Pandemic response requires local action

| November 19, 2020 1:00 AM

The growing community spread of COVID-19 in North Idaho is worrisome.

Bonner General Health reported on Saturday it has moved into contingency mode to accommodate the increase in patients requiring care due to COVID-19. The hospital has sequestered five medical/surgical rooms and three units in the critical care unit to expand their treatment capacity for COVID-19 patients to 11. Six of those rooms are full as of Monday. This is in response to continued increase in novel coronavirus cases in Bonner County where our total active cases hit 251 on Monday and the seven day new case rolling average doubled in the last week breaking into the red zone. (>30 cases/100k population)

Cases are on the rise in all 50 states. Next door in Washington, Governor Jay Inslee issued a new lockdown order, closing restaurants and bars, effective as of Monday, and limiting occupancy to 25% for essential businesses like supermarkets. Our neighboring states, Washington, Oregon, Utah, Montana, along with 32 other states have all issued a statewide mask mandate.

While Idaho Governor Brad Little has deferred decisions of mask mandates to local jurisdictions, he has rolled back the Idaho Rebounds COVID-19 response plan from stage 4 to stage 2, bringing in the National Guard to assist health care facilities with testing, decontamination and other needs. The modified stage 2 limits public gatherings to 10 people, exempting places of worship, and makes allowances for in school learning. The order also allows bars, restaurants and nightclubs to remain open (for now) though social distancing is mandated for all establishments.

In the absence of a statewide mask mandate, neighboring cities like Coeur d'Alene, Kellogg and Moscow have passed a citywide mandate while many others, including Sandpoint, have considered it.

As of Monday there have been 90 COVID-related deaths in North Idaho. It is government’s responsibility to protect the health and safety of the public. The most effective way to accomplish this is to minimize our exposure. Practicing social distancing, hand washing and wearing a mask are the proven methods for minimizing spread of this airborne virus.

This protocol has worked all over the world and it can work here. If this disease isn’t brought under control, Idaho could face another statewide shutdown that will be devastating for our economy, our businesses and our families.

Twice since the pandemic began, I have brought the issue of a mask mandate before council for consideration. Councilors Deb Ruehle and Kate McAlister moved to grant the mayor emergency powers to issue a mandate. As a matter of law, the office of the mayor can issue such an order under emergency powers granted through ID Code Section 46-1011. These powers, however, are only granted by majority vote of Council which voted 4-2 against such authorization. The majority of Sandpoint City Council also stated that there would be no threshold under which they would approve such a mandate.

It is important that government not shirk its responsibility. Lives are at stake. It is also the government’s responsibility to protect economic opportunity for all citizens. Our economic security is at stake. As we saw early in the pandemic, economic shutdowns were devastating to the financial security of families and businesses. It is critical that this pandemic is brought under control before more lives are lost. It is also critical that this is done without further destroying the financial well-being of North Idahoans.

Sandpoint, like the rest of America, is facing a public health issue, not a political issue. That’s why education on mask wearing, rather than legal enforcement of it is the first and best step to addressing such a problem. Record new cases, more deaths and further moves toward economic lockdown are evidence that what we are currently doing is not enough to address the growing threat.

If council were to grant the office of the mayor emergency powers, I would issue a mask mandate for the city of Sandpoint just as our neighboring states have done. I would direct Sandpoint Police Department to focus on education not enforcement. This would demonstrate both the city’s commitment to protecting public health and provide education resources that follow science-based facts without criminalizing anyone. It would also affirm federal guidelines for protecting economic stability by empowering local businesses, medical providers and workforce employees to create safe environments for conducting commerce.

While it is encouraging that vaccines are ready for USDA approval, experts tell us it will be at least 6 months before they are available to the general public. In the meantime cases will continue to grow and it is up to us to us to protect ourselves, our loved ones and our fellow Americans.

Please join me for the Mayor’s Roundtable to discuss all this and more this Thursday, Nov. 19, at 4 p.m. on Zoom:

You can also watch on Facebook Live through my page, Mayor Shelby Rognstad.

Shelby Rognstad is the mayor of Sandpoint. He can be reached at