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House passes bill prohibiting mask mandates in Idaho

A surgical mask and a KN95 mask hang on display for sale at a pharmacy. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
A surgical mask and a KN95 mask hang on display for sale at a pharmacy. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

Bill does not include penalty for noncompliance with the law

The Idaho House of Representatives passed a bill prohibiting mask mandates for the purpose of preventing or slowing the spread of a contagious disease — a one-page bill that does not include an enforcement mechanism or penalty for noncompliance.

House Bill 631 passed by a vote of 46-24, with 12 Republicans joining all 12 Democrats to vote against it.

The legislation, sponsored by Rep. Karey Hanks, R-St. Anthony, prohibits the state government and any of its political subdivisions from mandating the use of a face mask, face shield or other face covering for the purpose of preventing the spread of disease. Political subdivisions include county and city governments, school districts and public health districts, but does not include hospitals or health care facilities.

During debate, Hanks said she was most concerned about the effects of mask wearing on children, particularly in schools. Debate focused largely on mask wearing that has been recommended or mandated throughout the COVID-19 pandemic for children as young as the age of 2, but Rep. Greg Chaney, R-Caldwell, said the bill could have much larger implications.

“We seem to be swatting at flies with a sledgehammer here, because this doesn’t say schools and it doesn’t say schools and it doesn’t say COVID,” Chaney said. “It says every branch of government under every single circumstance. … What if it’s a defendant or a subject that law enforcement is interacting with? Maybe they are HIV or Hepatitis C positive, and they are spitting at the officers. Well, I would read this to interpret that to mean that that officer would not be permitted without saying, well, this is a strong suggestion that while you are in the back of my car, please wear this mask so you can quit spitting on me.”

Several legislators continued to debate the scientific merit of wearing a mask and if it was an effective method of reducing the spread of COVID.

Public health experts with the Idaho Division of Public Health, the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare, and federal and international health advisory bodies say universal use of face coverings reduce the risk of spreading the coronavirus, and masks also reduce the risk of inhaling an infectious dose of the airborne virus. Health authorities now recommend the use of masks that can filter small particles, such as N95 and KN95 respirators, when in shared public areas that are enclosed, or crowded outdoor areas.

Hanks said although penalties for noncompliance were removed from the final version of the bill, the bill was meant to provide more freedom to Idahoans.

Rep. Tony Wisniewski, R-Post Falls, said he believes masks are socially isolating young children and leading to mental health problems.

“We are turning everyone into xenophobes. They may be trying to give us a disease, either intentionally or otherwise. We have done the best job of social isolation without going to the burka system,” Wisniewski said.

Still other Republican legislators, including Rep. Scott Syme, R-Caldwell, were frustrated by the bill, using sarcasm to express opposition to the idea.

“Why would any political subdivision want to slow the spread of any contagious or infectious disease? Who would want to do that? I mean, that’s ridiculous, isn’t it?” Syme said. “(I love this bill) because it says we’re clairvoyant. We know what’s going to happen in the future. We know there will never be another disease that we might need to have somebody say, ‘You need to wear a mask’ for. You know? That’s why I love the bill, but unfortunately, I will be voting against it.”

The bill next heads to the Senate for its consideration. If passed into law, it includes an emergency clause that would put the prohibition into effect immediately.

Idaho Capital Sun reporter Audrey Dutton contributed to this report.

The Idaho Capital Sun is a nonprofit news organization delivering accountability reporting on state government, politics and policy in the Gem state. As longtime Idahoans ourselves, we understand the challenges and opportunities facing Idaho. We provide in-depth reporting on legislative and state policy, health care, tax policy, the environment, Idaho’s explosive population growth and more. Our mission is relentless investigative journalism that sheds light on how decisions in Boise and beyond are made and how they affect everyday Idahoans. We aim to tell untold stories and provide data, context and analysis on the issues that matter most throughout the state. The Capital Sun is part of States Newsroom, a national 501(c)(3) nonprofit supported by grants and a coalition of donors and readers. We retain full editorial independence.