Officers from the Lewiston Police Department will have a range of options available while enforcing the city’s new mandate to wear masks or other face coverings in public, but actually issuing citations may prove difficult, according to Chief Budd Hurd.

“My instructions to the sergeants will be to use their discretion,” Hurd said of the mandate, which went into effect at midnight Friday. “If they can talk to people about the masks and get them to comply, that’s one thing.”

There are several exceptions to the mandate, however, and the one regarding medical conditions will make it difficult to pursue compliance any further. According to the emergency order passed by the city council, people with a medical condition, mental health condition or disability that prevents the wearing of a mask are exempt. The order does not require proof of the condition.

“If they suggest they have a medical issue that prevents them from wearing it, that’s the end of the story,” Hurd said, likening the situation to people being able to take animals into stores by claiming they have a medical reason.

Lewiston City Manager Alan Nygaard said he expects police to use good judgment and common sense while enforcing the mandate, although he thinks the primary approach will be educational rather than confrontational. He said education has been a key component since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic as the city has tried to get its residents to behave in ways that help prevent the spread.

“I don’t believe they will be going around, looking for noncompliance,” Nygaard said of Lewiston’s cops. “I think it will be more a matter of, when there are activities going on and the police are engaged in those, and if they see an incident that needs their attention, they will respond accordingly.”

In a letter to the city council last week that recommended against the passage of a mask mandate, Hurd wrote that while much of the state is covered by similar local orders, few, if any, cases will see the inside of a courtroom. Some of that reluctance to prosecute is because so much court activity has been reduced because of COVID-19 concerns, he said.

Hurd also expressed reluctance to put his officers into confrontational situations with anti-mask individuals who could infect them while the department is already suffering severe staff shortages because of COVID-19. Nygaard didn’t fault Hurd for publicly expressing his concerns about the difficulties his department will face while trying to enforce the mandate.

“I think that’s his job,” Nygaard said. “As with any issue, he is the expert in terms of law enforcement and he needs to be able to inform the council of his opinion. They have to make a decision, so being silent on something isn’t allowing them to make an informed decision.”

As with many city codes, some of the department’s response will be complaint-driven, and the city has already fielded some calls to report noncompliance. Officers will be dispatched to those calls, but on a priority basis that emphasizes more urgent matters, Hurd said.

They will also do spot checks of public places like bars and restaurants for measures like physical distancing, which can be enforced under Idaho’s Stage 2 order. But most businesses are doing their best to voluntarily comply with all the preventative regulations, Hurd said.

“They’d rather do that than not be open.”

Hurd also addressed an incident last weekend where a vendor attended the Christmas Bonanza Craft Show, which also featured a gun show, at the Nez Perce County Fairgrounds despite testing positive for COVID-19 and displaying symptoms.

“We will be looking at and addressing these events as they come up depending on what they are and the type of crowds we expect,” Hurd said. “Events like the gun show, the organizers must educate the vendors that will be showing up.”

Religious gatherings like regular Sunday services are also affected by the mask mandate, although they are exempt from Idaho’s Stage 2 regulations that limit gatherings to 10 or fewer people. But both the state and the local order still require physical distancing of 6 feet between people from different households.

So if every household is physically distanced from others in a church or other religious setting, they wouldn’t be required to wear a face covering, explained Lewiston Public Information Officer Carol Maurer.

“Otherwise, they are required to do so, unless exempt,” Maurer wrote in an email to the Lewiston Tribune. “The church could implement their own policy regarding face coverings, but it cannot be less restrictive.”

The first offense for violating the city’s emergency order is a $50 fine. Fines escalate for each subsequent offense.

Mills may be contacted at jmills@lmtribune.com or at (208) 310-1901, ext. 2266.

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