Two neighboring counties in east Idaho may be poised to have their coronavirus-related restrictions flip, after a series of votes by Eastern Idaho Public Health's board of county representatives on Thursday.
Teton County, where the board first mandated masks and banned events of more than 150 people three weeks ago, is set to have its legal order expire 5 p.m. Monday. But mask mandates passed by Driggs and Victor remain in place.
For the past two weeks, cases in Teton have remained below the threshold that the board uses to determine whether to issue more stringent restrictions. But testing there, and across the health district, remains delayed by multiple days, health officials said.
Ultimately, the board voted 5 to 2 to repeal the mandate. Only Teton's board representative, Bill Leake, and the board's sole physician representative, Dr. Barbara Nelson, voted against the repeal, saying that many local public officials and medical professionals in Teton County say the board should keep the county's mandates in place.
Other health board members who wanted to lift Teton's mandate said the health board needs to stick to its plan.
"I feel like we need to be consistent. We need to not appear as arbitrary or capricious," said board chairman Bryon Reed.
Leake said Teton's county commissioners will consider their own mask actions at their next meeting on Monday, Aug. 10, but it's unclear what enforcement power its actions would have. Health districts' mandates all carry misdemeanors for violations. Idaho law is silent on health actions by counties, attorney Michael Kane has told the health district previously.
For two days in Fremont County, just north of Teton, cases have remained above the 10 active cases per 10,000 people threshold that the board says puts an area in moderate risk level, which calls for mask mandates and large event bans. If its active case rate remains above that threshold, the health district voted a mandate and large event ban would be automatically put in place.
The board's moves on both counties came after three changes to the board's plan:
1: Large event bans
Fremont's large event ban would look different than Teton's and what used to be the large event cap in Bonneville County.
The board last week discussed ways they could implement event bans that account for the space of the venue, rather than the hard bans of 150 people they issued in Teton and Bonneville. The health district proposed that large event bans should be based on the amount of square feet needed per person to maintain social distancing.
Board members voted 5 to 1 to modify Bonneville's large event ban, and all bans going forward, to say that venues must have 28 square feet (based on a three-foot radius) available per person to allow for social distancing.
2: More mask exemptions
Another notable move by the health district board was to exempt "persons actively engaged in competition, training, or practice that involves strenuous physical activity" that makes it difficult to wear a mask.
This applies to Bonneville's mask mandate, but not to Teton's mask mandate, which expires Monday night. It also applies to Fremont's pending mandate and any future mask mandates.
Mask orders by the health district outline a slew of exemptions, including for people with medical conditions that prevent them from wearing a mask.
The board also heard from child health experts and school administrators on Thursday. It took no action on schools. Board members hope to continue talks with school administrators to reduce the spread of the coronavirus.
3: Modified coronavirus response plan
Last week the board realized its coronavirus response plan only specified how to move a county or area up to a higher risk level. It didn't speak to how to move a county back down a risk level. At Thursday's meeting, board members adopted metrics proposed by the health district that set two standards: The mandate be in place for at least 14 days; and cases remain below the threshold for the last seven-days.
This issue was contentious in the debate over removing Teton's legal order. While the newly adopted metrics to move counties down a level say to look to active case rates, the plan says other factors should be looked to, including testing, which Teton health officials complain is poor there.
Leake consistently aired this concern, but other board members said it would be best to "follow the plan." They mostly discussed the active case rate.
After the vote, Leake told board members "I feel bad, disappointed that we didn't take any of those factors into consideration."