In most public places you enter in eastern Idaho, you’re now legally required to wear a mask, with some exceptions.
The wave of heightened restrictions here come as Eastern Idaho Public Health’s board of county representatives tries to tamp down the rapidly rising coronavirus caseloads that even smaller counties have seen lately.
On Monday night, the board unanimously approved new mandates for Fremont, Jefferson and Teton counties. With Bonneville’s three-week-old mandate, the board has mandated masks in half of eight east Idaho’s eight counties — mainly the most populated ones
Anyone who violates the mandates could be charged with a misdemeanor, which carries up to $300 in fines, six months in jail, or both. The mandates allow some people to be exempt, such as those with certain medical conditions.
Idaho law requires all health district orders to carry those sharp penalties. But law enforcement officers have, since the state’s stay-home order in March, generally said they’d educate violators rather than enforce the legal public health measures.
The mask mandates come with large event restrictions that cap the number of occupants based on how much space is available. To encourage physical distancing, each mandate by the health board says public events must have at least 28 square feet per person at a given venue, which is aimed at allowing each attendee to maintain a 3-foot radius from others.
The board’s regional plan says mandates will remain in place for at least 14 days. Before the board may remove the mandates, the plan says an area’s COVID-19 metrics for caseload and hospitalization must drop below the threshold for the past week.
The board’s mandates follow the tiered regional response plan that calls on the board to adopt certain public health measures in response to established daily active case rates, sustained for three days.
Four of the more populous counties are at the moderate risk level, which calls for the heightened social restrictions, while the other four remain at the minimal risk level. The region as a whole breached limits for the moderate risk level; the board didn’t address that.
The board issued Bonneville’s mandates on July 21. Anecdotally, mask use is increasing in large retailers, which enforce the mandates, but mask use varies elsewhere as small businesses aren’t all enforcing the mandates.
Board chairman Bryon Reed, who represents Bonneville, asked how long it takes to see cases decline after more restrictions. Health district administrator James Corbett said that isn’t clear.
“Short of actual stay-at-home orders, we’re looking at slowing (the rate of coronavirus’s spread.) So it will not be as quickly ...,” Corbett said. “It’s difficult to know how quickly that will drop because of the compliance rates of different strategies.”
For months, eastern Idaho saw relatively few coronavirus cases, few hospitalizations and no deaths. Then last month, following a statewide surge, eastern Idaho began seeing a steady rise in cases that led to a rise in hospitalizations a few weeks later. A spate of more deaths could be approaching here, as increased deaths tend to come weeks after a rise in hospitalizations. Just recently, the state reported outbreaks in a handful of nearby long-term care facilities, which are linked with about half of all COVID-19 deaths in the state.
At the end of June, eastern Idaho had just 208 total cases. By the end of July, the region’s staggering new total came in: 1,011 cases. Less than two weeks into August, that total has almost doubled: 1,711 cases, as of Monday night.
The board first mandated masks in Teton County on July 16. For two weeks, Teton’s cases dropped below the threshold of 10 active cases per 10,000 people, where the board’s plan calls for mask mandates. Then the board voted last Thursday to repeal Teton’s mandate, effective 5 p.m. Monday.
The health board’s mandate for Teton lapsed for less than three hours before it reinstated it.
The weekend surge also brought Fremont above the threshold for three days, a threshold it recently breached for a two-day period, leading the board to issue the mandate.
Jefferson’s active case rate has, for weeks, barely stayed below the threshold for mandates. Toward the end of July, the county breached the threshold for two days. But this past weekend, Jefferson breached the threshold for a full three days.
Last week, the Post Register found that delays in test turnaround times throughout July led the health district’s reporting to under-represent how many cases were active in a given county. The 10-day turnaround time last month has since improved to around four days now, the health district says, but the data issues indicate officials used incomplete information to levy public health measures during the early weeks of the spike.