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New Kootenai County sheriff latest law enforcement leader to refuse to enforce mask mandate as cases and deaths mount

Bob Norris

Kootenai County Sheriff Bob Norris announced his department would not enforce the Panhandle Health District mask mandate despite significant community transmission of COVID-19 and a hospital that has been near or at capacity for months.

“The Kootenai County Sheriff’s Office will not enforce an unenforceable law or executive mandate on its citizens,” Norris wrote. “It is not law enforcement’s job to get between you, your health and your doctor.”

Norris became sheriff earlier this month after being elected to the position in November, when former Sheriff Ben Wolfinger retired. Norris follows other North Idaho law enforcement leaders, including Bonner County Sheriff Daryl Wheeler, in refusing to enforce the mandate.

Wolfinger took an educational approach to the mandate, saying violations would be dealt with on a case-by-case basis, according to KHQ.

COVID-19 has run rampant in North Idaho, with 14,046 cases in Kootenai County alone and more than 18,300 cases in the five-member counties of the Panhandle Health District. Nearly 200 people have died from the virus in the area, according to the district. The Panhandle Health District did not respond to a request for comment on the sheriff’s statement.

Kootenai Health canceled elective surgeries from Dec. 16 through Sunday due to the high number of COVID-19 patients at the hospital. As of Monday morning, there were more COVID-19 patients at Kootenai Health than when the decision to cancel surgeries was made.

As of Monday morning, there also were 84 COVID-19 patients at Kootenai Health, with 22 requiring critical care, according to the hospital.

Norris said he believes the mask mandate “goes against the fundamental principle of the U.S. and Idaho Constitutions.”

Most experts, however, agree that mask mandates do not infringe on an individual’s constitutional rights. Richard Seamon, a constitutional law professor at the University of Idaho, told KLEW that the medical consensus that masks reduce the spread of COVID-19 coupled with allowed exemptions to the mandates make them constitutional.