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Post Falls rejects mask mandate

Staff Writer | November 10, 2020 1:08 AM

Post Falls City Council voted 4-2 Monday against adopting a mask mandate ordinance.

Council members Linda Wilhelm, Kerri Thoreson, Joe Malloy and Lynn Borders voted against the proposed ordinance, which would have allowed police to cite violators with a fine for not wearing a mask and not social distancing in a public place. Alan Wolfe and Steve Anthony supported the ordinance.

While council members supported the optional wearing of masks, they did not join Coeur d'Alene in a mask requirement. Coeur d'Alene enacted its ordinance two weeks ago. Last week, the city of Hayden encouraged the wearing of masks but unanimously voted down a mandate.

There was no public comment heard at Monday's meeting. However, the council said they had received hundreds of emails from both sides of the arguments.

Mayor Ron Jacobson said the constitutionality of a mandate and mask effectiveness were top comments against an ordinance. He cited a recent court case in Florida where the court ruled it was not a violation of constitutional rights to enforce such a mandate and provisions in the Idaho Constitution that permit cities to establish one.

"I've got four main goals. One is to keep people safe. No. 2, and I think this is critical, is to keep businesses open," Jacobson said. "I want to keep churches open, I want to keep kids in school, and I want to help the hospitals face the crisis that they are facing."

After the vote, Jacobson indicated he would have supported a mandate had the council been split 3-3.

During the meeting, Jon Ness, CEO of Kootenai Health, Chief Executive Officer Dr. Karen Cabell, and Chief Regional Operations Officer Jeremy Evans presented information on the hospital's status.

COVID-19 cases in Kootenai County have been rapidly rising since the last peak in July and August, Ness said, leading the hospital to become more concerned as it enters a challenging cold and flu season. He believes that Kootenai County is now at a "critical tipping point" where Kootenai Health is no longer able to manage alone.

COVID-19 is spread much like the flu, through respiratory droplets and aerosols caused by coughing, sneezing, talking, and even singing. Cabell noted that a crucial difference between COVID-19 and other viruses is that its contagiousness starts days before symptoms appear.

"What we know is that 80% of individuals who are either asymptomatic or have mild symptoms are spreading it before knowing they have symptoms or having symptoms at all and that accounts for almost 45% of infections," Cabell said. "So everybody wearing masks whether you have symptoms or not is helping slow the spread."

Across the state line in Washington, where a mask mandate has been in place for months, Cabell pointed out Spokane hospitals have reported a seven-day positivity rate of infection at 3.1%. In the Panhandle counties, the seven-day rate is 13.6%. The rolling positivity rate at Kootenai Health, Evans said, is at 18.9%.

"Over the past five weeks or so, we have been unable to accept over 52 patients from some of the outlying communities because we are full," Evans said. "About a third of these were COVID patients, but two-thirds were others for chest pain, cardiac issues, sepsis, abdominal bleeds, trauma, and stroke patients."

Kootenai Health is now at a point where the capacity challenges are being determined on a case-by-case basis for needs, Evans said, and he contended that anything that could help slow the spread of the virus would benefit the community.

The issue of masking has become polarized not only locally but nationally. As a result, most council members felt that imposing a mandate would further divide the community.

"Mandating that the city of Post Falls wear a mask at all times in public places will not significantly change behaviors. What it will do for sure is divide and polarize this community in a time when we need to look out for each other," Kerri Thoreson said. "Just because elected representatives of Post Falls can impose a mandate doesn't mean that we should."

Councilor Joe Malloy also voted against the mandate. Despite his many experiences with COVID, including losing two friends and witnessing another experience long-term health problems, Malloy felt it is up to the community to protect one another.

"We can't enforce good behavior," he said. "I think enforcing a mandate is going to cause more problems than it solves, and I think the people of this community are adult enough and intelligent enough to know that we can make a difference on our own."

City staff will bring forth a proclamation to recommend mask-wearing when in city limits next week. The solution will also require masks — with some provisions — when on city property.