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While the EIPH public health order will soon be lifted in Teton County, the school district has decided to keep its mask requirements in place because students aren’t able to socially distance in schools.

As the March 18 deadline for the end of the Eastern Idaho Public Health mask-wearing mandate in Teton County looms, the elected officials of Teton County, Driggs, and Victor are united in keeping their own requirements in place until regional ICU occupancy is under 75 percent for at least three days, and the vaccine is available to any adult who wants it or until the school year ends, whichever comes first. The school district will also maintain its mask requirements.

Teton County is the only community in the eight-county health district where local regulations are being upheld despite EIPH’s decision on March 4 to rescind all public health orders and encourage “personal responsibility.”

The Centers for Disease Control, Idaho Department of Health and Welfare, and EIPH recommend mask-wearing indoors if people are not able to socially distance.

The conversation has bubbled up in every meeting of local government in the past weeks. On March 2 the Driggs City Council pondered when to lift the order within the city because much of the most endangered population, seniors aged 65 and up, had been vaccinated; while Councilman Tristan Taylor was enthusiastic about ending the order, Councilwoman August Christensen said she wanted to watch how it played out for other communities, rather than make Driggs a “test case.”

Around the same time, Covid cases began to rise again in the county and the region, although the rates have not reached the levels of other winter spikes; the active case rate in Teton County has hovered between 10 and 15 people per 10,000 since early March. As of this Monday, nearly 2,000 people in Teton County had received one or both doses of the vaccine.

On March 8, Teton School District 401 superintendent Monte Woolstenhulme made it clear to the school board where he stood on the matter: “We cannot socially distance in school, not on a bus or in a classroom or a hallway. If we cannot socially distance then I strongly believe we need to keep protections in place.”

“It’s not pleasant, it’s not fun, but it’s working,” he said about mask-wearing in school. “In my view, when it’s working, we continue to do what’s working.”

Trustee Alexie Hulme, a stated opponent of mask-wearing, said she wanted to start having the conversation of when to drop the requirement, noting that the teachers who wanted to be vaccinated have been.

Board chair Ben Kearsley reminded the trustees that in some other school districts in the state and region, students are only now returning to full-time in-person learning. “There’s great things going on in every classroom,” he said, reflecting on a recent visit he had made to a school. “We are making it work here at Teton and that’s something I’m proud of.”

Woolstenhulme said he was willing to have the discussion again at the board’s next regular meeting.

On March 9, the mayors, county commission chair, and Teton Valley Health CEO composed an announcement explaining the timeline for dropping local mask regulations. Read their letter on page A4.

During a special meeting of the board of county commissioners on March 10, Commissioner Bob Heneage said about the joint effort: “I see our role in supporting the City of Driggs and Victor—that’s where people are congregating, that’s where restaurants and bars are, where retail is.”

“We know we can’t have mask ordinances, laws, public health restrictions in place forever, and we don’t want to,” Commissioner Cindy Riegel said. “However, it doesn’t mean masks aren’t going to continue to help for a certain time period.”

Also on March 10, Mayor Will Frohlich explained to the Victor City Council about the county and cities’ approach to rolling back mask regulations. “We’re trying to take a pragmatic approach as a unified community,” he said. “I’m burned out on talking about masks...but thankfully there is a light at the end of the tunnel.”

Meanwhile, masks have become the subject of derision and amusement in Tetonia, where the city council has returned to meeting in person without masks. Mayor Brent Schindler expressed disappointment during the last council meeting on March 8 that the school district intended to continue requiring masks in schools.

“I thought we had people convinced that we needed to drop their mandates closer to the 18th,” Schindler said. “The council of governments asked again if we would put a mandate on, and I told them that would be like boarding the sinking Titanic. I told them if they kept the mandate because of the support of science, they’re making up the science.”

Schindler subsequently signed on to the op-ed about local mask regulations.