In a bid to slow a regional spike in COVID-19 cases, the Hailey City Council updated the city’s emergency health order Tuesday night requiring all residents to wear face coverings in public and obligating businesses to enforce that mandate.
Effective 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, all people in public—including children 5 and up—will need to wear face masks. Under the order, anyone who has previously claimed medical exemptions to masks will now be required to wear face shields in public.
Most significantly, all businesses within city limits are required to post signage at each entrance in both English and Spanish stating that face coverings and hand sanitization are required to enter and six-foot social distancing must be followed. Businesses could be subject to shutdown orders from the city if customers without masks or face shields are served, which City Attorney Chris Simms described as an unprecedented move.
“That is to impress upon the public the importance of adhering to the order,” he said.
Exemptions to wearing face coverings in public continue to apply to first responders on duty, such as firefighters; people with documented physical or mental disabilities; people spaced six feet apart outside; people eating or drinking at a food establishment; and anyone undergoing a cosmetic or medical procedure involving the nose, mouth or head. Residents who do not meet those criteria and go without face coverings in public will be subject to an infraction, a petty offense punishable by a $100 fine.
“I wish we could rely on individual and voluntary action to fight this pandemic, but that’s simply not our reality,” Councilman Sam Linnet said. “This is a community problem and it requires a community response. These restrictions are the best, least restrictive options we have at this time to fight COVID-19.”
The council also tightened restrictions on all public gatherings Tuesday, limiting group sizes to 10 people indoors and 50 outdoors as a general across-the-board rule. (Schools, grocery stores, and sporting and healthcare facilities are exempt.) The new occupancy restrictions apply to businesses based on square footage, with a rule of 64 square feet per person—a Harvard Global Health Institute guideline already adopted by the city—requiring a simple computation. If businesses are over 640 square feet, for example, they can have more than 10 people inside at one time, but all businesses under that size cannot.
Simms explained that business owners will need to calculate their square footage and divide by 64 to determine how many customers are appropriate to have at one time.
“It’s simply a way of making it fair and safe for every business of every size. That's the goal,” Mayor Martha Burke said.
Speaking to the council on Tuesday as a board member of the South Central Public Health District, County Commissioner Angenie McCleary reported that Blaine County is at a “critical moment” with rising cases and decreased hospital capacity.
“Unfortunately, the news I have to share with you tonight is not good,” she said. “The regional hospital capacity that we rely so heavily on is becoming impacted more every day [in Twin Falls and Boise]. We’re seeing more admits into the hospital for COVID-19…it’s a serious situation.”
Many cases in surrounding counties have been in the 18-to-29 age group, she said, but Blaine County, particularly Hailey and Bellevue, are seeing most new cases in the south valley within its working population of 30-to-40-year-olds. That information was supplied by district administrator Logan Hudson, who has been heading case investigations, she said.
“COVID cases are coming from schools, workplaces and social gatherings that have taken place, but there's not just one event or one source,” she said. “We’re all one place in my mind, with people from the south valley going north and [vice versa], but as far as the actual numbers go there are more cases coming from the south valley.”
On Tuesday, Blaine County was in the orange, or “high” risk category, according to the Harvard Global Health Institute risk assessment plan adopted by the county last month. (The plan assigns risk levels based on case count, hospital capacity and testing capacity, among other factors.)
McCleary said it’s likely that Blaine County will move into the “critical,” or red category by Thursday and urged local jurisdictions to tighten COVID-19 laws, because the South Central Public Health District Board is “unwilling” to do so.
“It’s left to jurisdictions like yours to make the right choices for our community,” she told the council. “I want you to know that I fully support the actions that you're considering.”
During a public-comment session, Bellevue resident Carolyn Benson advocated for posting signs about the city’s health order. When she went to vote at the courthouse last week, she said, she was deliberately coughed on by a resident without a mask.
“My husband, who is 80, said he wasn’t going in there. A man sitting at the entryway heard our conversation, came around and coughed on me in a forced way,” she said. “I could have been exposed to COVID. There was nothing there that showed that there is supposed to be any social distancing of any kind.”
Hailey Police Chief Steve England said his department had not issued any citations prior to Tuesday. Several officers have observed noncompliance with mask-wearing at convenience stores, he said, but were often unable to enforce face coverings because employees or customers cited medical exemptions.
With that loophole removed, he said it should be easier to keep all residents safe.
“When [confronting] employees, we’ll hear that they have a medical condition or a PTSD-type condition that prevents them from wearing a cloth covering,” England said. “I do think this new revised order with the face shield revision will definitely help our efforts with enforcement.”