While the president and vice president forwent masks at rallies, the White House quietly encouraged governors to implement mask mandates and, for some, enforce them with fines.
In reports issued to governors on Sept. 20, the White House Coronavirus Task Force recommended statewide mask mandates in Iowa, Missouri and Oklahoma. The weekly memos, some of which have been made public by the Center for Public Integrity, advocate mask usage for other states and have even encouraged doling out fines in Alaska, Idaho and, recently, Montana.
Idaho is one of 16 states, all run by Republican governors, to not issue a statewide mask mandate.
Gov. Brad Little has pushed most of the pandemic response to local health districts.
The state’s local health districts have approached the pandemic differently.
Some health district boards, such as Central District Health and Eastern Idaho Public Health, have issued mask mandates in counties with high rates of spread. Others, including Southwest District Health and Southeastern Idaho Public Health, have refused to levy any restrictions even as counties in their jurisdiction became hot spots.
In eastern Idaho, where seven of eight counties have mask mandates and slight event restrictions by Eastern Idaho Public Health’s board, officials have said they’d prefer the mandates not be enforced.
“We just would rather not see that happen,” board Chairman Bryon Reed said at a Sept. 24 meeting of the regional health board, adding “I would just hope that everybody sees that. We want everybody to be able to continue on with all the activities possible.”
Last week, the regional health board met to discuss the unprecedented surge of new coronavirus cases that’s taking hold in the district. Health district Director Geri Rackow said many people aren’t complying with the mask requirements and event restrictions.
“Unless people follow (the orders), they have no impact,” Rackow said at the Oct. 1 meeting. “And I am honestly discouraged.”
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Anyone who violates a mandate from an Idaho health district can be charged with a misdemeanor, which carries up to $300 in fines and six months in jail. Cities can issue mandates with less severe punishments, but Idaho law dictates penalties for mandates that health districts issue.
Masks, a political flashpoint since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, are considered by public health officials to be a top safeguard against spreading the COVID-19 virus as the country awaits a vaccine. But the president’s own actions on masks have wavered: He has called them “patriotic” but often doesn’t wear one himself and has contradicted the advice of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director. During the presidential debate last week, days before announcing he’d tested positive for COVID-19, President Donald Trump said masks were “OK” and then mocked Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden’s mask-wearing habits. In the audience, some Trump family members and staffers were not wearing masks, despite the rules set by the Cleveland Clinic, which hosted the debate.
The mixed messages and ensuing confusion leave governors, and often state and local health officials, holding the bag of political consequences.
“At some point, we have to turn the corner on this ridiculous separation of what we’re being told is best practice and being guided by science and data, and what the actual practices are by the people who issue them,” said Lori Tremmel Freeman, CEO of the National Association of County and City Health Officials.
So far, 16 states have yet to enact mask mandates for the general public — all of them are run by Republican governors. Three out of four Americans support enacting state laws to require mask-wearing in public at all times, according to an August NPR/Ipsos poll.
To be sure, messaging and the science on masks have evolved: U.S. public health officials did not recommend mask-wearing until April. And the White House argues the president has been clear.
“He recommends wearing a mask when you cannot socially distance,” White House spokesperson Brian Morgenstern told KHN. “He has worn masks on numerous occasions himself when appropriate and regularly encourages others to do so, as well, when social distancing is not possible.”
The pandemic task force sends weekly memos to states to share data and recommendations with leaders to help them make decisions, Morgenstern added. “They’re free to share that information as they see fit.”
The county now has outbreaks in nursing homes and several confirmed cases in schools, he said, and the county’s positivity rate is heading toward 10%.Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente. Post Register Reporter Kyle Pfannenstiel contributed to this story.