CALDWELL — Southwest District Health officials canceled a special meeting Thursday morning after a group of people forced entry inside the district’s Caldwell office trying to attend.

The district is only allowing public access to meetings virtually because of the pandemic, something allowed by the governor’s emergency proclamation in March.

The district’s Board of Health — which oversees Canyon, Gem, Payette, Washington, Owyhee and Adams counties — was scheduled to talk with medical professionals at 8:30 a.m. about research on face coverings.

The meeting was accessible through Zoom and by phone, but a group of people showed up wanting to attend in person.

Caldwell police were called on scene after some of them tried forced entry into the meeting room, Caldwell Police Lt. Dave Wright told the Idaho Press. He estimates there were 50 people there.

“They just wanted the ability to attend the meeting,” Wright said.

“They had some demands they wanted to have met, and they wanted to have their voices heard,” he added. After police talked with the group and the meeting was postponed, everyone left and there were no arrests made, Wright said.

Board member Tom Dale, a Canyon County commissioner, told the Idaho Press Tuesday he witnessed two groups of people outside the health district’s building. One group, he said, wanted to listen to the meeting and voice their opinions. The other group, he said was a led by Ammon Bundy and “insisted on things that were not conducive of holding a meeting.”

Dale and a few other board members were at Southwest District Health in person, others joined over Zoom.

“There are a lot of variations of options that could be recommended, and that is what we wanted to do in this meeting, was share input from the doctors and try to come to a reasonable decision going forward,” Dale said. “But due to the state of affairs in the lobby of the building, that was not possible.”

Saint Alphonsus President Travis Leach, who attended the meeting via Zoom, said the meeting lasted about 35 minutes before it was canceled and had about 300 people listening. He did not get the chance to share his statistics, which he said is unfortunate.

“We have some alarming statistics,” Leach said.

Saint Al’s Nampa hospital has 10 patients with COVID-19 in its intensive care unit, which is half the unit’s capacity, Leach said. He said the rate of positive tests Saint Al’s has administered has increased to 20% compared to about 4% a month ago, and that percentage continues to rise.

A spokesperson for St. Luke’s Health System, in a written statement provided to the Idaho Press, also mentioned rising numbers of cases as a cause for concern, noting “48% of all the COVID-19 positive cases in Canyon County have been reported just in the last 11 days.”

“Masks work. They save lives. Every day that goes by without action will negatively impact public health,” Dr. Jim Souza, St. Luke’s Chief Medical Officer and practicing pulmonologist, wrote in the statement.

Souza had been invited to speak at Thursday’s board meeting.

Photos shared on social media show Bundy and multiple other people appearing to argue with police officers just inside the threshold of the building, KTVB reports. The Southwest District Health building is not completely closed to the public, but anyone who comes inside must wear a mask, which members of the group were not, and undergo a temperature check, according to officials.

Bundy confronted a man with Southwest District Health who was trying to keep the group outside of the building, as shown in a video shared to Facebook by Lori Marr, who stood behind Bundy.

“We’ll either go in there and fill the meeting as much as we can, I understand if it’s too much, or you will cancel the meeting, or you will call the officers to arrest us,” Bundy said, with his foot over the door’s threshold.

The man asked Bundy to step outside. When Bundy refused, the man told him he needed to stay back.

“No, you need to stay back,” Bundy replied, “and let the people in.”

Bundy later forced his way past the man and into the lobby. Others followed.

“I can get in if I want,” he said. “This is not your building.”

Bundy described the encounter to the Idaho Press as “a little bit of a peaceful standoff.”

The situation was diffused by Caldwell police, whose officers acted as mediators between the Board of Health and the group gathered outside, ultimately leading to the postponement.

Bundy said he wasn’t there to debate a possible mask mandate, but the Board of Health’s authority to enact one. He said he intends on being present for the next meeting, and hopes the public will have in-person access for it. He said he believes future situations could get violent if there isn’t, and Thursday’s measures were aimed at preempting possible physical conflict in the future.

Dale told KTVB the rescheduled meeting will be held on Tuesday, but the board has not yet set a venue for the meeting. The district will coordinate with Caldwell Police ahead of the next meeting, he said.

Bundy, who lives in Gem County, is known for leading the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in 2016, and for protests this year against Gov. Brad Little’s stay-home order and against a Meridian police officer outside his home after the arrest of a woman trying to use a playground against the city’s emergency order.

“Liberty is truly being threatened right now. … You’ve got a group of individuals who have been appointed by the county commissioners believing that they have the authority to invoke the force of law on people if they don’t wear a mask, and then they want to do it behind closed doors without any observance from the people,” he said. “That’s not OK.”

OPEN MEETING LAWDuring the coronavirus pandemic emergency, Gov. Little, on March 18, suspended by proclamation the portion of the Idaho Open Meeting Law that requires a person to be physically present at the meeting location and to allow members of the public to physically attend.

In exchange, all members of the public were guaranteed access to all meetings via telecommunications, and agencies were further encouraged to publicly post all meeting materials online so the public could access them during the meeting.

Media organizations including the Idaho Press Club were consulted before the governor issued the order. It is in effect for the duration of the pandemic emergency. Here’s a link to governor’s proclamation.

Southwest District Health’s meeting agenda, which was distributed Tuesday evening, said: “Due to COVID-19, Board of Health meetings for the remainder of 2020 will be held virtually or via video conference unless otherwise noted. In person attendance will be limited to Board of Health members and key SWDH staff members.”

The agenda offers a link to the Zoom meeting and instructions for calling in to the meeting.

However, the audio during the start of the meeting was “completely unintelligible,” according to Idaho Reports host Melissa Davlin, who serves as vice president of the Idaho Press Club and chairwoman of the First Amendment Committee.

“This is one of the worst examples of a public meeting held via Zoom I’ve seen so far, and at such a critical time in the pandemic, too,” Davlin said on Twitter. “This isn’t accessible to the public at all.”

Olivia Heersink is the Canyon County public safety reporter. You can reach her at oheersink@idahopress.com, or by calling 208-465-8178. Follow her on Twitter @heersinkolivia

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