Minutes after Jimmy’s All Seasons Angler opened shop Tuesday morning, a man with a straw hat, blue jeans and rancher boots walked through the front door with two other men.
Initially, none of them wore a face mask.
Then each of the men leaned over and plucked a disposable face mask from a box. As he looped the surgical mask around his ears, he joked: “I wish these things had holes so you could breathe better.”
Since the fly-fishing shop reopened in May, when Idaho began lifting restrictions on social interaction and businesses after a monthslong state stay-home order forced many "nonessential" retailers to close to the public, owner Jimmy Gabettas has required his customers — many of whom travel from out-of-state — to mask up if they want to shop in his store.
He said most people are pretty understanding. Here and there, he said, a few people refuse to wear a mask and head out the door.
“Compliance here, it’s probably 90%. I would say it’s higher,” Gabettas said.
It’s hard to miss the signs Gabettas has posted to remind folks about his rule. Just out front, there’s a folding chalk sign that reads “FACE COVERING REQUIRED” in blue letters along the top. A few feet into the shop sits a small table with a box of blue and white surgical masks and two bottles of hand sanitizer.
Still, some just walk past the signs and into the store without masks.
With some polite nudging to remind them, Gabettas said even they generally comply.
“You can do it in a tactful way,” he said.
Not everyone listens.
"Sometimes we'll tell people to put on a face mask and then they'll just be walking around the shop with it on their neck," said Connor Olson, an employee at the fly-fishing shop. "Sometimes we'll just be doing stuff here in the back and a person comes in without a face mask, and they already have everything they need, so we don't tell them to put on a face mask — we just ring them up."
Gabettas's shop is on the corner of A Street and Shoup Avenue in downtown Idaho Falls. Compared to grocery stores, his shop is pretty small. He doesn't have to look far to spot someone ignoring his store's mask mandate.
In sprawling grocery stores, that isn't as easy. What about in a city? Or an even bigger area? Olson said enforcement is a gargantuan task. When he was in Jackson, Wyoming recently, where masks are now mandatory, he said he saw signs that read: "It's not too much to wear a mask." Public messaging like that is effective, he said, but there isn't a panacea that'll make mask-wearing universal.
"You're always gonna have those outliers who don't want to do it, but I think you just have to make a concerted effort to get that in people's minds," he said.
Another shutdown would hurt. Evidence indicates that if masks became more widely used in public, along with other health precautions like socially distancing and hand-washing, the virus wouldn't spread as rapidly as it currently is, potentially holding off future decisions by government leaders to issue another stay-home order. Olson said, if masks were mandated here, "I think it'd be totally fine."
Mandate votes pushed off here, but not for good
Less than an hour before Gov. Brad Little announced Thursday that he was keeping the state in the final and most permissive step of his four-step reopening plan, eastern Idaho regional health officials decided they'd vote Tuesday on whether to recommend that people wear masks in public.
The plan they were presented called for face masks soon if the pandemic worsens to bring eastern Idaho from "green" level, or minimum risk, to "yellow" level," or moderate risk. They pushed off the decision to mandate masks back to a higher risk level, "orange," and they organized plans to vote on a revised version of the plan on Tuesday. If they recommend masks in the next step, they'd be effectively doing the same thing that health officials have been urging the public to do for months.
Idaho's COVID-19 cases have been rising rapidly in recent weeks, similar to other states across the West that loosened restrictions on social interaction.
Since the start of the pandemic, health officials have urged people to wear masks, yet many have continued to roam grocery and hardware stores unmasked and have even gathered in large groups, ignoring public health guidelines to socially distance and wear masks and sometimes creating small outbreaks.
Little has advocated for mask use at almost every public appearance for months, wearing one himself and pushing a #MaskUpIdaho social media campaign. However, he has declined to issue a statewide mask mandate while all but lifting restrictions on social interaction, noting that different parts of Idaho have been hit differently and letting regional public health districts and municipalities decide for themselves. Three counties, including Butte and Clark in eastern Idaho, have yet to see a case as of Friday afternoon, according to the state's COVID-19 tracker.
