Blaine County will require masks in indoor public places following a unanimous vote by its commissioners Tuesday morning.

The decision comes hours after the Hailey City Council voted 4-0 to institute a mask mandate of its own, becoming the first local municipality to reintroduce COVID-19 mitigation measures against the highly contagious delta variant. Ketchum and Sun Valley will vote on their own measures later today.

The commissioners’ ordinance, which applies to unincorporated Blaine County, falls in line with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations that all people—even those vaccinated against the virus—wear masks indoors. It stops short of last year’s requirement to wear masks outdoors when social distancing can’t be maintained.

“I’m going to listen to the science,” Commissioner Jacob Greenberg said. “I’m going to listen to our medical director. And I’m going to do the sorts of things that will help keep us safe.”

The South Central Public Health District deemed Blaine County’s COVID-19 risk “critical” in its last biweekly assessment, the highest classification on its rubric. That’s in part because of intense strain on hospital capacity throughout the area—and throughout the state as a whole. Last week, St. Luke’s Wood River took its first COVID-19 patients from other network hospitals in a “load leveling” effort, Greenberg said—the first time that’s been necessary since the pandemic began.

Elsewhere in Idaho, hospitals have instituted crisis standards of care—essentially, rationing medical resources—against an influx of COVID-19 patients.

Idaho has added around 22,000 confirmed and probable COVID-19 cases in the past month—around 10% of all cases since the pandemic began—driven mostly by the virulent delta variant.

“None of the numbers look very good,” he said. “They’re going to set up tents for triage, that’s the level we’re at.”

Like Hailey’s rule, Blaine County’s requirement includes exemptions for children under 5, people with medical conditions that prevent safe masking; the hearing impaired; on-duty law enforcement; those receiving a service that requires the removal of the mask; anyone eating or drinking inside, so long as they’re socially distanced; and socially distanced indoor exercise.

“Our goal throughout this pandemic was to have jurisdictions aligned in our requirements,” Commissioner Angenie McCleary said. “Certainly, we’re seeing from other jurisdictions that now is the time to do this.”

The commissioners’ decision—like Hailey’s the night before—wasn’t without push back. Opponents of the mask mandate called it superfluous and overreach, particularly in a county that tops the state in vaccination rate. Around 84% of Blaine

County residents 12 and over—all those eligible for the vaccine—are fully inoculated; Idaho as a whole lingers around 50%. (Children under 12 are not approved for the vaccine.)

In Idaho, nearly all recent hospitalizations and deaths have come among the unvaccinated, according to state data.

“In a free society, government can’t solve everything,” said one member of the public who could not be immediately identified by the Express. “If you’re vaccinated, or if you’ve had COVID, at that point masks are just theater.”

The man continued to say that the mandate would hurt businesses, adding that he “won’t spend a dime” at any place that required him to wear a mask.

But Greenberg suggested that opinion, while vocal, didn’t represent the majority of his constituents. Even the state’s chief politician, Republican Gov. Brad Little, wears a mask in public and has continually urged people to get vaccinated against the disease, he noted. Little, though, has stopped short of instituting any statewide requirements.

“He’s trying to save his political you-know-what,” Greenberg said. “I’m not concerned about that. I’m concerned about protecting the health and safety of our community.”

Email the writer: mdee@mtexpress.com

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