POCATELLO — People won’t be required to wear face masks for the time being in Pocatello as the result of the City Council voting 4-2 on Thursday in favor of tabling a proposed ordinance that would have made masks mandatory in any outdoor or indoor public space within the city.
The ordinance, which was presented during an afternoon work session at Pocatello City Hall, would have taken effect Monday.
The City Council decided to pursue a plan of educating the public about the use of face coverings in public places to reduce the spread of COVID-19.
The members of the City Council who voted in favor of tabling the ordinance were Rick Cheatum, Heidi Adamson, Linda Leeuwrik and Claudia Ortega. The two council members against tabling the ordinance were Roger Bray and Christine Stevens.
The City Council unanimously approved a secondary motion from Ortega to seek out guidance from public health experts with Southeastern Idaho Public Health, Idaho State University and Portneuf Medical Center to develop an education plan and process for implementing a mandatory face covering ordinance in the future.
Ortega, who voted in favor of tabling the ordinance because she is not an expert on public health nor are any of the other councilmembers, specified that the City Council must receive this guidance during a special council meeting held sometime within the next seven days.
Prior to casting their votes, most members of the council described their personal thoughts on the measure and every member noted the proposed ordinance was one that has polarized the Pocatello community with hundreds of incoming emails and phone calls both supporting and opposing its passing.
Cheatum was the first councilmember to denounce the proposed ordinance, primarily citing statistics that he said indicated the COVID-19 infection outlook has not reached a point of large concern in Southeast Idaho to the extent that face coverings should be mandatory. He said too much attention has been given to the current spike of cases in Florida, Texas and Arizona.
Statewide, only 20 COVID-19 patients are currently occupying hospital beds in intensive care units, said Cheatum, adding that Southeast Idaho currently boasts twice that number of available ICU beds.
“Let’s all stop to consider where we are in Bannock County, Idaho, before we take the drastic step of enacting a mandatory mask ordinance,” Cheatum said. “So far in all of Bannock County as of yesterday we have 131 cases of COVID-19 confirmed. That is 131 cases in over 85,000 people. That’s a rate of just barely over one-tenth of 1 percent.”
Cheatum then moved to deny the ordinance, which Adamson supported and discussion among the entire council ensued.
Adamson expressed she was not supportive of the ordinance because she believed it to be too intrusive on the residents of Pocatello and too taxing for local police to enforce.
“I believe that the strong arm of the law is not necessarily the best approach at this time,” Adamson said. “I hesitate to institute any law if we don’t have the ability or will to enforce it. If we want to talk about other healthy habits including hand washing, social distancing and wearing masks when appropriate, then I am OK with having that discussion but I am not in favor of a law and police coming after people at this time.”
Stevens cited in her discussion the importance of considering not just the total number of COVID-19 infections in the region, but specifically the novel coronavirus’ R-value, a mathematical term that indicates the contagious factor of an infectious disease. This number varies by geography and implemented pandemic response measures. According to rt.live, an up-to-date tracker of how fast COVID-19 is spreading in each state, Idaho has the fourth highest R-value in the country as of Thursday morning, with a value of 1.31.
If an R-value is above 1.0, the virus will spread quickly and when it is below 1.0, the virus will stop spreading, Stevens said.
Further, Stevens explained that she believes the mandatory mask ordinance seemed as if the city was going from “zero to 100,” and that such a drastic measure will only further divide those who sit on both sides of the issue.
“Virtually everyone on either side of this that I have talked to is entrenched,” Stevens said. “And if we want to come to some kind of community solution, then we have to get away from this idea that the only thing that will make me happy is if I get 100 percent of what I want.”
Bray likened his position surrounding a mandatory mask-wearing ordinance to that of the spokes on a bicycle, in that it is just one piece of a large puzzle that is trying to limit the spread of COVID-19.
“The design of masks is not to prevent me from getting (COVID-19), it is designed for someone else not getting it,” Bray said. “The mask is not a solve-all. The mask is a spoke and social distancing is a spoke that both help turn the wheel. Can we afford to not have our kids go to school? Can we afford to not have people working and economies crash?”
Leeuwrik said she saw the ordinance not so much as a mandate with enforceable penalties for violations, but more so a way to strongly emphasize the importance of wearing masks.
“I definitely agree with the idea of a stronger education component and encouraging people to wear masks, but my issue with that is we have been doing that,” Leeuwrik said. “A lot of the resistance to this is really resistance because it’s something that is new and different. But we have lots of laws that are for the greater good. We do wear seat belts and we do drive on the right side of the road. Ultimately our goal here is not to be punitive, not to divide this community and I would really encourage everyone in our community to know this is something we have to work together on.”
Pocatello Mayor Brian Blad was the last to provide his thoughts on the measure, noting that although his wife was diagnosed with cancer earlier this year, her situation had nothing to do with the ordinance proposal.
Blad explained this is not a new topic, in that masks and social distancing are public health measures that have been discussed for months and that the city has shared the importance of both over 1,000 times to its various social media pages. Blad noted such a drastic measure could create a significant increase in police responding to various instances of non-compliance with the ordinance, and that was not the intent of it being proposed.
“A mask is extremely important to be able to wear,” Blad said. “We’ve had one death in Southeastern Idaho and that is one too many in my mind, and two in our region and that is two too many.”
Blad continued, “We have to be very careful and I agree 100 percent with an education piece, but I just don’t know how much more education we can do.”