The Panhandle Board of Health narrowly extended its mask mandate until late April on Thursday, after the chairman had to cast the tiebreaking vote to push it through.
Masks are required to be worn in all five Panhandle counties while in public. There are multiple exemptions listed in the order, and while violating the mask mandate could result in a misdemeanor, local law enforcement agencies there have been reluctant to enforce it.
Dr. Richard McLandress made the motion to extend the mandate to last until the board’s April 22 meeting, when it will discuss it again.
“We need to stand up and do the right thing,” he told board members.
Not all of them agreed. Some members cited recent declines in case counts, as well as current noncompliance with the mandate, as reasons to not continue mandating masks.
While case rates are getting better in the Panhandle, they have not gone down to levels seen in the summer.
On Thursday, the Panhandle Health District confirmed 109 new cases, and there are nearly 5,000 active cases in the five-county region.
The district covers Kootenai, Shoshone, Boundary, Bonner and Benewah counties.
Some board members refused to acknowledge the public health guidance based on scientific evidence that masks do, in fact, work to reduce the spread of viral particles from person to person.
Glen Bailey of Bonner County pointed to low death rates among teenagers and children, as well as suffering businesses, in his case against the mask mandate.
“I do not see that the cost in lives or the cost in businesses is worth a mandate,” Bailey told the board.
The Panhandle Health District confirmed three more deaths in Panhandle residents from the virus on Thursday, meaning 239 Panhandle residents have died from COVID-19 .
While COVID-19 rates in the Panhandle are beginning to taper, there are still 56 residents in hospitals being treated for the virus.
Jai Nelson pointed to the news of new and more contagious variants of the virus emerging as a reason to double down on masking in the region.
“I don’t think this is the time when we let down our guard,” Nelson said. “In fact, I think we need to be doubling down. I think we need to stop these variants from becoming the dominant strains.”
McLandress and Nelson were joined by Commissioner Mike Fitzgerald and Chairman Marlow Thompson, who passed the mandate by breaking the tie.
Bailey, Allen Banks and Tim Bertling, who joined the board on Jan. 28, voted against the mandate.
Correction: A previous version of this story listed Walt Kirby as voting “no” on the mandate, but he did not vote. He is no longer serving on the Board of Health. Tim Bertling did vote against the mandate and joined the Panhandle Health Board at the Jan. 28 meeting. The story also previously referred to board members as commissioners who are not county commissioners. We apologize for the errors.
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 now to get breaking news alerts in your email inbox
Get breaking news delivered to your inbox as it happens.