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City council is critical of school board decision

Masks were mandatory once again in the Victor City Council chambers on Wednesday night.

So too was the talk of them.

After the mayor declared a state of emergency the afternoon of Aug. 25, the city council unanimously authorized the mayor’s declaration the same evening. 

“The emergency declaration is an administrative tool that allows the City to more quickly and efficiently serve the community as COVID-19 evolves,” said Mayor Will Frohlich’s declaration.

“It is unfortunate we are in this situation, but the delta variant is extremely dangerous,” continued the declaration. “Our local cases have grown exponentially over the last weeks and instituting social distancing practices and a mask mandate may once again become necessary to contain the spread of COVID-19 and protect yourself and our vulnerable neighbors.”

During the city council meeting, Frohlich explained why now was the right time to reinstitute the State of Emergency declaration. The mayor was specifically critical of the Teton School District 401 board’s 3-2 decision to not require masks in school.

“The attendees of the meeting failed to acknowledge the difference between the delta variant and the previous strain,” he said. “They did touch on how much more contagious it is, but did not discuss how much more transmissible it is in our children, especially those that are not able to get a vaccine at this time. If we want to protect our community, most importantly our children and our most vulnerable while striving to keep schools open, we need to make difficult decisions."

“[The state of emergency declaration] is an attempt to protect our children and keep children in school,” Frohlich continued. “We all know what happens when schools shut down and I don't think anybody wants that at the end of the day. When kids cannot go to school there will be issues.”

Interim city administrator Troy Butzlaff praised the mayor’s order as timely and appropriate.

“In my 30-year career in local government I have learned a number of things about disasters, whether manmade or natural, that I've been involved in,” said Butzlaff. “You have to be nimble, you have to have flexibility. This ordinance gives us both.”

“The ordinance is different from the prior ordinance that the city council had adopted where it was essentially for a specific issue and a specific duration of time,” Butzlaff continued. “This ordinance gives the mayor both the flexibility of time and the ability to implement orders as the mayor determines necessary to meet the needs of this community during this crisis.”

As cases rise, the adoption of another mask mandate seems more and more likely. The mayor was sure to state that a mandate is currently off the table. For now.

“There are a lot of concerned community members asking to establish a mask mandate for the City of Victor,” said Frohlich. “That’s a different conversation, but first I just wanted to get through this.”

He spoke to the relative lack of cohesion across the governing bodies in the valley and region.

“This time last year we were more unified in our approach from cities in this valley to counties and the school district,” said Frohlich. “We’ve always been proactive, the City of Victor has, and we want to maintain that proactiveness. I don't want to be reactive and have to sit back and wait.”

Councilwoman Amy Ross echoed the mayor’s concern in a strongly worded statement to the council.

“I went to that meeting on Monday and I was pretty disappointed in the conversation and in the decision the school board made, ignoring the CDC guidelines, ignoring their own plan that they voted into place, and ignoring the fact that community spread is here, with the nurse, Nikki Ripplinger, stating explicitly that community spread is here and we’re at a high level despite the fact that testing is currently inadequate," Ross said.

"I find it really unfortunate that we have to make that decision here at our level, that our greater community hasn't done that, that our school district refused to do that, but I'm absolutely ready to do that and protect those people that aren't yet able to protect themselves. I would like to emphasize for those people out there that think that we're going to have a mask mandate forever, that is not the intention for me at all. I think a month or a month and a half ago we hoped that school could start without that. I think it could have, but things have changed and I feel frustrated that people are not able to change with the changing situation,” she concluded.

Council president Molly Absolon similarly stressed that a mask mandate should not be viewed as an infringement on people’s rights.

“This is not an attempt to take away anyone’s right. We sort of asked people to do things on their own and it’s not really working.” said Absolon.

The mayor ended the session on the state of emergency declaration by stressing how personal discomforts have to be set aside for the greater good.

“I don't want to be wearing a mask right now but we need to do our best and set ourselves up for the best outcome we possibly can during this time,” said Frohlich. “In states that have gone back to school it has not been a pretty picture and I hope that does not happen here.”

According to the declaration, Teton County currently has the highest rate of cases per 10,000 population in the Eastern Idaho Public Health District. There are currently 357 active cases across the district and 26 in Teton County.

The declaration does not have a term attached to it, meaning it can only be repealed by a future decision of the mayor and the council.