After more than five and a half hours of spirited public testimony and debate among its members, a divided Lewiston City Council passed an emergency mask mandate Thursday night to help stem the alarming local spike in COVID-19 cases.

Mayor Pro Tem Kathy Schroeder was joined by Councilors Bob Blakey, John Bradbury and Kevin Kelly to vote in favor. Mayor Mike Collins and Councilors Cari Miller and John Pernsteiner voted against the order.

The measure generally mandates that people wear a face mask or other covering when in public. The original draft of the order didn’t include an expiration date, but the council approved an amendment proposed by Blakey to add a termination date on or before Jan. 25.

Schroeder was one of four councilors to support the amendment, noting it allows the mask order to cover the critical time over the holidays that could include family and social gatherings that could intensify the wave of infections across the country.

Another amendment makes the first offense a warning. Escalating fines of $50, $150, $250 and $350 will be imposed for each subsequent offense.

The order defines “face coverings” as “a cloth, paper or disposable face covering that completely covers a person’s mouth and nose,” or “a clear, plastic face shield that covers a person’s forehead, extends below the person’s chin, and wraps around the sides of a person’s face.”

It requires face coverings when people are in any indoor or outdoor public place where 6 feet of physical distancing is not able to be maintained with nonhousehold members. It also requires that same level of physical distancing whenever possible when in a public place.

There are several exceptions to the order. They include children younger than the age of 5, but with a strong recommendation that those children wear a face covering in public when physical distancing isn’t possible. People with a medical condition, mental health condition or disability that prevents wearing a face covering are also exempt, although documentation of the condition is not required.

Deaf people or those with other hearing disabilities, or those who are communicating with those people, are also exempt. The order strongly recommends a clear face shield in those instances, however. People obtaining a service involving the nose, face or head may also temporarily remove the face covering, as can those eating or drinking at a restaurant or other establishment as long as they are able to maintain physical distancing from nonhousehold members.

Bradbury, Blakey and Kelly have been the most vocal councilors asking for a mask mandate over the last several weeks as cases have surged.

“Doing nothing is, at this point, not a real option,” Kelly said, noting that he doesn’t have confidence in St. Joseph Regional Medical Center’s ability to handle a large influx of cases.

Bradbury pushed back forcefully against the dozens and dozens of people who testified or submitted comments arguing that a mask mandate is somehow an unconstitutional violation of their rights.

“This is a public health issue, not a political issue,” the retired district judge said, adding that it would be absurd to think of other public safety regulations like mandatory seat belt use or banning smoking in public places as unconstitutional.

Bradbury also rejected those, including Pernsteiner, who said areas that have mask mandates are seeing the same levels of infection as those that don’t. He pointed to Oregon, which has 27,000 fewer cases than Idaho with a far greater population.

According to the COVID Tracking Project, during the month of October, 11 of the 14 states with the highest rates of COVID-19 infection did not have statewide mask mandates.

Almost everyone who testified in person at the meeting opposed a mask mandate. And many of them cited information generally considered incorrect or false, or outright conspiracy theories, to support their arguments. As at past meetings where the council has considered actions on masks, several claimed that they cause carbon dioxide poisoning. But several studies have shown this concern to be minimal.

Others compared COVID-19 to the seasonal flu, with one man claiming that the flu has killed far more than the coronavirus this year. But according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, there were about 22,000 deaths from the flu during the entire 2019-20 season. There have been nearly 250,000 COVID-19-related deaths in the U.S. this year, and infectious disease experts are predicting that number could climb by another 100,000 by Christmas.

One man also falsely claimed that hospitals are empty of COVID-19 patients. In reality, hospitals around the state and region have reported that they are at capacity because of the exponential increase in infections, leading many facilities to cancel elective surgeries and ration other types of care.

And while the vast majority of in-person comments were against a mandate, the balance shifted once the council moved on to comments submitted via email or voicemail. There were still many people opposed, but several of those who supported a mandate said they were afraid to come testify in person for fear of becoming infected.

Bradbury was the only councilor who attended the meeting in person at the Lewiston City Library. The others participated via videoconferencing.

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

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