council face masks

Pocatello City Council members deliberate about a proposal to rescind the city's face mask ordinance during a Thursday meeting. The council ultimately chose to keep the ordinance and revisit it again on March 4.

POCATELLO — A closely divided City Council voted Thursday to retain its controversial mandate for people to wear face coverings in public places, after Councilwoman Claudia Ortega had a change of heart on the issue.

The council will next revisit the face mask ordinance — originally approved last November — on March 4.

The council had voted 3-2 on Feb. 4 to direct staff to draft an ordinance to repeal the mandate. Council members Rick Cheatum, Heidi Adamson and Ortega voted in favor of placing a repeal ordinance on the Thursday meeting agenda and members Chris Stevens, Roger Bray and Linda Leeuwrik voted against it.

Mayor Brian Blad cast the tie-breaking vote to draft the repeal ordinance.

At the Thursday meeting, however, Ortega changed her position and voted to retain the face mask mandate, deferring to the advice of medical experts who had urged her to reconsider.

“I’m a less government kind of girl all day long. But I have been inundated since our last meeting with emails from health care people in this community begging me — asking me if I have completely lost my mind and everything else — and begging for this mask mandate to be extended at least until next month when we revisit it,” Ortega explained.

Under the ordinance, “every person shall, when in any indoor or outdoor public place, completely cover their nose and mouth when members of the public are physically present for otherwise unprotected social interaction with persons other than household members.”

It imposes fines for violations but grants certain exceptions, such as for children under 5 and people who cannot medically tolerate wearing a face mask.

Cheatum urged his colleagues to take a stand against fear mongering, especially by national news outlets, by eliminating the face covering mandate. Cheatum noted that good news about the virus doesn’t sell newspapers or drive ratings.

“I think it’s time this council helps to stop the fear that’s erupting across the country over this virus,” Cheatum said. “That’s what it is. There’s a great fear that goes way beyond the reality of what’s happening in this country.”

Cheatum acknowledged the virus likely won’t ever go away, but he believes circumstances are changing for the better. For example, he said Portneuf Medical Center no longer has capacity problems and has allowed visitors to return. Cheatum emphasized that regional COVID-19 cases peaked in December and are down 40 percent from peak levels — and the trend is similar in communities in which mask mandates were never implemented. Cheatum also believes the policy is hurting local small businesses.

In advocating for retaining the face covering mandate, council members Bray, Stevens and Leeuwrik argued the coronavirus continues to pose a serious threat and it would be premature to declare victory as the disease is still poorly understood and evolving.

“I’m not making a decision out of fear. It is our duty to protect the public,” Leeuwrik said, responding to Cheatum. “To me it’s a simple thing to wear a mask and that’s the thing that allows us to keep things open and keep going out.”

Leeuwrik said the city has received letters in support of retaining the face covering mandate from the CEO of PMC and from the Pocatello-Chubbuck Chamber of Commerce.

Stevens voiced concerns about new COVID-19 variants that have originated both domestically and abroad and may be more virulent. She said there are already about a dozen “homegrown” coronavirus variants.

“In emergency situations, I’m an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure kind of gal,” Stevens said.

Bray argued the city may be close to “touching the yellow zone” with COVID-19 infections but still remains in the “red zone.” On the verge of victory Bray believes it’s best for the city to avoid rash decisions.

“We’re hearing of changes in this virus that are affecting young children now more severely than they ever have,” Bray said.

Bray also rebuked arguments that a large segment of the population has disregarded the face covering ordinance so it should be rescinded for its ineffectiveness. Bray reasoned that many people roll through stop signs while driving in town, but no official would opt to remove traffic signs in response.

“I think we have momentum behind us. I think we have a lot of things in our favor, but not everything is in our favor,” Bray said. “I think being proactive is not being fearful.”