The Lewiston City Council approved a face mask advisory order Monday night to help slow the spread of the coronavirus, but stopped short of making the practice mandatory.
Councilors voted 5-2 for the advisory, with Mayor Mike Collins and Councilor John Pernsteiner voting no. The council tabled the mask advisory two weeks ago after hearing strong opposition during public comments, but it got another podium-pounding, finger-wagging crowd opposed to any form of mask order at Monday’s meeting.
Collins was the only councilor present in person at the Lewiston City Library for the meeting, which reverted to a virtual affair after the crush of commenters at the previous meeting made social distancing impossible to maintain. Some screamed at the council, while others hurled personal insults at City Manager Alan Nygaard and the councilors, comparing city actions to communism or oppression in Nazi Germany.
Nearly four dozen people spoke in opposition, but Mayor Pro Tem Kathy Schroeder and other councilors said they had heard from dozens of others who supported some form of mask order.
“To me, I think there is a majority out there that is wanting to support this, and I support it,” Schroeder said.
Pernsteiner said he kept an exact count of the sides taken by those who emailed him over the past two weeks, with 189 stating they were against a mask order and 109 in favor. But Councilor Bob Blakey said the opponents who crowded the second floor of the library Monday were simply the loudest voices, noting he has also heard significant additional support for masks from commenters on social media and those who called him on the phone.
Idaho Gov. Brad Little has declined to issue a statewide mask order in the face of the rapidly rising number of COVID-19 cases, leaving cities and public health districts to make the call on their own. The result has been chaotic scenes around the state similar to the one that unfolded Monday night in Lewiston, with many officials cowed into abandoning their efforts to enact mask requirements.
Councilor John Bradbury proposed an amendment to the advisory order to make it mandatory, and Blakey seconded the motion. Bradbury said he believed the commenters at the meeting were sincere in their beliefs, but said masks should be a public health issue, not a political one. He said the science is clear that while masks are not foolproof, they significantly reduce the spread of the respiratory droplets that can rapidly spread the virus.
The retired district judge added that a mask order is analogous to laws protecting people from second-hand smoke or drunk drivers, and challenged those who said such orders are unconstitutional.
“I’m satisfied that the science is in on the utility of masks,” Bradbury said. “It reduces the risk, particularly for the vulnerable. If you want to talk about freedom, there’s nothing less free than being dead.”
He challenged Pernsteiner’s contention that a mask order shouldn’t be considered until there is wider spread of COVID-19 locally, comparing it to waiting to operate on a cancerous tumor until it got larger.
Pernsteiner said the order should wait until infection and death thresholds recommended by officials at the Public Health – Idaho North Central District are reached. He also argued against any order as unenforceable since so many people are adamantly opposed to masks.
Collins, a faculty member and athletic coach at Lewis-Clark State College, said that as an educator he likes to follow the science on any issue. But he cited conflicting information he’s heard from people on the efficacy of masks, and echoed Pernsteiner’s comments about the high number of people who wouldn’t follow an order. He added that he strongly opposes making masks mandatory in Lewiston.
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