Madison and Fremont county government officials hope residents will voluntarily wear a mask following Eastern Idaho Public Health Board mandating face mask Monday morning.
The mandate brings to a total of five counties — Bonneville, Custer, Jefferson and now Fremont and Madison — at “Moderate Risk” of COVID-19. The health district has four levels of coronavirus risk: minimal, moderate, high and critical.
EIPH raised both Fremont and Madison counties level from minimal to moderate threat after both counties witnessed their coronavirus rates increase in recent days. As of Monday, Fremont had one new case, 20 active cases, 142 cases overall with an active rate of 15.3 out of 10,000 people. Three people have died from the illness in the county.
In Madison County, 11 new cases were reported on Monday, with four active cases, and 343 in all. It also has an active rate of 13.3 cases out of 10,000 people. There has been one death.
Madison County Commissioner Brent Mendenhall, who serves on the EIPH Board, says that Rexburg has been incredibly lucky to have maintained such a low COVID-19 rate for weeks as compared to its neighboring counties.
“We were referred to as ‘the doughnut hole’,” he said.
Mendenhall doesn’t know why Madison’s COVID-19 numbers remained at a minimal rate for so long nor does he know why numbers jumped substantially.
“We had a rodeo, we had a parade, and our numbers stayed down at the active case level of 40,” he said. “I don’t know if (the increase resulted) from the last of the summer parties, the get-togethers, and public school starting.”
Mendenhall said that the decree is more of health order than a mandate.
“What I’m trying to do is to avoid the negative connotations that this is just about wearing masks,” he said. “I know it sounds like it’s semantics. There is much more to it than masks. Part of it is a mask mandate, but a part of it is social distancing.”
It’s also a wake-up call for residents to be more cautious about their health and about not spreading COVID-19, Mendenhall said.
“We didn’t take care of business like we could have — or nature didn’t let us (prevent the spread),” he said.
While the EIPH face mask mandate carries with it a $300 fine for not wearing a mask in places where social distancing is ineffective, it’s unlikely anyone will be arrested for not complying.
“We won’t be citing anyone,” said Madison County Sheriff’s Office Public Relations Officer Isaac Payne. “We’re just telling everybody to ‘use your best judgment.’ The big thing for the sheriff’s office is that everyone respect each other’s choices, and how they do that.”
In Fremont County, Commission Chairman Lee Miller, who represents the county on the EIPH Board, says the hope is that everyone will voluntarily wear the masks.
“It is an inconvenience, I understand that. I know it’s not a popular thing, but the numbers have spoken for themselves,” he said. “A lot of people feel like we’re taking away their rights. We have a responsibility to the health district to protect people.”
The hope is that the mandate will prevent Intensive Care Units from being overrun, Miller said.
“What do you do with the people if your ICU is full? Who makes a choice about who goes in there? It’s pretty tough. If you had a dad and mom, and I had a dad and mom who needed that bed, and there’s only room for one, who’s going to make that choice?” he said.
Like Madison County, the Fremont County Sheriff’s Office has no plans to start arresting people for not wearing face masks, said Sheriff Len Humphries.
“Think about it. We don’t make people take their medication. We don’t make people do a lot of things. It’s not a good idea to go without a mask. That’s what the medical officials are telling us, but it doesn’t give me the authority to strong arm people and force them to do something they don’t want to do,” he said.
Rexburg Mayor Jerry Merrill says the mask mandate is all about common sense.
“If you’re around other people in a public place — even if you’re outdoors and in a crowd — you should have one on. It’s all in choosing to do the right thing in the right place,” he said.
Just like with the Fremont and Madison county sheriff’s offices, Merrill says that Rexburg Police won’t be arresting people for not wearing masks.
“We’re going to be asking officers to watch and encourage people to do what they should be doing,” he said. “It’s about choosing to do the right thing in the right place.”
For more information on the Upper Valley COVID-19 numbers visit https://eiph.idaho.gov/.