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As of Tuesday, Twin Falls has seen a total of 5,225 confirmed and probable COVID-19 cases and 60 deaths.

After more than four hours of public comment, the Twin Falls City Council voted Monday night to indefinitely table an ordinance requiring face coverings in public, opting instead to focus on ramping up local efforts to educate the public on COVID-19 safety.

The decision comes as coronavirus cases in the Magic Valley continue to climb and hospital capacity becomes increasingly strained.

As of Tuesday, there had been a total of 5,225 confirmed and probable COVID-19 cases in Twin Falls County and 60 deaths, according to the South Central Public Health District website and the state’s coronavirus dashboard. Hospital capacity in Twin Falls County has reached a “critical” level, according to the Health District’s risk assessment system, and the district is monitoring outbreaks in 17 local long-term care facilities.

Six council members voted to table the mandate—Shawn Barigar, Greg Lanting, Ruth Pierce, Christopher Reid, Nikki Boyd and Mayor Suzanne Hawkins—while Craig Hawkins voted against the tabling motion.

“I don’t think the ordinance helps us get to the goal, which is to get more people to practice all of the techniques it takes to help slow the spread of this virus,” Barigar said.

Photos of the City Council chamber shared on social media showed a packed room, with little to no social distancing measures in place and more than half the crowd unmasked; those who could not fit in the council chambers stood outside in an overflow area. About 90 people signed up to give public comment; Barigar said he had received some 415 emails “on both sides of the issue” over the past week.

In-person public testimony at Monday night’s meeting was overwhelmingly against the ordinance, though several health-care workers from St. Luke’s Magic Valley along with a representative of the Lamb Weston potato processing plant and several city residents asked the council to implement a mask requirement.

Megan Marriott, a nurse in the intensive care unit at St. Luke’s, described the “physical and emotional toll” the virus has taken on local health care workers.

“The death I am seeing is not like any other death I have seen before,” Marriott said. “I am seeing patients who are once healthy now struggling for every single breath they are taking. … Patients’ families crying outside their window because all they want to do is to be able to hold their loved ones, families banging on the window, screaming, crying, as their loved one dies.”

St. Luke’s Magic Valley was treating 39 COVID-19 patients on Monday, according to Dr. Joshua Kern, vice president of medical affairs for St. Luke’s in the Magic Valley, Jerome and Wood River Valley. Recently, about one-third of the patients admitted at the Magic Valley hospital have been COVID patients, Kern said.

“We just don’t have the staff to care safely for those patients,” said Dr. Brent Duff, a doctor at the Magic Valley hospital, during the public comment period at Monday’s meeting. “Wear a mask. It’s not for you, it’s for your neighbor. You may be in the 90 percent that gets sick but does not have to come to the hospital, but you may transmit it to the 10 percent who does.”

Of those who testified against the mandate, many said they saw a mask requirement as an infringement of their personal rights, and a number said they did not see the need to wear a mask because they themselves do not personally fear contracting the virus. (Medical professionals have said the primary purpose of masks is not to protect the wearer from contracting the virus, but to protect others from the potentially infected wearer.)

Heather Deaton, a Twin Falls resident who identified herself as an employee at a local assisted living facility, spoke against the mandate, describing “the mask thing” as “an infringement of my right.”

“I walk down the hall with the mask on and I’m out of breath,” Deaton said. “I don’t want to be out of breath. I’m tired of being out of breath.”

Deaton acknowledged that “a couple” of residents at the long-term care center where she works have died from the virus.

“They were old, and we are all going to die of something,” she said. “It was their time and their body couldn’t handle it.”

Seventeen long-term care facilities in the Magic Valley are currently experiencing COVID-19 outbreaks, according to the South Central Public Health District.

A number of other testifiers said they also found masks uncomfortable or difficult to breathe in, while some said they disliked not being able to see other people’s smiles and facial expressions. (The proposed Twin Falls ordinance included exemptions for people who “cannot medically tolerate” a mask and people who are hearing impaired or communicating with someone who is hearing impaired. In Blaine County, where masks are mandatory, people who cannot wear a mask for medical reasons are required to wear a clear face shield.)

