District Director Geri Rackow listens to attorney Michael Kane during a Board of Health meeting at the Eastern Idaho Public Health building on Thursday, July 9.

Eastern Idaho regional health officials on Thursday punted a decision to mandate masks until a later date, instead deciding they would soon vote to recommend face masks, which health officials already have been urging for months.

Idaho’s COVID-19 cases have risen rapidly in recent weeks, similar to other states across the West that have loosened restrictions on social interaction. Two weeks ago, Gov. Brad Little announced that local governments could tailor their pandemic responses to their areas and that the state would stay in Stage 4 of his reopening plan, which allows all businesses to open to the public. He extended Stage 4 on Thursday.

For nearly three hours Thursday morning, Eastern Idaho Board of Health discussed a possible mask mandate in the region, among other pandemic response measures, as part of a tiered-plan from Eastern Idaho Public Health, the regional health district for counties including Teton, Bonneville, Jefferson and Madison.

Many of the board members hesitated to endorse a mask mandate now, arguing that it would be difficult to enforce and that recommending masks would be more effective at increasing the number of people who wear masks, compared to a legal mask mandate, which several Idaho cities have implemented or begun considering in recent weeks including Driggs and Victor.

The board did not decide on any pandemic response measures at Thursday’s meeting.

It organized plans to meet again at 5 p.m. next Tuesday to potentially vote on the health district’s pandemic response plan. The plan outlines four different scenarios of how widespread the virus could become locally, and recommends specific public health guidelines and mandates that the board could pursue in each situation. The plan’s goal is to preserve hospital capacity in the case of a surge of COVID-19 patients.

In effect, if the Board of Health recommends mask-wearing in public next week, it will be echoing the continuous calls by state and local health officials since March that have failed to make mask-wearing universal throughout the state.

“We’ve been recommending the face masks for several months now. There’s no change in that,” health district Director Geri Rackow told the Post Register after the meeting.

Boise attorney Michael Kane, who has advised Idaho health districts on the legality of their pandemic response measures, told the Board that any order it issues would allow violators to be charged with a misdemeanor, punishable by up to $1,000 in fines and six months in jail. Exact punishments are flexible in court, Kane noted, and enforcement would rely on local law enforcement.

Cities can levy less severe punishments for local mask mandates, which has been done in Victor and Driggs with mask mandates that carry smaller fines for violators, Kane said. But orders by health districts must carry misdemeanor charges, he said, citing state law.

Under the draft pandemic response plan discussed Thursday, the health district would have recommended that the board mandate masks in the third-worst of four pandemic scenarios.

Rackow said the region is currently in the best of the four scenarios — cases are relatively low, and hospitals aren’t inundated with patients — but she and other local officials have continuously warned in recent weeks that the area is likely to soon see a spike in cases following an unprecedented surge statewide.

Many board members took issue with implementing a mandate soon. They requested that the plan be modified to say the board “may order” a mandate in the third-worst of the scenarios, which the region would enter if it had a rate of active cases higher than 10 per 10,000 people for at least three days, or hospital ICU bed occupancy reaches 90% of capacity two or three times per week.

The plan that the board is scheduled to vote on next week will include the mask-wearing recommendation in the third-worst pandemic scenario. The public mask mandate will be moved to the second-worst pandemic scenario, according to Rackow. In the worst of the four-scenarios, the plan calls for the board to issue a stay-at-home order.

The debate around a mask mandate mostly revolved around what board members thought would be best to get more people to wear masks.

Eastern Idaho Board of Health Chairman Bryon Reed, also a Bonneville County Commissioner, recognized that the science is clear behind mask-wearing: It is crucial to preventing the spread of the coronavirus. But he worried that creating a mandate that wouldn’t be enforced wouldn’t make a difference.

“I don’t like having a rule that we know won’t be followed,” he said, adding that he thinks that a recommendation could be more useful. “It seems like people push back pretty hard when they’re pushed.”

He also said that if people follow these recommendations now, it could prevent the pandemic from worsening, and the board may not have to issue more stringent restrictions.

“The greatest way we can keep our liberties and freedoms is to simply follow the recommendations that are put out here now,” Reed said.

Rackow likened a mask mandate to laws that require people to wear seat belts. They aren’t widely enforced, but she said “just because people don’t wear their seat belts, it doesn’t mean it’s not the (right) thing to do.”

The board’s vice chairwoman and physician representative, Dr. Barbara Nelson, staunchly advocated for a mask mandate throughout the meeting. She said in states that have mandated masks, usage has increased. Even if it is not widely enforced, Nelson said, “it doesn’t mean it’s not the right thing to do.”

“It’s not going to happen voluntarily,” she said.

In order for the Board of Health to issue a regional mask mandate, Kane said it would have to list the item on a meeting agenda and distribute the agenda publicly prior to the meeting.

Rackow said the agenda for next Tuesday will include an item to vote on the pandemic response plan, which involves recommending mask use as part of the board saying it “may order” mandatory mask use in the future.

As Reed closed the meeting, he warned that “if we get to” the second-worst pandemic scenario, “we’re on our way to overcoming hospitals.” He said he thinks the board is on the right path in its pandemic response plan.

“I believe that we are moderate on our plan. I believe it is very reasonable,” Reed said. “I don’t believe we’re being heavy-handed in any way. ... I think we’re in the right place. But I just don’t like the misdemeanor for (a mask mandate). I just don’t like laws that you don’t plan to enforce.”

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.