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Cd'A mayor looks back on a difficult 2020

by CRAIG NORTHRUP
Staff Writer | December 31, 2020 1:08 AM

When asked to characterize 2020’s impact in a single word, almost anyone could have chosen anything from “unprecedented” to “devastating” to your most readily-available curse word.

When asked this week to make his one-word selection, Steve Widmyer thought hard before giving his choice, one he hopes will serve as the final nail on The Year From Hell.

“Difficult,” he said.

It’s a diplomatic word that requires a diplomatic thought process, a skill the Coeur d’Alene mayor said he had to sharpen like never before during a year that brought social unrest to a community in the midst of a public health pandemic. But while the events of 2020 raised the stakes to new heights, Widmyer said his strategy for guiding the city’s course didn’t vary too far from his mean.

“At the end of the day you try to navigate your decisions and the way you run the city based upon all of that information from everybody," he said.

Those decisions had to come quickly this year, starting on March 25, after Gov. Brad Little ordered the state of Idaho to all-but-shut down. The order shuttered most storefronts, kept health-compromised residents isolated and revived a long-dormant word into the business community’s lexicon: “non-essential.”

Many residents — Widmyer included — had to watch as Coeur d’Alene went quiet while a potentially deadly pathogen roamed through town. But Widmyer said the challenges of a pandemic don’t change the responsibilities of a city. Those responsibilities, he said, couldn’t be fulfilled without extraordinary behind-the-scenes measures not fully realized to this day.

“What people might not know is all of the work that had to go on internally to keep our employees healthy, so we could do our job serving the citizens.” Widmyer said. “We had to keep our public safety, we had to keep our police, we had to keep our fire, we had to keep our paramedics — we had to keep them healthy in order to serve our community.”

That meant city employees working remotely, following strict health protocols, staying home and taking extra precautions during the pandemic, even as stores began to open in mid-May.

It also meant overseeing a community itching to stretch its summer legs, its citizens once again interacting in a tourist town and taking in visitors from other states still on restriction. It’s a situation Widmyer looks at with guarded optimism.

“There’s always a trade-off,” he said of Little’s four-stage re-opening plan. “We have been a lot better than Washington, economically. When you go to Spokane and go downtown, you see the restaurants and other businesses, they’re closed. They’re shuttered. I don’t know how they’re getting along. How are they paying the rent? How are the restaurants paying the rent? How are the landlords who are not getting any rent paying their mortgage? I don’t know how the long-term impact of that economic situation that Washington has created for themselves is going to help them in the long-term.”

Still, Widmyer said the pandemic isn't over, and that measuring a community’s ultimate success in the time of COVID-19 can’t be judged in the here and now.

“I think we have to take a long-term approach, when we’re looking at the response,” he said. “Definitely, we are better economically. We’ve tried to mitigate the health situation through masking and through talking about all the health protocols we need to go through. But I think to gauge who’s been successful and who’s not been successful at this is too early to tell. But economic downturns and shuttering businesses: That has a health effect, too.”

On May 31, an already-charged public dialogue both locally and nationwide took a swift and unexpected turn after the Minneapolis Police Department was caught on video killing an unarmed man named George Floyd on a city street. Floyd’s death sparked protests nationwide that swelled from Minnesota to Washington, D.C., to Seattle to Spokane.

Coeur d’Alene’s neighbor to the west saw some protests turn destructive, with businesses in Spokane’s downtown district experiencing storefront damage.

An unsubstantiated report of similar disturbances coming to Coeur d’Alene mobilized community members and local militias downtown. For the first four days of June, Sherman Avenue and several of its side streets were lined with armed men and women, becoming, among other things, the first story to kick COVID-19 off the front page.

Widmyer said he looks back at those tumultuous days not as politically turbulent times, but as nights spent protecting something deeply personal.

“My wife has a shop downtown,” he said. “June 1 through 4, I stayed down there through midnight every night. I was just as shocked as anyone the first of June, when we saw the collection of people that were armed downtown. I walked up and down several times, talking with people, visiting with people. All the people that I talked to, I believe, had good intentions. They felt our community was in danger. They saw what happened in Spokane with smashing windows, and they did not want that to happen in Coeur d’Alene.”

Widmyer said he spent some of those nights perched on the bench in front of his wife’s shop conversing with an old friend, who echoed the mayor’s sentiment.

“He said, ‘I came down here because this is my hometown,’" Widmyer recalled. “‘What I saw in Spokane, I’m not going to allow here.’”

Widmyer said he doesn’t regret his or the community’s actions of early June, but he did add that he understood both the rationale of the armed response and the voices of those opposed to the city’s handling of events.

“That being said, would I prefer that law enforcement handle that?” he asked. “Absolutely. But in talking to our law enforcement — who very, very closely monitored the situation all four days — if any illegal act happened, they’d respond, and they were ready. But in our attorneys’ opinion, and in our law enforcement’s opinion, what happened downtown was not against the law.

“Now many, many people — and I understand the people — didn’t like it,” Widmyer added. “Nobody wants a downtown when you have 100 to 200 heavily-armed people on the sidewalks on your street. And you know what? I don’t think they wanted to be down here, but those people felt like it was their duty. We respected that, but I also respect there were many, many people that were uncomfortable with that.”

Tensions continued to simmer as Panhandle Health District implemented a countywide mask mandate in July, bringing with it unrest that began at the Kootenai County Courthouse on Government Way, carrying forward onto Sherman Avenue in sporadic marches and weekend protests, and then continuing to the eastern edge of McEuen Park in late October.

There, days after political pressure compelled members of the PHD board to rescind its mask mandate, the Coeur d’Alene City Council implemented its own. It’s a policy Widmyer has publicly supported (he never cast a vote in the 4-2 council decision), but it’s also an ordinance the mayor stressed should not have come before the city.

Still, Widmyer said navigating the city through the choppy political waters of a mask mandate is no different than his handling of any other issue: making decisions off of the best information available.

“It’s a health situation and unfortunately it’s been made a political issue," he said. "My point has been — and I get emails all the time challenging the mask mandate — when you have 282 physicians that sign onto a letter saying, ‘We need your help, and we believe the mask mandate is going to help us save lives.’ And not only save lives, but there are many people who have gotten COVID who will have lifelong effects from it … When you have 282 doctors say they believe a mask mandate will help, you cannot turn your back on Kootenai Health. In my mind, you just can’t."

Widmyer said the lesson of 2020 was one he learned throughout his last seven years in office, one he hopes will help the city course-correct with the new year.

“This probably hasn’t just been (a lesson) from 2020,” he said. “This has probably been from my whole time as mayor, is that whether I agree or disagree with someone’s opinion … I need to respect where these people are coming from. In taking that forward, I think what I’ve learned in seven years and from 2020 is, if my opinion is different, I still need to respect their opinion.”

This was the first in a two-part interview with Coeur d’Alene Mayor Steve Widmyer. The second part — in which Widmyer will discuss his thoughts on the year to come — will run in Friday’s edition of The Coeur d’Alene Press.

photo

Mayor Steve Widmyer stood guard over his wife's shop in early June, shortly after the killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers sparked nationwide protests. “Nobody wants a downtown when you have 100 to 200 heavily-armed people on the sidewalks on your street," Widmyer told The Press. "And you know what? I don’t think they wanted to be down here, but those people felt like it was their duty. We respected that, but I also respect there were many, many people that were uncomfortable with that.” (Courtesy photo)