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No surprise: Parties see mandate differently

by CRAIG NORTHRUP
Staff Writer | July 25, 2020 1:07 AM

While the local population has split over Panhandle Health District’s board issuing a county-wide mask mandate, the head of the Kootenai County Republican Central Committee criticized the requirement as a textbook example of government overreach.

“Panhandle Health District’s action has raised a number of issues regarding authority, process and practicality,” KCRCC chair Brent Regan told The Press on Friday. “I would anticipate that there will be action on this matter on several fronts.”

The Idaho Republican Party adopted Resolution 2020-8 at the party’s convention in June, just as the idea of mask mandates and other health requirements imposed on the electorate were becoming more than hypothetical possibilities.

“Be it resolved,” the resolution reads in part, “that the Idaho Republican Party condemns the declaration of emergency of March, 2020, and opposes any further shutdowns or restrictions of the movement of citizens for any reasons connected to COVID-19; and furthermore be it resolved that the 2020 Idaho Republican Party State Convention strongly opposes all governmentally-mandated contact tracing, wearing of masks, and stay-at-home orders or any restrictions of civil liberties, for any future outbreaks of COVID-19 or other similar diseases.”

In the hours after the health district voted 4-2 Thursday to approve the mandate — this exactly one week after the board couldn’t muster enough support to even bring the matter to a July 16 vote, let alone pass the motion — protesters shouted down the mask mandate, both on social media and during in-person demonstrations throughout the county.

Regan said he thinks the order won’t survive strict scrutiny in the same kind of building where the resolution was handed down: in a courthouse.

“The order itself is poorly drafted and incomplete in its consideration of exemptions,” he said. “For example, it does not mention a religious exemption. Also, what about people who have recovered from COVID, have immunity and are not contagious; do they have to wear masks, too? Does PHD have the power to mandate that citizens buy and use a product under penalty of law? Not even Congress has that power.”

Couple those points with Sheriff Ben Wolfinger’s earlier comments that he viewed a mask mandate as unenforceable, and Regan came away from Thursday’s events with the stance that the mandate has a legal fight ahead and a public backlash that won’t be easily resolved.

“My expectation is that the only thing this order will accomplish is to turn public sentiment farther against government fiat,” he said.

A Democratic view

On the flip side, Kootenai County Democratic Central Committee chair Evan Koch said Friday that while his committee has not had the opportunity to form an official response to the mandate, he polled some local Democrats on the matter, adding that their answers echoed his own thoughts on a mask mandate.

“COVID-19 is not a matter of partisan politics,” Koch said. “It’s a disease that kills people. Mask-wearing should not make a political statement.”

Koch, a certified registered nurse anesthetist, said COVID-19 is a serious disease that is not yet fully understood, and that wearing a mask is a small measure that can avoid considerable suffering throughout the county.

“Even in rural areas, wearing a mask is justified when people are around others,” Koch said. “It is for one’s own protection and also for the common good. In this case, the common good includes minimizing the spread of the disease and preserving limited resources like hospital beds and personal protective equipment.”

The newly elected chair added that the mask mandate addresses a real problem and not a political theory.

“Sometimes,” Koch said, “we have to restrict our own individual rights in favor of the good of those around us. So temporarily wearing a mask is both protective and respectful.”

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Evan Koch