Not long ago, Senator Mary Souza wrote a letter to the Panhandle Health District (PHD) that called for the loosening of its COVID-19 mask mandate. The letter was co-signed by Souza’s fellow Republican lawmakers Senators Steve Vick, Don Cheatham, & Carl Crabtree, and Representatives Ron Mendive, Tim Remington, Tony Wisniewski, Vito Barbieri, Jim Addis, Sage Dixon, and Paul Shephard.

As the local rate of COVID-19 cases climbed the PHD voted to accept their recommendation, an action likely to facilitate even more COVID-19 infections throughout our community. The Kootenai County Democratic Central Committee felt this called for a response.

The letter from these lawmakers accused the PHD of robbing Idahoans of the “freedom to make decisions for themselves.” Freedom to do what exactly: to contract COVID-19 and spread it to others? Freedom to place nurses (like Senator Souza) and other health professionals at increased risk when they care for COVID-19 patients in hospitals and clinics?

The letter claimed that some Idahoans consider the mandate “highly upsetting” and a violation of the Constitution. But responsible citizens routinely accept temporary restrictions on their behavior for the benefit and safety of the greater community. Citizens wear seat belts, they put their children in appropriate child safety seats, and they refrain from texting while driving all to protect themselves, their families, other drivers, and pedestrians.

One co-signer of the letter, Tom Addis, claimed illogically that the mask mandate is a “bad law” because it’s unenforceable. Many laws are not universally enforced; that doesn’t mean they are bad laws. Police officers often overlook speeding, until a driver poses a danger to others. No one would argue that speed limits are bad laws or that they don’t work. Similarly, a mask mandate is not bad; it’s a simple law, it’s minimally invasive, and it works if people abide by it.

The letter further stated, without evidence, that nearby counties at the “same risk” do not enforce a mask mandate. But COVID-19 is a disease of proximity; the closer people are to one another, the more likely they are to get sick. The population density of Kootenai County is 111.3 persons/square mile. The population densities of Bonner County (23.6), Benewah County (12.0), and Boundary County (8.6) are far lower. If population density determines the risk of contracting COVID-19, the residents of these neighboring counties face a much lower risk than Kootenai County residents.

The letter mistakenly concluded that by issuing a mask mandate, the PHD treated adults like children, prompting the “defiance of orders.” And that this somehow diminished the PHD’s credibility. This is simply wrong. By mandating county residents to wear a mask, the PHD alerted us to the seriousness of the COVID-19 threat. By criticizing the mandate, these politicians undermined the PHD’s authority and prompted citizens to defy the PHD’s orders. If politicians were to respect and model good behavior, citizens might be less likely to defy the mandate. If even one defiant person were to wear a face mask when out in public, and spare one life as a result, the benefit of the mandate becomes evident.

The spread of COVID-19 throughout the White House should serve as a warning to all of us that anyone can get this deadly disease, especially those who don’t take it seriously enough to wear a mask, wash their hands, and practice social distancing. Senator Souza’s letter and the PHD’s loosening of the mask mandate encourage people to disregard the mask. This in turn, threatens the vitality of our local restaurants and businesses and our community as a whole.

The KCDCC urges Senator Mary Souza, who has degrees in nursing and health-education, and she is the Vice Chair of the Idaho Senate Health and Welfare Committee, to support policies that sustain the health and safety of her community.

And the KCDCC urges the PHD to ignore political considerations and proceed rationally on its own to ensure public safety.

Evan Koch is the current Chair of the Kootenai County Democratic Central Committee.

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