Masks are now mandatory in Coeur d’Alene.
With protesters chanting outside the meeting, the Coeur d’Alene City Council voted 4-2 Monday afternoon to require face coverings in indoor or outdoor public places, with certain exceptions, such as children under the age of 5 or people with medical conditions.
Throughout the meeting, a group of protesters stood outside the library chanting “no more masks” and singing “God Bless America.” They could be heard inside the closed-door meeting room.
“Situations change,” said Mayor Steve Widmyer, who had previously come out against a mask mandate. “We’re in a critical situation right now.”
Throughout the month, the testing positivity rate has increased and hospital capacity has decreased across the county. The decision was made less than a week after the Panhandle Health District board voted 4-3 to rescind the Kootenai County mask mandate. The county also moved to the substantial risk, or Red, category last week.
“In the past 30 days, our status has changed for the worse,” Kootenai Health Chief Executive Officer Jon Ness said.
Kootenai Health, the county’s major hospital, announced last Wednesday it was at 99% capacity and started delaying elective surgeries. At one point, Ness said the hospital had one bed available.
The Kootenai Health Board of Trustees and the Kootenai Health medical staff sent letters to the mayor and the council, urging them to pass a mask mandate.
As of Monday, the hospital was at 88% capacity, with 34 total people hospitalized with COVID-19, with 11 in critical care. Those currently hospitalized represent age groups from their 20s to their 80s.
“This is not just affecting local individuals who are old and frail,” chief physician executive Dr. Karen Cabell said. “It’s affecting the whole population.”
Councilman Dan English, who voted in favor of the mandate, said the mask issue has received more community interest than any other issue he can remember.
Everyone is learning as they go, he added.
“This is an easy decision,” English said. “I’m convinced this is what we need to do.”
Councilwoman Christie Wood also voted in favor, saying she wants to do everything she can to help slow the spread.
“The idea of doing nothing is not acceptable to me,” she said.
After voting to abandon the mask mandate for Kootenai County last week, the Panhandle Health District board, which represents Benewah, Bonner, Boundary, Kootenai and Shoshone counties, reaffirmed its position from July 8 that only recommends wearing masks.
Gov. Brad Little announced Monday that Idaho will move back to Stage 3 in its reopening plan as healthcare facilities struggle to meet capacity needs across the state.
Stage 3 requires indoor gatherings be limited to 50 people, outdoor gatherings be limited to 25% capacity, physical distancing at all gatherings, masks at long-term care facilities, and bars and restaurants to only serve seated guests.
The move does not mean schools should switch to fully remote learning, Little said in a statement.
COVID-19 affects everyone, whether you have it or not, Little said in a statement.
“I sincerely hope that some people have finally passed the point of thinking the pandemic is not real or not a big deal, or that their personal actions don’t really affect anything,” Little said.
Little has yet to call for a statewide mask mandate.
Council members asked Kootenai Health officials about the effectiveness of masks. Councilman Dan Gookin pushed them on why masks should be mandated and not other forms of protection, such as goggles or hand -washing.
The purpose of a mask is to catch droplets in order to prevent the spread of the virus, Panhandle Health District staff epidemiologist Jeff Lee said.
“The virus isn’t alive,” he said. “It can’t fly. It takes a ride on the droplets of the breath. If you’re catching the droplets, they’re not spreading.”
The effectiveness of masks relies on everyone wearing them, Lee added, calling it a two-way street. It’s not completely about protecting the wearer or completely about protecting other people.
Gookin voted against the mandate, saying he did not think masks work, and he supported his residents’ freedom.
“We have a Bill of Rights, not a bill of feelings,” he said.
Councilman Woody McEvers, who also voted no, said that while he believes in masks, he also believes in personal responsibility. He said he does not think a mask mandate is something the city should do when the county refuses.
“I just don’t see how that’s the best use of what we can do,” he said.
Police Chief Lee White had questions for the council about enforcement. In previous months, officers have focused on educating those without masks without citations, White said, but if the council wants them to issue citations, they will.
White said they don’t spend a lot of time enforcing certain ordinances, but this one might be different.
“I want the council to understand, if this passes, you should expect citations to be written,” White said.
Widmyer said it’s not the council’s intention to give tickets or to arrest anyone, but he thinks more people will start to wear them.
“There are going to be some people who are absolutely not going to do it,” he said. “There are going to be some people who will do it.”
English agreed the first line of defense is education, adding a warning likely will suffice on the first offense. However, if it gets out-of-hand, he said, a citation might be necessary.
“Nobody’s ever going to get arrested,” English said.
Wood said she would expect officers to use the same discretion as they do with other ordinances, such as fireworks use during the Fourth of July.
“If you need to issue something, you will,” she said.
Gookin and McEvers were the only two council members who voted against the mask mandate. English, Wood, Amy Evans and Kiki Miller all voted in favor.
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.
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter
Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.