After Little handed off many pandemic response decisions to local governments roughly two weeks ago, cities across Idaho have begun mandating masks in public. So far Boise, McCall, Moscow, Hailey, Ketchum, Victor, Driggs and Blaine County — almost all places where Democrats control local politics — have required masks. Idaho Falls would be among the more conservative places to mandate masks, if it chooses to, but it is less conservative than the surrounding more rural areas of eastern Idaho and has a mix of Democrats, Republicans and independents on its nonpartisan City Council.
Some rally behind the public health measure, backed by scientific evidence that indicates widespread mask-wearing majorly reduces the spread of the coronavirus. But others view such government mandates as an infringement on their freedoms. A large group of protesters showed up to oppose a mask requirement in Idaho Falls when the City Council discussed it last week, and Little's previous measures to limit the spread of coronavirus have led to a good deal of pushback within his own party from lawmakers and others who view it as government overreach.
At last month's Republican convention in Nampa — an indoor event that featured seating set up to encourage social distancing but very little mask use — delegates discussed several resolutions criticizing Little's response to coronavirus as excessive, most of which passed the Resolutions Committee but were narrowly voted down by the full convention.
(Multiple Idaho attorneys have said publicly that localities, including cities and health districts, have broad powers to issue restrictions that protect public health. When the Post Register asked the Idaho Attorney General's Office about the authority localities hold, spokesman Scott Graf responded with links to state law that say, among other things, health districts can issue quarantines and other orders that are enforceable through misdemeanors.)
Eastern Idaho cities began looking to mask mandates in droves last week. Idaho Falls, the region's most populous city, held off on a mandate Thursday night. The City Council plans to consider the issue again later. The Pocatello City Council did the same. Earlier in the week, the city councils in Victor and Driggs mandated masks, and the city of Blackfoot also began considering a mask mandate.
Eastern Idaho has had a relatively small number of cases so far, and its hospitals haven't yet seen an influx of patients. But in recent weeks, health officials have warned that rapid rises statewide and in neighboring states, along with loose travel restrictions, mean the area's spike will likely arrive soon. Regional officials have also said sparse testing prevents them from fully understanding how widespread the virus is locally.
As Idaho Falls Mayor Rebecca Casper recommended Thursday, Idaho Falls leaders may look to pandemic response plans that the regional Eastern Idaho Board of Health adopts in how they craft their own plan and assign public health measures to metrics for how bad the pandemic gets. Pocatello city councilors also said they'd look to their local health district, Southeastern Idaho Public Health, which confirmed to the Post Register that it is working with Eastern Idaho Public Health on coordinating pandemic responses together for nearly the entire eastern half of the state.
So, whatever happens this week could shape coronavirus restrictions in the region.
Many members of the Eastern Idaho Board of Health, which administers health policy for eight counties, such as board chairman and Bonneville County Commissioner Bryon Reed, worry that a mandate wouldn't increase the number of people who masked up.
Law enforcement would receive too many calls, too many videos of people without masks in public, Reed said. He said it would be just like the governor's stay-home order from a few months back — it wouldn't really be enforced.
A recommendation is more appropriate for now, he and others argued, citing data that indicated that the region hasn't seen a large surge in COVID-19 cases and area hospitals' capacity aren't strained.
A regional mandate would be tough to enforce. State law dictates that any mandates by a health district would have to come with misdemeanor charges for people who violate them, which could carry up to $1,000 in fines or 6 months in jail, as opposed to smaller fines that cities are allowed to tailor.
A law that isn't enforced isn't worth it, Reed said. And it's likely to draw ire from some.
"It seems like people push back pretty hard when they're pushed," Reed said at the meeting.
If the board recommends masks on Tuesday, it doesn't preclude the board from mandating them later. Regional officials, including Reed, continually signal that widespread mask use is critical to avoid another stay-home order, which the region's proposed pandemic response plan calls for if COVID-19 becomes extremely widespread locally.
"The science is pretty clear that masks do help and that they are the best solution we have, at this point, until a vaccine or better treatment comes," Reed said in an interview before the board's Thursday meeting. "They are the best chance we have to be able to keep the economy open entirely, and to not overrun our health care (system)."
James Corbett, an administrator at Eastern Idaho Public Health, said something similar at an earlier Board of Health meeting.
