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It’s been another week filled with COVID-19 news: record-high daily case numbers, overwhelmed hospitals and big increases in deaths.

Gov. Brad Little on Friday responded by moving the state back to Stage 2 and mobilizing the Idaho National Guard to help with tasks such as testing and decontaminating medical facilities. At the current rate of spread, hospitals in Idaho say they will have to start rationing care in a matter of weeks, Little said.

The governor talked about the effectiveness of masks and how important it is for Idahoans to wear them. However, he continued to leave the question of mask mandates in the hands of local officials.

“This comes down to personal responsibility,” Little said, later noting that he hopes compliance with wearing masks improves in the future. We can see in Idaho’s rising numbers that this approach is not working.

As this board has said before, we are supporters of local control in most situations. But in a public health crisis that’s become increasingly controversial and politized, the governor needs to step up and take the heat for being the one to require masks, whether that be statewide or in counties with high rates of spread.

When Little passes the responsibility for this decision to mayors, school boards and health district boards, there is inconsistency and frankly, chaos.

The heated political pressure at the ground level hampers local efforts to require masks — or even to talk about the benefit of masks. Southwest District Health canceled two meetings in July during which health board members were going to hear from physicians about masks. The meetings were called off amid protests and security concerns. When the board did meet, it issued a mask recommendation, but no mandate. Two of the district’s counties, including Canyon, are at the highest alert level of community spread.

On Monday, the Twin Falls City Council — in an area where hospitals are overwhelmed by the rise in new cases and number of infected health care workers — tabled a mask mandate after almost five hours of public testimony, which was largely against a mask mandate, the Times-News reports.

The pressure on school board members to make crucial calls about public health has led some local board members to resign and has led to unpredictable situations for parents and teachers.

Local officials face pressure from people they run into at the grocery store, at church, walking to the mailbox. They catch holy hell for trying to make decisions to keep people safe. Being so close to the issue makes it more difficult for them to make divisive, but important, decisions.

These on-the-ground officials need more support from the state government, which is insulated from the crowds filling meeting rooms.

In the two weeks since we wrote our last editorial calling for stronger state leadership in this pandemic, nearly 14,500 more Idahoans have gotten sick with COVID-19 and 123 more people have died. An average of nearly 60 Idahoans per 100,000 are infected each day, which is up 20% since Idaho moved to Stage 3 in late October.

As heated as the mask debate is, research shows they are effective in hampering the spread of the virus. A St. Luke’s Boise respiratory therapist during Little’s announcement Friday said the hospital is not seeing an influx of COVID-19 patients from Ada County, where masks are mandated and “more readily worn.”

A state mandate would send a stronger message about the importance of taking this small, simple step to protect each other, help our communities and businesses get back on track, and relieve the burden on hospitals.

Saving lives in the worst pandemic in at least a century is one of those times when leadership matters. What we’d like to see from Gov. Little is a clear plan of action, similar to what we saw in Utah over the past week. Even if it’s not a statewide mask mandate, the state should at least require masks for any county in the red zone — and residents should have clear metrics for what the red zone is and where their county falls on that line.

This would eliminate confusion and waffling at the local level as to what the next step should be. As fall turns into winter and we move indoors, we must continue to be vigilant. We’re seeing fatigue on social distancing and other health and safety precautions. But unless we want to watch case numbers continue to skyrocket, we need decisive action.

To the people of Idaho, we’ll echo what Little said he’s “begging” you to do: Please wear a mask, whether it’s mandatory or not. Even if you’re not afraid of contracting COVID-19 yourself and you think reactions to it are overblown, this is an easy step that can go a long way in keeping people healthy and out of the hospital and keeping the economy open.

Editorials are based on the majority opinion of the Idaho Press editorial board, comprised of community members Rod Gramer, Rosie Delgadillo Reilly, Tracy Watt, Nicholas O’Bryant and Pat Klocke, and Idaho Press President and Publisher Matt Davison. Idaho Press managing editor Holly Beech and city editor Tess Fox are non-voting members. Views expressed in the editorial do not necessarily represent unanimous agreement among all board members.

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