In response to the ongoing surge in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, the city of Ketchum has adopted a resolution recommending that all residents and visitors wear a mask in indoor public places and outside where social distancing is not possible.

The resolution—a policy statement that stops short of being law—took effect Tuesday evening, after the City Council voted 4-0 in its favor.

The vote came after a lengthy discussion about the impacts of COVID-19 throughout Idaho, amid the backdrop of news that the state’s Crisis Standards of Care Plan had been implemented for the first time ever for parts of northern Idaho. The plan provides guidelines to health-care facilities for operating in a disaster when normal standards of care can’t be met.

Councilwoman Amanda Breen called the resolution a “no-brainer.” For her, the question was whether the city should go further, and adopt a binding mask mandate. She criticized the state for not doing enough to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s so frustrating that the governor and the state government leaves it down to our little towns to try to figure this out, when there are obvious things they could be doing to help this situation,” she said.

Gov. Brad Little has declined to implement a statewide mask mandate during surges of COVID-19, stating that he prefers to let regional health districts and municipalities make their own decisions.

Ketchum’s resolution was proposed by Fire Chief Bill McLaughlin, in cooperation with Mayor Neil Bradshaw. As reasons for the mask recommendation, the resolution cites a rise in COVID-19 cases in Ketchum and Blaine County, strain on emergency services and health-care facilities, and a goal of supporting in-school learning for students.

McLaughlin gave City Council members an update on the COVID-19 surge. In Idaho, rising case rates have pushed health-care systems to full or near capacity, he said. He noted the implementation of Crisis Standards of Care in northern Idaho, a move that allows health-care facilities to use lower-than-normal standards when deciding on patient treatment, transfers and the addition of beds.

“That indicates that we are at a fairly serious level from COVID statewide,” McLaughlin said.

However, the situation is better in Blaine County than the north of the state, he said. The vaccination rate for residents is high, he said, which has protected many people from getting infected or seriously ill.

Nonetheless, the local hospital has limited ability to transfer patients in need of specialized care to larger hospitals because those facilities are near capacity, he said. In addition, there has been a “significant increase” in people in Blaine County getting tested for COVID, he said.

McLaughlin recommended that people at public meetings in the city wear masks, that the city limit entry into city offices to “essential” visits and that visitors wear masks, and that Fire Department personnel on calls wear full protective equipment. Council members supported the recommendations.

In the end, McLaughlin said the COVID-19 surge is evolving and should be monitored closely. State officials have said the surge might not peak for another five weeks, he said.

“We anticipate that over the next month or two, we may need to be moving back into more cautious positions than we’ve taken in the past,” he said.

Council President Courtney Hamilton asked McLaughlin if he believes—from his conversations with local health officials—a mask mandate would be “helpful or desired.”

McLaughlin said a mandate could reduce transmission of the virus but can also cause “political strife.” Businesses can implement their own mask requirements, he noted, and some in Ketchum have done that.

Bradshaw said he will put another COVID-19 discussion on the City Council agenda for the next scheduled meeting on Sept. 21, and a special meeting could be called sooner if a new response is warranted.

Councilman Jim Slanetz said he believes many Blaine County residents have a high resistance to COVID-19 because they have been previously infected. In addition, while the situation in the northern part of the state is concerning, Ketchum should not base decisions on what is happening there, he said.

“Northern Idaho is farther away than Vegas,” he said.

Slanetz said he was opposed to a mask mandate.

Both Breen and Hamilton said it is a serious consideration that many Idaho health-care facilities are at or near capacity. Though many patients in hospitals are sick with COVID-19, the surge and strain on health-care systems can affect anyone, Hamilton said.

“Don’t get in a car crash. Don’t have a baby,” she said. “There are so many things that we need our health-care facilities for.”

She encouraged people to get vaccinated against COVID-19 and to “play it safe” to reduce pressure on hospitals and clinics.

While Breen and Hamilton pondered whether to pursue a stronger response, all members of the council ultimately agreed to support the resolution.

Ketchum implemented an emergency health order last year that evolved with the COVID-19 threat. It mandated masks in specific situations and at times ordered other mitigation measures for people and businesses. It was rescinded in May.

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