With less than two days ahead of the Tetonia Fourth of July celebration, local and regional leadership have issued pointed caution in light of growing COVID-19 cases in Teton County.
Tetonia Mayor Gloria Hoopes has maintained that she does not support the planned parade, 5K and craft fair, but was out-numbered by city council who approved hosting the event a few weeks ago. This was on the heels of the city of Victor cancelling its annual parade and craft fair due to COVID-19 concerns. Victor leadership followed still more local nonprofits and businesses that canceled events in the valley, including Music on Main, the Driggs Plein Air Festival and Grand Targhee’s complete cancellation of summer music festivals. Other Fourth festivities have pared down their events such as the city of Driggs which is only hosting the fireworks this year and the Teton Valley Balloon Festival which is only allowing for close-up balloon viewing from the safety of inside your vehicles.
Hoopes said Thursday that she’s tired of fighting with the idea and her hope remains that nothing serious comes out of the event including possible infections of COVID-19.
“I had voted against it,” said Hoopes. “But the word got out so fast and that whole crowd is pumping the city with support. These are people who think masks are a joke and the whole thing is hoax. With what is going on, I hope we do not have an outbreak. That’s my wish.”
Cases of COVID-19 have more than doubled in the last two-and-half weeks in Teton County, with three new cases being reported Wednesday evening, as the State of Idaho has opened to Stage 4. Yesterday the cities of Driggs and Victor announced that they are in the throws of drafting mandatory mask wearing ordinances.
Jacque Beard, the part time city administrator who has been shouldered with planning the Tetonia event, said she has been doing her research on Idaho Rebounds, the governor’s COVID website. Per the site, those hosting large events should be in contact with public health departments to determine the health risks. The city of Tetonia has not been in touch with Eastern Idaho Public Health or Teton Valley Health for guidance around the event.
What Beard has done is call the food-licensing department at Eastern Idaho Public Health. In form letters sent to city residents to assuage concerns regarding city planning for the event, she has said that the city has been in touch with the health department.
In a followup email to the Teton Valley News, Beard said, “This event is important, even in spite of COVID-19. People need to have an opportunity to celebrate their freedoms as a community. We all have the freedom to choose whether to participate. The City of Tetonia strongly believes that our people are responsible and capable of celebrating our great country's birthday in a safe and responsible manner.”
Hospital CEO Keith Gnagey did not want to wade into the politics of hosting large group gatherings and said Thursday that he was not asked by Tetonia leadership to offer the hospital's opinion of the event, but only told the event was being planned.
“It’s not a blue or red issue, it’s a health issue,” said Gnagey of where the community currently sits in the pandemic tossing politics aside. “You should see some of these people who are sick, it’s not a hoax.”
Gnagey, as well as Eastern Idaho Public Health and the medical leadership at Teton Valley Hospital encouraged events-goers to wear masks, wash hands and stay home if they felt sick.
But still, Gnagey added, “We don’t know what event will cause an outbreak. If you look at the state recommendations, before you have a large event you test everyone before they go in. That’s a nice thought, but we don’t have the capability to do that. I can’t make people stay healthy. The best we can do is continue to educate. In the case of COVID, we need to continue to explain that this is a new virus and we’re learning about it.”
According to city email records, a handful of residents have expressed concern for the city hosting the event in light of the pandemic with two residents calling for its cancellation. One of those emails obtained by the Teton Valley News through a public information request was from Fire District Chief Bret Campbell. He told the city, “In light of the dramatic recent increases of new cases in the State and the Governor’s order limiting the size of people gathering, we cannot ethically support the event.”
In a followup call with Campbell he said he understood everyone’s fatigue with COVID, but asked the community to remain vigilant.
“A lot of people’s give-a-damn is broken and that scares me,” said Campbell. “Now is the time it matters most.”
Eastern Idaho Public Health public information officer Mimi Taylor confirmed that the city has not inquired with anyone on staff regarding large group gatherings for the city. The regional office has publicly praised the city of Victor leaders for making the difficult decision to cancel their annual Fourth of July celebration due to COVID-19 concerns.
Beard said that it’s disappointing to get push back on the event and described that push back as political. She said she has plans in place which should provide the community with the kind of safety they are looking for including spacing out the 5K race, having the water station at the race manned by a person in gloves and having informational signs up for those attending the event.
She said the event will also be live-streamed on Facebook for those who don’t or can’t attend to enjoy.
Teton County Sheriff Tony Liford said that even if he was on board with the Fourth of July event in Tetonia, the turnaround time to plan with the city was too tight to solidify plans for additional deputy coverage. He was not happy that a member of the planning committee called his office to talk about supporting the event and not someone from the city. He said his staff will be out on regular patrol and will be in Tetonia that day.
“The guys will be there, they will be available if something happens, but if they get a call in the county, they are leaving,” Liford said.
A public information request also produced a list of donors who have pledged monetary donations to support the event. The city has just over $3,000 in donations as well as money earned from race registrations and parade float registrations to pay for Bud Hill Security, port-a-potties and hand washing stations.
According to a public information request, there are between 35-40 floats registered for the Saturday parade.
Members of city council were unavailable for comment at the time of publication, and no one from council answered any email inquiries from the Teton Valley News.