The Twin Falls City Council abruptly reversed course Monday, voting to indefinitely table a discussion on a face mask mandate after nearly four hours of heated testimony.
The motion to table came from Councilperson Shawn Barigar, who had proposed the discussion on a face mask mandate a few weeks earlier. It passed 6-1. Councilperson Craig Hawkins voted against the motion to abandon the face mask discussion.
This week’s vote follows a motion that passed 5-2 last week, instructing city staff to draft a face mask ordinance, which they presented on Monday. Councilmembers Barigar, Chris Reid, Ruth Pierce and Greg Lanting were in favor of moving forward with a mandate the week before, but voted to table the mandate on Monday.
The ordinance would have required masks in indoor and outdoor public spaces for 60 days. It would have been punishable by a $50 fine -- an infraction. Twin Falls Chief of Police Craig Kingsbury said his officers would have leaned most heavily on education, but would have enforced the order.
“As officers of the law, we are charged with enforcing those laws that are on the books to the best of our ability, and we’ll do that,” he said.
The city council members heard from more than 60 citizens during the public meeting and also received hundreds of public comments by email.
A few large businesses expressed support for the council approving a mask mandate and taking decisive action on COVID-19, including Lamb Weston, a potato processor, and Chobani.
Health officials at St. Luke’s in Twin Falls urged council members to support to mask mandate during the meeting, making the case, as they have several times before, that the local hospital is overwhelmed by record numbers of COVID-19 patients.
“The health of your community depends on this,” said Arlen Blaylock, the chief operating officer and chief nursing officer at St. Luke’s Magic Valley and St. Luke’s Jerome.
Two times in the past 10 days, the Twin Falls hospital has closed its doors to new patients, instead sending them elsewhere. The hospital is pausing surgeries that require overnight stays and increasing how many patients each of its staff members needs to care for, at the same time as it is asking those staff members to work more shifts.
The same situation is playing out across the state and the region in places to which the Twin Falls hospital relies on being able to transfer patients.
During the council meeting, Megan Marriott described what she’s seen as a nurse in the St. Luke’s intensive care unit in Twin Falls.
“Death is not new to critical care, nor to any medical professional,” she said, “but the death that I am seeing is not like any other death I've seen before.”
Patients’ families cry outside the rooms of loved ones they cannot visit in person, Marriott said. They’re there at the windows, sometimes banging and screaming, as their family members die inside.
Still, later in the meeting, speakers questioned the hospital’s story, falsely saying it is benefitting monetarily from the crisis.
While comments the council members received beforehand were from residents both for and against masks, the vast majority of those who testified in-person Monday night were opposed to a mandate, citing a range of issues, including freedoms, mental health and many false assertions minimizing the seriousness of the pandemic.
Many said they were opposed to wearing face masks themselves.
One man who spoke in the full council chambers said he wouldn’t normally wear a mask, but was wearing one Monday evening because his son, at home, currently has COVID-19. Despite that speaker being exposed to COVID-19, the meeting continued.
Another woman said she works in an assisted living facility in Twin Falls and said she has trouble breathing with a mask, though her facility now requires them.
At first, she said people in assisted living facilities aren’t dying. As of last Friday, 322 people associated with Idaho’s long-term care facilities had died due to COVID-19.
Then, she acknowledged that some of her residents had, in fact, died. “They were old and we all are going to die of something. And it was their time,” she said.
Mayor Suzanne Hawkins cut the testimony short just before 10 p.m, and the council moved on to the next agenda item without establishing any course of action to tackle the pandemic.
Find reporter Rachel Cohen on Twitter @racheld_cohen
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