He couched a mask mandate as an alternative to a stay-home order. Scientific modeling by British scientists in June suggests that if 80% of people wear masks in public, it would drastically reduce the virus's spread. "Instead of closing the economy, we could implement ... mandatory face mask(s)," Corbett said, while recognizing that "people don't like (face mask mandates) and the compliance is low."
A key issue for the regional health board is how the mask would be enforced. Reed and others didn't want to levy a mandate that carries a misdemeanor — their only option for mandate enforcement. They'd prefer people just heed public health recommendations.
Businesses also seem hesitant to enforce a mask mandate themselves. A survey commissioned this week by the Greater Idaho Falls Chamber of Commerce, before Thursday's Idaho Falls City Council meeting, found that most of the nearly 350 businesses surveyed would prefer a local or regional mask mandate than a state mandate, but a majority of businesses wouldn't be willing to deny service to customers who refuse to wear a mask.
The survey wasn't scientific. However, the anecdotal evidence indicates that while many businesses themselves require employees to wear masks, most don't require customers to wear masks, making a mandate a tough sell that some businesses are uncomfortable enforcing.
Some businesses also worry it could hurt their bottom line. According to results as of Friday afternoon nearly 40% said they expected "business would decrease as customers stay home." The other 60% of respondents said business would either remain the same (roughly 51% said that) or it would "increase as customers feel safe" (10% said that).
Earlier this week, Bonneville County Sheriff Paul Wilde told the Post Register that he'd prefer a mask recommendation over a mandate. He said he thought people generally recognize how important masks are to stopping the spread. If the Board of Health issued a regional mask mandate, Wilde said he expects people to follow it.
In some circumstances, he said the sheriff's office would "do our best to enforce it," but he doesn't want to become the "mask police."
"I'm not going to create hysteria that ... we're going to be writing thousands of tickets," he said Wednesday, the day before the Board of Health met. "Because I don't know that that's going to happen. ... But if there's a specific problem, just as with everything else, we will handle that specific problem."
By and large, the governor's stay-at-home order during March and April was rarely enforced. Many Idaho cities opted to educate people about public health issues, rather than issue citations.
Less than a month into the first mask mandates in Idaho, it remains to be seen how widely they'll be enforced by law enforcement.
Another quarantine would hurt
If you walk into a store in eastern Idaho, or drive past a bustling soccer field, you'll see that masks aren't widely used and people aren't social distancing that much. When the state's stay-home order was in place, towns were quieter, less busy, with less foot and car traffic. Most retailers were closed. Restaurants were empty. Jobs were lost.
Olson was enrolled in Brigham Young University-Idaho in Rexburg when the pandemic struck Idaho in mid-March. At first, he wasn't sure how severe COVID-19 would become.
Within a few weeks, Olson's college, and a wave of other Idaho colleges, told students classes were going all online. He was doing homework in his apartment when he got the email.
"I remember swine flu. It didn't really blow up too badly. So, I thought, 'You know, this is gonna be another thing like that.' But once I knew that they weren't gonna have any classes, I knew that it was going to be serious," he said, adjusting his mask again, to make sure it covered his nose.
Masks and hand-washing weren't that hard, he said, and they're good. But he worries that the stay-home order might have come at the wrong time. In eastern Idaho, cases were low in late March and throughout April. Still, the area hasn't seen a high rate of infection.
"I thought, if anything, that it was gonna slow the spread of the virus. The thing I maybe wasn't too happy about was coming out of the quarantine and having everything spike again," Olson said. "We took some hits economically, and I think a lot of people sacrificed a lot to be in the quarantine."
Then, the order was lifted, and around two weeks after the state entered the fourth and final stage of the governor's reopening plan, the number of cases shot up again.
But, "could it have been done a different way?" he asks.
"At this point, I just don't know the answer to that," Olson said. "It's tough because I don't know what I would've done if I was in a position of leadership."
A quarantine now wouldn't work, he said. Everyone's gotten used to the "little bit of normalcy" that was restored.
"I just don't think that you can put people back in a quarantine now," Olson said. "I think you can take every safety precaution that you need to, but I don't think you can have people stay at home any longer."