One Twin Falls man who testified against the mandate wore a mask to the meeting—but only, he said, because his son currently has COVID-19. (South Central Public Health District guidance recommends that anyone who has been exposed to the virus through a family member wear a mask in public and “stay home as much as possible.”)

“Trust us enough to believe we can be responsible,” the man, whose name the Express is withholding for the privacy of his son, told the council.

Several people at the meeting expressed concerns that masks could pose a health risk in and of themselves. The World Health Organization has said that surgical masks, when worn correctly, are not harmful. “The prolonged use of medical masks can be uncomfortable,” the WHO website states. “However, it does not lead to CO2 intoxication nor oxygen deficiency.”

Some meeting commenters questioned whether recommendations from medical experts should be followed, suggesting that doctors and other professionals are either accidentally or purposely spreading false information about masks and the virus generally.

“Doctors aren’t gods,” said Vince McDowell, who lives in the Magic Valley but not in the city of Twin Falls. “They’re there for advice. That’s why it’s called a ‘practice.’”

Craig Hawkins, the lone city council member to vote against tabling the ordinance, told the Idaho Mountain Express on Wednesday that he believed "the silent majority was not represented" during the public comment portion of the meeting. Hawkins said he was "frankly a little disappointed" with his fellow council members for voting to shelve the ordinance.

"I have to stand up for what I think is right," said Hawkins, who was in favor of the mask mandate. "And the many people who hadn't been in attendance [at the meeting], their voices hadn't been heard.

"I don't want to see businesses close," he continued. "I want to see people happy and not living in fear or concern. But I just don't see, unless there are medical or psychological reasons [for not wearing a mask], how we're asking too much of American citizens. A little bit of uncomfortableness is not oppression."

Twin Falls resident Ted Keyes told the Idaho Mountain Express that he did not attend the meeting due to concerns about a lack of social distancing and other safety measures, but sent an email to the mayor expressing his support for a mask mandate prior to the meeting. In an interview with the Express, he became emotional while reflecting on a recent interaction with an elderly Vietnam War veteran while out shopping recently in Twin Falls.

“Walking out of the store, I’m thinking, ‘How can [people] be so selfish [as to not wear a mask to protect that veteran]?’” Keyes said. “How can the same people here who claim to be so patriotic, who take their hats off and put their hands on their heart, sing the national anthem and look at our flag, be asked to wear a mask and they can’t make that sacrifice?”

Looking around his community, Keyes said, he sees “good people that are misinformed” about COVID-19, in part due to inaccurate information spreading on social media.

“I think that generally, people want to do the right thing,” he said. “Good people are being misled and they don’t know it.”

After more than four hours of public comment Monday night, the council voted 6-1 to table the ordinance indefinitely.

“We heard you loud and clear through emails and messages and the fact that you’re still here on a Monday evening,” Suzanne Hawkins said, adding: “I don’t want you to think that because we tabled [this ordinance] that means it’s coming back next week. That is not happening with this ordinance.”

Barigar suggested that those who are pro-mandate and those who are anti-mandate could find common ground on other COVID-19 safety measures, such as hand-washing and social distancing. He called on local nontraditional media figures such as Shane Klaas, a vocal opponent of the mask mandate and host of the online talk show “Shane Talks Politics,” to build bridges through messaging.

“I think we all can come to some level of agreement that there is a virus … and maybe it’s not such a great idea to get it,” Barigar said. “It’s either a critical issue, kind of an issue or a low-level issue, but it’s an issue.”

The council informally decided Monday to draft a plan or resolution to further COVID-19 education in the community and encourage people to follow health guidelines going forward, though no official action was taken on the matter.

“If there is a lack of education about this virus, then we need to have that discussion,” Reid said. “Our hospital being overrun does affect us. … How do we get that information out into the community? How do we focus on education? How do we make sure that this does not overload our community?”

Email the writer: gkauffman@mtexpress.com

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