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'It is serious:' Southwest District Health board votes to recommend coronavirus strategies

Only one of the commissioners present and none of the people in the packed gallery wore a mask during the meeting.

CALDWELL, Idaho — Dozens of people packed into a Canyon County courtroom Thursday morning as the Southwest District Health Board voted Thursday to recommend a series of actions including social distancing and face-coverings to try to slow the spread of COVID-19.

Board members repeatedly stressed that the recommendations were not mandatory and could not be enforced, unlike a mandatory mask order for Ada County handed down by Central District Health earlier this month.

The recommendations include wearing face coverings in public when physical distancing is not possible and the health alert level is at Yellow (low) or above, limiting the density of people at events to one person per 64 square feet of space, and suspending visitation to older adult living and correctional facilities when COVID-19 is detected in the facility or when the health alert level is deemed to be high.

People in the gallery were not six feet apart, and no one in the room wore a mask, except for members of the media, board member Dr. Sam Summers, SWDH director Nikki Zogg, a spokeswoman for SWDH and one officer. Two of the county commissioners on the board dialed into the meeting through Zoom; the other four attended in person.

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Sheriff Kieran Donahue confirmed that unlike at the health district building, masks were not required in the courthouse. 

"There is not a mandatory order to wear a mask - you're in Canyon County right now, you're not in Boise," the sheriff told the crowd, drawing cheers and applause. 

The meeting was moved to the courthouse after being repeatedly pushed back due to safety concerns and protests. A planned meeting last week was abruptly ended after Ammon Bundy and other protesters forced their way inside the building, shoving and grabbing a health district employee who tried to intervene. 

The health district accepted comments electronically ahead of the meeting, but did not take public comment from those in attendance. According to Zogg, the district received about 1,300 comments, mostly about the idea of a mask mandate. 

RELATED: Does SWDH need public input before making a decision, like mandating face masks?

Of those who wrote in, 58% opposed mandating masks while the remaining 42% were in favor of mandating masks, rolling back to a previous stage, or limiting large gatherings, she said.

Zogg also noted that many educators wrote in with concerns and questions about heading back to school in August.

Canyon County Commissioner Tom Dale said he understood that there were many differences of opinion when it came to how to handle the virus, but advised people to look to Center for Disease Control recommendations on face coverings, hand-washing, and staying home when they are sick in making their decisions. 

"We also need to accept - and I understand and accept - that this COVID-19 virus is a serious health concern for our counties, for our cities, for our state, for our nation," he said. "It's infecting all kinds of people in all kinds of ways. And it is serious."

Board member Dr. Sam Summers agreed, saying that using science-backed measures to curb the spread of coronavirus has already proven effective.

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"I think we've had a wonderful experiment already with this: When COVID first came and it hit New York and the government got shut down and we had social distancing etcetera, the rate of COVID dropped dramatically," he said, prompting booing and yelling from the gallery.

"As we started to release, the COVID rates have gone up dramatically," he continued, speaking above the noise from the crowd.

Board chairman Bryan Elliot, a commissioner from Gem County, warned one man in the gallery that he would have him kicked out of the room if he didn't stop yelling questions and talking over the board members.

"I'm not going to allow this meeting to turn into a circus," Elliot told the man, who promised to quiet down.

Viki Purdy, a commissioner from Adams County, said she disagreed with the recommendations. 

"I can tell you, mask-wearing for a lot of people doesn't work that well," she said.

RELATED: SWDH meeting on mask mandate canceled after Ammon Bundy, protesters force way into building

Purdy, who has previously drawn criticism for saying the pandemic is a "lie" and that masks are being wielded as a political tool, also argued that limiting visits to nursing homes amid an outbreak would harm residents of those facilities.

"I'm just concerned that if we put any more recommendations on some of these long-term care facilities that the mental health consequences would be far worse than anything else that would happen," she said. 

Purdy was ultimately the only board member to vote against the recommendations, which passed on a 6-1 vote. 

Elliot, the chairman, urged his fellow board members and the community to take the virus seriously. Six Gem County employees, including a sheriff's deputy, were recently sent home from work after becoming infected with COVID-19, he said.

"[The deputy] made a statement that shocked me: he said, 'I thought this was all a farce.' Well, I guess now he knows that it isn't," Elliot said. "I can't believe how many people actually believe that it doesn't exist."

RELATED: Idaho coronavirus latest: State sees largest single-day increase in COVID-19-related deaths

Dale echoed the chairman's words, emphasizing that the community will have to work together in order to contain the coronavirus.

"We cannot ignore it or assign it to some kind of conspiracy," he said. "It is real."

At KTVB, we’re focusing our news coverage on the facts and not the fear around the virus. To see our full coverage, visit our coronavirus section, here: www.ktvb.com/coronavirus.

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