Commissioner Byron Reed addresses board members about masks during a Board of Health meeting at the Eastern Idaho Public Health building on Thursday, July 9, 2020.

Teton County is the first in eastern Idaho where masks are mandatory in public and large gatherings are barred across the county.

Eastern Idaho Public Health’s Board of Health approved an order for both measures Thursday night on a unanimous vote.

The order is effective immediately and will remain in effect until regional officials choose to either repeal it, amend it or replace it with another order or public guidance. People who violate the order can be charged with a misdemeanor offense, which carries up to $300 in fines, 6 months in jail or both.

Teton has had 15 active COVID-19 cases since Monday, according to Eastern Idaho Public Health, the region’s health agency. Since June, the roughly 12,0000 population county has seen 28 new cases, putting its total at 40 cases since the pandemic started.

The tourism-heavy county, which is close to renowned ski slopes and mountain biking trails, has the highest rate of active COVID-19 cases in eastern Idaho relative to its population. Teton’s cases only include people who live in the county, not tourists, because Idaho health districts report COVID-19 cases by where people live, not where they contract COVID-19 or get tested.

In Teton, the cities of Driggs and Victor already mandated masks. Both cities’ mandates levy simple fines — in Driggs, $100; in Victor, $250; — but the district’s mandate is enforceable only through a misdemeanor with fines, jail time, or both.

Teton County’s active case rate is 12.9 active cases per 10,000 people. Bonneville, the region’s most populous county, has 7 active cases per 10,000 people. Across the region, there are 7.2 active cases per 10,000 people.

Eastern Idaho’s Board of Health determined earlier that the region is still in the green, or the lowest of four coronavirus risk levels — minimal, moderate, high and critical. The board adopted a plan on Tuesday with metrics to meet those tiers, and mandates and public guidelines that should come in each tier.

To reach the moderate level, a county or the whole region would have to have more than 10 active cases per 10,000 people. Teton breached that threshold for days, pushing the county into the next risk level where board members decided — after much consternation — masks should be mandatory.

Health district director Geri Rackow said in 14 days, the incubation period for COVID-19, the board will reevaluate Teton’s mandates. If it drops below the 10 active cases per 10,000 people threshold, the board may reconsider, she said. If not, the mandates will stay in place.

“We need to give it time to do the job it’s intended to do, which is to slow the spread of the disease and bring the rate down,” Rackow said.

Terms of the mandates

The board’s restriction on social gatherings applies to any gathering, public or private, for groups of more than 150 people. The order doesn’t outline any exceptions to this restriction.

The mask mandate says, when in public and unable to maintain 6 feet of physical distance from “non-household members,” all people must wear a mask that “completely covers the nose and mouth.” The order defines masks, public places and offers several exceptions to people who won’t have to wear masks, including people with conditions that make them unable to.

Masks are defined in the order as being made of “cloth, fabric, or other soft or permeable material, without holes” that cover parts of people’s lower face and comply with CDC guidance on masks. The masks “may be factory-made or may be handmade and improvised from ordinary household materials.”

There are six exemptions to the mask mandate, which can be found at this link:

Idaho law grants health districts broad powers to levy restrictions that protect public health, including quarantines, attorney Michael Kane previously told the board. Kane also has said that any orders a health district issues carry misdemeanors, while orders by cities can carry less severe punishments.

Cities in Teton County can levy more stringent restrictions than the health district’s board has but not laxer ones.

Teton County Sheriff Tony Liford told the Post Register before the vote that he doesn’t know what the mask mandate would be, but he said he would not enforce it criminally. He said people are already wearing masks without a mandate. (Both Driggs and Victor had masks mandate prior to Thursday, but they only carried simple fines.)

“I’m not turning citizens, members of this community and putting a mark on their criminal history. I think this is overreach,” Liford said in an interview. “And I think this isn’t New York. This isn’t Chicago. This isn’t California. This is Teton County, Idaho. What are we at? 27 cases. The reaction here I think is way over the top.”

The coronavirus can spread through respiratory droplets that people breath out when they exhale, cough, sneeze or talk. When someone wears a mask, it blocks many of the droplets they exhale — reducing the likelihood that someone who wears a mask will spread it to others.

In addition to reducing the spread of the coronavirus, some burgeoning research suggests that masks can protect the wearer by reducing the amount of respiratory droplets they inhale from others, according to a story in the Los Angeles Times this week that cited infectious diseases specialists. The research suggests masks by reducing the viral load that mask-wearers breath in, masks make severe symptoms less likely, the Times reported.

Last month, a University of Iowa study indicated “states in the US mandating use of face masks in public had a greater decline in daily COVID-19 growth rates after issuing these mandates compared to states that did not issue mandates.”

Reporter Kyle Pfannenstiel can be reached at 208-542-6754. Follow him on Twitter: @pfannyyy. He is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.