Protesting mask mandate ordinance at City Hall

Local residents gathered outside of Pocatello City Hall Thursday evening to protest against the City Council passing an ordinance requiring people to wear face coverings or masks. The Pocatello City Council voted 4-2 on Thursday evening in favor of adopting the mask mandate ordinance in an effort to stop the spread of COVID-19.

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POCATELLO — The Pocatello City Council during its regular meeting at City Hall on Thursday voted 4-2 to adopt an ordinance mandating people wear face coverings to help limit the spread of COVID-19.

Pocatello's mask mandate passed a day before Southeastern Idaho Public Health announced its highest daily COVID-19 case count since the pandemic started in March, with 224 newly confirmed and probable infections in the region. 

Friday’s announcement from SIPH included 129 new cases of COVID-19 in Bannock County, of which Pocatello is the county seat and most populous city. More than one-third, or 27 of the 73 COVID-19 deaths in Southeast Idaho, have occurred in Bannock County.

While City Council members participated in Thursday’s meeting remotely, Mayor Brian Blad and city attorney Jared Johnson were present at City Hall inside the council chambers.

A few dozen citizens against Pocatello’s passing of a mask mandate ordinance, who had organized outside of City Hall about 45 minutes before the meeting started, could be heard through Blad and Johnson's computers protesting in the foyer during the hearing, occasionally banging on the windows of the council chambers.

Some of the messaging from those demonstrating involved a fear that a mask mandate is the first step in a slippery slope toward tyranny, or that the words in the Bible supersede those in the U.S. Constitution, in that no laws can overrule God’s dominion. Many of those protesting the mask mandate were not wearing face coverings, nor social distancing.

Lance Earl, a freelance writer, firearms instructor and animated target manufacturer from Rockland, was among the group of demonstrators. During the protest, he told participants he had a conversation with Mayor Blad earlier Thursday, of which the conversation centered around fears that a second lockdown could be on Idaho’s horizon if COVID-19 continues to surge throughout the state.

”It’s very clear that Gov. Little is not afraid to go backward,” Blad said during the Tuesday morning work session where the city council created the agenda item for Thursday’s mask mandate. “He’s done it twice and the reason is because cases and numbers continue to rise. I personally don’t know if a mask mandate will help slow numbers or not but I know what we are right now has numbers going up.” 

Blad continued during Tuesday's work session, “I do not believe small businesses in Pocatello can afford a second shutdown for a time and for sure we cannot afford a second shutdown between now and Christmas. My intent would be to make sure that does not happen in any way shape or form."

The group of demonstrators remained peaceful, which drew praise from Blad, who offered some kudos to the group and thanked them for their participation after the mask mandate ordinance passed.

“We have people that are out here in the lobby and outside that have been protesting and I want to compliment them all,” Blad said. “They have been peaceful and they’ve been doing it the correct way. I appreciate the citizenry of Pocatello and the way that they’ve been able to handle and uphold themselves today. I just want to publicly thank them for their attendance.”

The ordinance, which went into effect on Saturday, requires adults and children age 5 and older to wear masks or face coverings in all indoor and outdoor public areas within Pocatello city limits. Exceptions are provided for outdoor and indoor public places where people can maintain social distancing, when eating or drinking, and for those who cannot medically tolerate wearing a face covering.

Before a roll call vote on the mask mandate ordinance, Councilwoman Claudia Ortega spoke for a few minutes, addressing her understanding of the mask mandate as it relates to the U.S. Constitution as well as claims that masks do not prevent COVID-19. 

“I have read the Constitution many times in my life and again today and cannot find any clause or amendment addressing public health,” Ortega said. "In that situation the 10th amendment then applies. … There is nothing about wearing a mask temporarily that impedes anyone’s right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Ortega continued, “Many are opposed to the mask ordinance because masks do not prevent COVID, and they are correct in their assertion. Masks do not prevent COVID, but what we do know, however, is masks reduce the transmission of communicable diseases, of which COVID is one.”

Of the six City Council members, Rick Cheatum and Heidi Adamson were the only two who voted against the ordinance. The remainder of the council including Ortega, Roger Bray, Linda Leeuwrik and Christine Stevens voted in favor of it.

Pocatello has implemented a 30-day grace period starting Saturday for educating the public about the ordinance. After the 30-day grace period ends, those who don’t comply with the ordinance can be cited with an infraction and fined $50 by Pocatello police.

The council is set to revisit the ordinance at the first regular meeting of January 2021, and every first regular City Council meeting of each month thereafter, unless sooner repealed.