Panhandle Health District board approves mask mandate in Kootenai County

COEUR D’ALENE, Idaho — The Panhandle Health District Board on Thursday approved a mask mandate in Kootenai County.

The vote came after public comment, where the majority of people spoke out against the mandate. Hundreds of people showed up at the Kootenai County admin building, but only 35 people were allowed inside the meeting and 20 people were allowed to offer comment.

Many argued that a mandate is against personal freedoms, while some said it is needed in order to get the virus under control.

One woman said she would not be able to exercise her second amendment right if she is required to wear a mask, which the Sheriff’s Office has said is not the case.

One woman, who wore a mask throughout the meeting, was upset with not being able to speak. She approached the board and was quickly removed by a Sheriff’s Office deputy. Deputies talked with the woman, who said it was unfair she was not allowed to speak, and physically lifted her up and out of the building when she refused to voluntarily leave.

Following public comment, John Ness, CEO of Kootenai Health, spoke before the board.

“It appears we’re going to be in this situation for at least the next six months, if not, over a year,” he said.

Ness said the community  needs to do what it can to slow the spread of COVID-19. Meantime, Vice President Jeremy Evans talked about bed capacity and the recent surge in cases in North Idaho.

He said there are 26 ICU beds normally and 32 beds have been dedicated for COVID patients; six of those new beds are for critical care.

Evans said the threshold is when they hit that 32-bed mark. If they find those beds filling up, Kootenai Health will be forced to reduce services elsewhere in order to reallocate staff and resources.

Board member Jai Nelson said she was alarmed to hear about the bed situation at Kootenai Health and argued that the community needs to do what it can to get the virus under control so life can return to normal.

Another member, Glen Bailey, said he has seen the rise in cases, but not a significant rise in deaths. He also said he believed mandating masks would not solve the issue, but instead education would help.

Board member Allen Banks shared similar sentiments, saying wearing masks in surgical situations are helpful, but will not stop the virus. Meantime, Dr. Richard McLandress said the opposite: He noted the virus is small and the majority of transmission is happening through droplets. He said wearing a mask will catch droplets and reduce the spread of the virus.

McLandress added that a mandate is not about politics, but ethics and keeping your neighbor safe.

The new mandate goes into effect immediately. There is no date for when it will end yet.

Not long after the mandate was issued, Coeur d’Alene City Council members canceled a mask mandate discussion scheduled to take place Friday.

“It is with much appreciation that we accept Panhandle Health District’s action to require face coverings within Kootenai County,” it reads in a statement from the City. “It is the City’s hope that the spread of the COVID-19 virus will slow to a point where schools can fully re-open in the fall.”

If a person is in violation of the mandate, they could face a misdemeanor. Under Idaho code, that means a person can be fined $1,000 and/or go to jail for up to six months. Sheriff Ben Wolfinger previously said it would be tough to enforce the mandate.

To read the full resolution from the Panhandle Health District, click here.

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