Coeur d’Alene City Attorney’s Office declined to cite people initially issued citations by police who violated the mandate last week, saying they weren’t given a warning or opportunity to comply, KREM 2 reported.

“We will be issuing the warnings and providing an opportunity to comply in Sandpoint,” Coon said.

In Bonner County, when dispatch receives a complaint of a violation of the mask mandate from citizens, the complainant will be told “the sheriff’s office will not be investigating or enforcing the mask mandate,” Wheeler wrote in a statement posted to the Bonner County Sheriff’s Office Facebook page.

If complainants are insistent about talking to a deputy, a deputy will call them back and repeat that the sheriff’s office will not investigate, Wheeler said.

The three police departments in Bonner County, Ponderay Police Department, Priest River Police Department and Sandpoint Police Department, are left to make their own decisions regarding enforcement, Wheeler said. The Ponderay and Priest River police departments did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday.