While officials in Blaine County respond to the rise of COVID-19 cases and deaths with mask mandates and other restrictions, elected leaders in Lincoln County—Blaine’s neighbor to the south and home to a number of Wood River Valley commuters—are taking a different approach.
While Blaine County saw an explosion of coronavirus cases early on in the pandemic in March and April, with case rates rivaling those of New York City and Wuhan, China, the outbreak in Lincoln County has largely accelerated in recent months and weeks. There have been 356 coronavirus cases and eight deaths in Lincoln County as of Monday evening, according to the South Central Public Health District’s COVID-19 dashboard and state data. A little under one-third of the cases there are still being actively monitored by the Health District, according to the dashboard, and the county reported its first two COVID-19 deaths in the last week of October.
Lincoln County had “hardly any cases” while a statewide stay-at-home order was in place during the spring, County Commission Chairwoman Rebecca Wood told the Mountain Express. Now, she personally knows multiple people who have had the virus.
“I know quite a few people who have it right now and are sick,” Wood said. “Lots of people are getting well, but we do have those who have passed. This is nothing to joke about.”
Commissioners: Masks are ‘an individual choice’
The Lincoln County commissioners have issued a “strong request” that members of the public wear a mask while entering the Lincoln County courthouse, where county business is conducted, Wood said. But they’ve chosen not to implement a mask mandate countywide, as the Blaine County commissioners have done.
“We would like to highly encourage everybody to wear a mask and be safe but we do think it’s an individual choice,” Wood said. “We really don’t think [a mask mandate] is enforceable. It’s really not our place for us to mandate it. I would say if it needs to be mandated, you need to go talk to the governor.”
Two weeks ago, the South Central Board of Public Health voted 5-4 to reject a mask requirement that would have applied to the entire Magic Valley and Wood River Valley region. Lincoln County Commissioner Roy Hubert, who sits on the board, voted against the mask requirement. But the county “would comply” if the Public Health District were to eventually implement a mask mandate, Wood said.
As both a county commissioner and a deputy coroner who has worked on local COVID deaths, Wood said she feels she and her fellow commissioners are in “a hard spot” when it comes to legislating safety measures.
“I very much value our independence and our freedom to choose. I think it’s the right thing to do,” she said. “On the other hand, sometimes it’s very hard for me to think that we shouldn’t be doing more. It’s quite a balancing act, of independence and what’s responsible.”
An unofficial survey of people entering the Lincoln County Courthouse found that of 500 people coming inside, only three objected to wearing a mask, Wood said. Outside the courthouse, in public places where masks are not required, she estimated that about 25 percent of people wear masks.
County’s only doctor is at high risk
While Hubert voted against the regional mask requirement, Dr. Keith Davis—the only doctor in Lincoln County and the Public Health District board’s medical consultant—voted in favor of the measure.
Davis, who has served as the county’s lone practicing doctor for more than 30 years, said he does not see adherence to public health guidelines, such as mask-wearing and social distancing, as an infringement on personal freedom or individual rights.
“Just the opposite,” Davis told the Mountain Express. “It protects everyone’s freedom to avoid a potentially fatal illness.”
Davis’s Shoshone Family Medical Center has felt “increased stress” from the pandemic in a number of ways, he said—from the financial stress of decreased in-person patient visits, to the challenge of relying more on telehealth technology, to staff having to self-isolate after contracting or being exposed to the virus.
Davis, who is himself in the high-risk health category should he be exposed to the virus, is practicing part-time and avoiding all contact with symptomatic patients, he said.
But “avoiding infection is difficult when so many of my neighbors don’t follow the CDC guidelines,” he said, such as mask-wearing, social distancing, and avoiding gatherings outside their household.
Schools continue in-person learning
The Richfield School District began the 2020-21 school year with in-person learning, Superintendent Mike Smith said, and has largely stayed in that model. Smith said he sees in-classroom learning as important for the mental health of students, and wants to provide a safe space for children who may face abuse or other challenges at home. And childcare in Lincoln County is hard to find, local leaders say, particularly for cash-strapped families. Prior to the pandemic, around two-thirds of families in Richfield and Dietrich were categorized as low-income, while more than three-quarters of families in Shoshone fell under that category.
But in-person learning hasn’t come without challenges, most notably a shortage of teachers and substitutes. On Oct. 29, nine out of 19 certified staff members at the Richfield school called in sick, forcing the school to close for the day.
In the event that the school does shut down, the district will provide live streams or recordings of lessons made by teachers in the classroom, according to Smith. In the meantime, he hopes a new ventilation system will keep the air cleaner in the classroom and mitigate the risk of COVID-19 spread.
“My profession is an educator,” Smith said. “I’m going to educate. If my teachers and students are at school, I’ll be there too.”
The Shoshone School District has also operated under an in-person learning model since the start of the school year, according to Superintendent Rob Waite. The district has “no plans to switch to any other mode of delivery,” Waite said.
The district has two rules “which we try to enforce with fidelity,” Waite said: Avoid close contact with others—defined as being within 6 feet or less of someone for at least 15 minutes—and stay home if you are ill. Masks are allowed but not required, Waite said. He estimated that a majority of teachers and about half of all students wear masks in school.
Since the beginning of the school year, a total of 10 teachers or students in Shoshone have tested positive, according to Waite; most were asymptomatic, none were hospitalized and all have since returned to school.
Small towns feel impacts
Because cases are reported by county and not by town, it’s difficult to know exactly where the 356 Lincoln County residents who have had COVID-19 live. The largest town in the county and home to most of its businesses, shops and restaurants is Shoshone, with about 1,500 people, according to the U.S. Census Bureau; Richfield and Dietrich follow with just under 500 people and about 350 people, respectively.
Wood estimates that about 70 percent of Lincoln County residents commute out of the county for work, with most heading either up to Blaine County or down to Twin Falls—both of which have been hotspots for the virus at various points in the past nine months.
“We are very much a community that relies on other counties or cities for most of our jobs,” Wood said.
Anecdotally, Wood said, she’s heard of Lincoln County residents who commute seeing reductions in their hours or losing their jobs entirely during the pandemic. But COVID-19 has also taken an economic toll on Lincoln County businesses, Wood and local mayors say.
In Dietrich, the City Council has discussed implementing citywide COVID restrictions but opted not to pursue it, Mayor Deborah Moon said, adding that she believes a mask mandate or other measures would need to come from a higher-up body, such as the county, state or Health District, to be effective.
“We’ve talked about it and our position has been that there’s enough information available for people to make their own decisions on how they want to treat it,” Moon said. “For us to put something in place isn’t going to impact that one way or another.”
In Richfield, where local businesses have similarly felt the economic impacts of the virus, Mayor Tom Naylor is encouraging residents to follow statewide safety guidelines, such as social distancing, mask-wearing, and limiting the size of gatherings. Naylor said he doesn’t anticipate the town putting its own mask ordinance in place anytime soon—but, he added, a theoretical point does exist where that could change.
“We just hope it never comes to that,” he said.
Additional reporting by Lexi Fuchs.