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Staff Writer | July 23, 2020 1:09 AM

CDA Council appears split on mask mandate

When the Coeur d’Alene City Council decided to schedule a special meeting Friday at noon, most members said it’s a meeting they hope they’ll cancel.

“We’re all good, fine people here,” Mayor Steve Widmyer said at Tuesday’s council meeting, “but health isn’t our expertise at all. We have experts in police and fire and planning and parks and those kinds of things. And then we’ve had this decision just dropped in our laps. And that’s frustrating to me.”

That decision is whether to require Coeur d’Alene residents and visitors to wear masks while out and about, a widely recognized precaution to help slow the spread of COVID-19, a disease that has infected more than 13 million people worldwide and led to 624,000-plus deaths.

Mask mandates have been implemented in cities throughout southern Idaho by mayors and health districts alike. The most recent example came Tuesday evening, after the Eastern Idaho Health District’s board implemented a mask mandate on Bonneville County, effective immediately.

The Panhandle Health District’s board of health will meet today to once again discuss the possibility of issuing a mask mandate. At the board’s July 16 meeting, a motion to mandate masks garnered such little support that it failed to gain a second motion, preventing it from coming to a vote.

It’s that lack of action — from both Panhandle Health’s board and the state’s Department of Health and Welfare — that sparked Widmyer’s ire. The mayor said health decisions of this magnitude belong, first and foremost, to the experts who manage local health policy.

“You have Panhandle Health District,” he pointed out. “They have ‘Health’ in their name. Idaho Health and Welfare? They’re a state agency. They have ‘Health’ in their name.”

Be that as it may, the decision to mandate masks might very well fall into Coeur d’Alene’s lap.

Should Panhandle Health again decline a mask mandate, the Coeur d’Alene City Council will convene Friday at noon.

“The city’s position has been that we will follow the guidelines set by Panhandle Health,” Councilman Dan English said. “They have recommended masks. Last week at a special meeting the motion for a mandate for Kootenai County died for a lack of a second. This was very disappointing for those of us who note the continued spread and realize we need to do more.”

Later in the meeting, when asked by Widmyer if he supported a mandate, English said he does. He was not alone on the council in support of action.

“If we didn’t consider an individual mandate, at a minimum, I’d like us to consider a mandate for businesses, because that’s where everyone’s congregating,” Councilwoman Christie Wood said.

Wood and English represented the most vocal call for a mandate, but they did not represent the most earnest calls for people to wear masks. That position belonged to Councilwoman Amy Evans, who — without stating one way or another what direction she would vote — pleaded for locals and visitors to show a basic concern for the community and wear masks.

“Our community is facing such immense strain right now,” Evans said. “Our numbers are rising. Our ICU is full. Our health care system is strained. Our vulnerable community members are at a higher risk now than ever. People are hurting and scared. We all love our community, and we need to do everything we can to slow the spread.”

One of the strongest shows of support wearing of masks over the past few weeks has come from Councilwoman Kiki Miller. The longtime community leader has been one of the driving forces of a campaign that not only promotes the wearing of masks but also gives resources to help customers understand each business’s particular mask requirements. But Miller expressed concern at Tuesday’s meeting over a mandate: not because of ideological differences, but because a city-only mandate might not work.

“Unless there’s a communitywide, a countywide effort, the city of Coeur d’Alene can’t stop this by itself,” Miller said.

Councilman Woody McEvers said his experiences, including conversations with his customers at Rustler’s Roost in Hayden, have influenced his thinking. While he hasn’t specified one way or the other how he’ll presumably vote, he has resisted masks.

“Everybody north of Prairie (Avenue), my particular customers think it’s all bull,” he said. “Everything you said? I’ve heard the exact opposite. The exact opposite. ‘This doesn’t work. That doesn’t work.’ That’s where I am influenced. That’s what I hear all day. I support Kiki’s program. I am not wild about carrying a big stick and telling people what to do, and the county isn’t, and the state isn’t.”

McEvers added that he empathizes with the concerns expressed throughout the community — specifically Evans’ statement pleading for masks — but that he walks to his own beat of the drum.

“I support Amy,” McEvers said. “I know you live in it. She lives in a mask. I never wear a mask, unless I’m asked to … My customers don’t wear masks. They never ask me why I don’t wear masks.”

The firmest resistance came from Councilman Dan Gookin, who was the lone no vote against the Friday meeting. Gookin told The Press before Tuesday’s meeting that a mask mandate would be a logistical waste of time and resources.

“It’s unenforceable,” he said. “You’ve seen it in other places where people flaunt it. Their police departments have said, ‘If you do (a mandate), it’s going to be our lowest priority.’ Every busy-body is going to call in because they saw somebody without their mask. It would be catastrophic. The police phone lines would be flooded 24 hours a day. You just can’t enforce it.”

That said, Gookin stressed that he is not against wearing masks, only the mandate.

“What you have to do is put social pressure on people,” he said. “I’m OK with businesses mandating it. You can’t compare it to ‘no shoes, no service.’ It’s different. You can’t compare it to seat belts. It’s different. It’s something that should be left up to individuals and businesses.”