21-09-15 Phil Rainey Mayor Burke mask mandate public comment hearing

Hailey resident Phil Rainey, left, stood and sharply protested Mayor Martha Burke’s closure of public comment during Monday’s Hailey City Council meeting. Burke, right, relented, allowing Rainey the microphone. “I’m going to let you speak,” Burke said, “but please sit down and please don’t address me that way in the future.”

The Hailey City Council voted 4-0 Monday night to enact an emergency health order requiring all residents to wear face coverings in public, citing a statewide surge in COVID-19 cases caused by the delta variant and the need to protect hospital infrastructure.

The mandate—effective Tuesday afternoon—makes the city the first local jurisdiction to reinstitute a mask requirement. It will remain in place until Tuesday, Oct. 12, when councilmembers will reconvene and evaluate its performance.

Monday’s order defines a “public place” as “any place open to all members of the public without specific invitation.” Some examples include retail stores, grocery stores, libraries, buses, government offices, salons, movie theatres and medical facilities.

The mandate differs from previous emergency health orders in a few areas. While customers in any indoor public space are required to wear a mask, bandana or face shield, establishments themselves do not legally have to enforce the mandate with signage. The city is also not implementing any indoor or outdoor group-size restrictions.

Exemptions to the mandate apply to first responders on duty, such as firefighters; people spaced six or more feet apart outside; people eating or drinking at a food establishment; anyone undergoing a cosmetic or medical procedure involving the face; and anyone participating in organized sports.

At the start of the meeting, Burke expressed a preference for a mask resolution over a mandate due to the backlash a mandate could inspire. Initially, she told the council she would be shelving the discussion for later in the week.

“Implementing a mask mandate was a challenge a year ago,” Burke said. “What was different was our whole state was involved, and we were coming out of lockdown. This time, we know enforcement will be a battle and some people in our community, people who have chosen not to get the vaccine, not to wear masks and to spread the disease, just won’t wear masks no matter what.

“I don’t think this is the way to unite the community.”

But Councilman Sam Linnet stressed the gravity of the situation and urged Burke to reconsider.

“We’re talking about people dying here, entire families losing access to health care. For the last month, our public health district and hospital have been advocating for the reinstatement of COVID restrictions to reduce the pressure on our health care infrastructure,” Linnet said. “I take what they say very seriously.”

The rest of the council sided with Linnet, prompting Burke to put the discussion back on the agenda. Councilwoman Heidi Husbands framed the discussion by offering a few recent statistics.

“There are 283 probable cases in Blaine County [as of Monday]. We’re running a daily average of 37.2 new cases,” she said. “I don’t want to see our hospital go into crisis standards of care, where there is no room for you if you get into a car accident and you might get put on a gurney in the hallway, maybe.

“People can deny that COVID exists, but all you have to do is open your eyes and pay attention.”

Husbands said she was worried that essential workers in the community have been consistently exposed to maskless customers ever since the City Council voted to rescind mask restrictions in May.

“When you go into stores you see a mix of people with masks and without. If we can save employees from getting COVID, it’s worth it,” she said.

Councilwoman Kaz Thea said if “80 to 90%” of the community were voluntarily wearing masks, a mandate would not be necessary. But out-of-towners are driving the spread of the virus, she said.

“It’s disappointing that here we are, 85% vaccinated, but we don’t exist in a bubble. We are taking people from other areas in our small hospital,” she said. “I get it. It’s a pain wearing a mask. But it is the least invasive step we can take to protect our community.”

Linnet agreed.

“We have people flying here knowing they are COVID-positive and being admitted to our hospitals. One doctor told me they recently saw a patient who had tested positive the day before walking around in the grocery store without a mask,” he said. “We just don’t have the flexibility in our health care system to allow that to happen.”

Councilman Juan Martinez said he supported the mandate but hoped it would last just four weeks. One concern was a mask order interfering with Election Day turnout, he said.

