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Idaho Falls considers mandating masks in public

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IDAHO FALLS — Mayor Rebecca Casper and the Idaho Falls City Council will discuss a citywide mask requirement Thursday.

Idaho Falls is the latest city in the Gem State to consider the action. The city councils in Victor, Pocatello and Blackfoot began discussions about it this week. Last week, Boise, Moscow, Hailey and Driggs each enacted a mask-requirement policy to combat a rise in COVID-19 infections across the state.

During a work session Monday, Casper expressed concern over rising COVID-19 cases in Bonneville County. Her comments led to the council placing the matter on Thursday’s agenda, meaning the council could just discuss the issue, or it could vote on it.

As of Tuesday evening, Bonneville County had seen 124 confirmed and 45 probable cases of COVID-19 since mid-March, according to Eastern Idaho Public Health. However, only 40 of those cases are still active. The rest of those infected have now recovered, except a woman in her 80s who died of the novel coronavirus in June. The county has seen a steady upward trend in the number of cases as Idaho Gov. Brad Little has gradually reopened the state.

“(This) puts us at a whole new ball game,” Casper said. “Are we seeing the beginning of a trend? Are we near the end? I don’t know.”

Casper told the council Monday that several city employees, including three police officers and a firefighter, have contracted the virus and are in quarantine. Others are waiting on test results. She expressed concerns about the potential of a large number of quarantines on the effectiveness of the city’s emergency and law enforcement departments.

“I think those quarantines are going to start impacting at some point,” Casper said. “If this mushrooms too much more, we’ll end up having to prioritize calls fairly significantly to the point where if you call dispatch if you don’t have a truly emergent matter, it may not be addressed in a conventional way where you would see somebody roll up and take care of your needs.”

However, those departments have said they are a long way from something like that happening. Idaho Falls Police Department spokeswoman Jessica Clements said when they learned about community spread of COVID-19 in Bonneville County, the department developed a plan to address community needs in case many officers are quarantined. The fire department has implemented a similar plan.

So far, the city has not mandated masks for its staff, although the police officers and firefighters are required to wear masks in some situations.

“I’ve thought, ‘Now, let’s just require city employees to wear a mask,'” Casper said. “I haven’t done that yet, but I’m pretty close to it.”

It’s not clear what a mask requirement in Idaho Falls would look like, and the city has not released any details. Each of the cities considering the requirement is handling things a little differently.

Last week, Driggs Mayor Hyrum Johnson issued an immediate emergency medical order requiring residents to wear the masks. The emergency ordinance was ratified by the Driggs City Council on Tuesday. The city of Pocatello is discussing the creation of an emergency ordinance, but it would be implemented by its council. The language of its proposed ordinance includes a list of exceptions to the rule and a 30-day grace period to educate the public.

Casper stressed her desire for Idaho Falls’ actions to be reflective of the entire council.

“If we can’t all agree or have some consensus on what we’re doing, it’s probably a weak move for me to do on my own,” she said.

However, Casper said that if the City Council does not want to vote on what she called a “political hot potato,” she would consider an executive proclamation while taking into account the council’s input.

City spokesman Bud Cranor said the city continues to work directly with Eastern Idaho Public Health on how local governments can best respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Thursday’s Idaho Falls City Council meeting begins at 7:30 p.m. Although people can attend in person, seating is limited due to social distancing requirements. Residents can also watch the meeting live on the city’s website.

The Pocatello City Council work meeting is scheduled to begin at 9 a.m. Thursday Citizens can watch the proceedings online at streaming.pocatello.us or on television at Government Access Channel 56 with a Sparklight subscription, according to a news release.

Monday’s discussion also considered polling the community’s thoughts on ordering mask-wearing in public; however, the council felt everyone isn’t always fully informed about the issue.

“It is our responsibility just to reflect the will of the public but also to make decisions that are in the best interest of the public,” Casper said.

During the meeting, at least one councilman expressed support for the idea.

“It seems like such a small thing to ask people to wear a mask, but like you said, it has become politicized,” Councilman Jim Freeman said. “It appears that the virus has become more of a threat now than it has been yet. If you need an OK from me, I’m certainly leaning that direction, and I’ll stand by that.”

If the city implements the mask requirement, it would be the only community in Bonneville County to do so thus far. Ammon Mayor Sean Colletti told EastIdahoNews.com his city had not placed a potential mask ordinance on its agenda, but the council often discusses the state of the virus.

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