Panhandle declines mask mandate, tables vote

| July 17, 2020 5:37 PM

A motion by the Panhandle Health District board of health to mandate masks failed to come to a vote, as no other member would second the motion to require residents and visitors to wear the protective coverings under the cloud of the coronavirus pandemic.

“I recognize COVID 19 is a threat,” Bonner County commissioner and board member Glen Bailey said. “But at the same time, I recoginize the threat to our general population is minimal. When I see the numbers, the statistics, yes, this is not the common flu. But at the same time, the death rates and the statistics I’ve seen show me this is not a larger threat than the flu. It is not, in my opinion, a reason that schools close down or businesses close down.”

The meeting was interrupted early on, not only by attending members of the public who protested the possibility of a mask mandate, but also by a hacker who managed to break into a a Zoom’s screen-sharing function and write “No Masks” on the data slides. The move forced speakers to abandon the slides and speak off their scripted presentations.

Members of the public also repeatedly disrupted the proceedings, both through applause and by interrupting speakers. Opposition to masks were not limited to the public outside the meeting, however. Several board members said they would not support a mask mandate.

“I’ve had calls from law enforcement and others who said they can’t do anything about it,” Boundary County commissioner and board member Walt Kirby said. “They say, ‘Don’t start something you can’t win.’”

Kirby further stressed that Panhandle Health should continue to encourage the wearing of masks, but that a mandate was out of bounds.

Kootenai County Sheriff Ben Wolfinger was on hand, where he made a statement in opposition to a mask mandate, saying such a requirement would strain his office beyond its resources.

“We have all agreed,” Wolfinger said after meeting with local chiefs of police, “we do not have the capacity or the time to be enforcing an order for masking. I completely agree with Commissioner Kirby that we can certainly live with encouragement, but a mandate is unenforceable.”

Board member Dr. Richard McLandress made the motion to vote on a mask mandate, saying the sheer unknown of the disease, coupled with the community spread COVID-19 is stitching into Kootenai County’s population, was more than enough reason to consider a mask mandate.

“Based around the fact that we continue to learn about this disease,” McLandress urged, “there are two things we know for sure: This is not just a disease of the elderly… (and) that many younger people are acquiring this disease. I firmly believe we, as a board, need to act.”

Panhandle Health public information officer Katherine Hoyer said the lack of a vote will in no way deter the health district’s efforts to encourage the wearing of masks in public.

“We continue to try and educate and provide scientifically-sound guidance for our community and will continue to do so throughout the course of this pandemic,” Hoyer said.

When asked about how COVID-19 could impact Kootenai County if people continue to refuse to wear masks, Hoyer was adamant people must continue to protect themselves.

“We will continue to see cases rise if our community does not take the proper precautions,” she said. “From what we’ve seen in the area, around the country and (around the) world is when cases start to sharply increase, like they are here, hospitalizations and possibly deaths follow weeks after.”

A motion was made to reconsider the matter at the next board meeting, after members have had a more thorough opportunity to read and understand the data behind the virus.