“If you’ve ridden the bus or flown you’ve had to wear a mask. This is not just out of the blue,” Martinez said. “I think four weeks is a good sample size, and after a month we can come back and hopefully [lift] this.

“I know that if we go into a mandate, we’ll invite aggression into our city and allow voices that are really loud and frustrated and angry to rise. But it’s the right thing to do now.”

Linnet said he understood the frustration of residents who believe that a mask mandate is unconstitutional or an overreach of government.

“I hear you, I see you, and I am happy to talk to you one-on-one,” he said.

Several such members sat in the audience on Monday evening without masks. After councilmembers’ initial discussion, Burke announced that the public comment section was closed.

Hailey resident Phil Rainey, owner of Hyperbarics of Sun Valley, stood and pointed at Burke in protest. Hailey Police Chief Steve England moved in to supervise the situation.

“That’s unconscionable to not take public comment. You’re supposed to represent us!” Rainey exclaimed.

Burke agreed to open a public comment session and asked England to stand down.

“I’m going to let you speak, but please sit down and please don’t address me that way in the future,” the mayor said.

‘Personal freedom’ debate dominates

Rainey, who is also a firefighter with the city, moved to the podium to question the effectiveness of masks and vaccines.

“According to the stats you guys talk about, vaccines are supposed to help people from getting COVID—so, what’s the deal with the masks?” he asked. “As a firefighter, we sometimes throw up big hoses even though we know buildings are going to burn down. That’s what this is, just political water that is not going to do anything.”

Blaine County resident Brian Opp took the podium next to stress personal freedom.

“In a free society, the concern shouldn’t be trying to parent everyone else. People choose whether to wear a seat belt or not and where to spend their money. I myself am spending $500,000 building my house and will not spend a dime in the city [for building supplies],” he said. “My main question is, if vaccines work, why aren’t they working?”

Opp then personally confronted councilmembers.

“We have Councilwoman Husbands here who is vaccinated but has had COVID. Councilman Linnet, the box that you took your blue [surgical] mask out of says right on it doesn’t work for COVID. And Councilwoman Thea, I find it reprehensible that you have a Planned Parenthood sticker on your laptop for everyone to see and you’re most concerned with killing babies,” he said.

“Please, no personal attacks,” Burke said.

A Hailey resident who identified himself as “Hank” but whose last name was unintelligible said he wished respect could go both ways, “whether people wear a mask or not.”

“I see both sides,” he said. “This virus is tearing apart families and causing a partisan rift. But everyone should have the option to have the vaccine or not have the vaccine, wear the mask or not wear the mask.

“That is America and our constitution to its core. If you want to fill up the hospital beds at St. Luke’s, that’s fine, but that’s on you.”

Burke and Linnet pushed back against the “personal freedom” argument. The “tragedy,” Burke said, is that a cohort of Blaine County residents, “some here tonight, are willing to die for their beliefs.”

“Some of your arguments are saying, ‘Please, let me die of COVID.’ Which would be fine if it didn’t affect other people,” she told the audience.

Linnet agreed.

“The struggle I have with the personal choice argument is that individuals’ actions do have consequences,” he said. “That is why we have laws. I can’t go 100 miles an hour down the highway or blow through stop signs whenever I feel like it. There is responsibility to the community, and small sacrifices that need to be made.”

Martinez asked how the mandate would be enforced. City Attorney Chris Simms said it would be entirely up to police discretion; if too many people gathered at city events without masks, for example, deputies could issue citations.

England said his department will be prioritizing education over enforcement.

“Our goal is not to be authoritative with this but to educate,” he said.

In her closing remarks, Burke said she was still concerned about community resistance but was also worried about the mu variant in South America.

“I just wish there was some way we could get more community buy-in versus pushback,” she said. “The unvaccinated are allowing the virus to mutate and become much more successful.

“Who knows what’s coming next?”

Email the writer: ejones@mtexpress.com

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