Victor’s mask debacle reflects statewide debate

VICTOR — Victor Mayor Will Frohlich touts three factors behind his town’s recent mask mandate.

  • Keeping businesses open.
  • Keeping the local healthcare system from overloading.
  • Keeping kids in school.

But there’s an issue with the last one. The Teton School District doesn’t require masks. And while Frohlich wants kids and teachers masking up at school, the district doesn’t.

The issue last week sparked an intergovernmental spat that simmered into a legal debate over who has final say in mask requirements. And like the broader wrangle raging across Idaho and in its schools, consensus over masks in Victor’s public spaces is mixed amid a coronavirus spike that’s testing healthcare capacities in Idaho communities, again.

You can see it play out at Victor’s corner grocery store. Most of the Victor Valley Market and Deli’s customers wear masks. And if they miss the big, yellow sign near the produce reminding them to put one on, cashier Norma Chavez reminds them, and offers complimentary ones from a box next to the cash register.

“People are pretty good about doing it if they forget or don’t know,” said Chavez.

A sign inside the Victor Valley Market reminds customers to mask up.

The mask mandate’s still gaining traction in the tourist town of some 2,200 people on the Idaho side of the timber-flanked road to Jackson Hole, Wyo. Still, as of Monday, people entering its public spaces, including its K-3 elementary school, need to mask up, even if they’ve been vaccinated.

Or so says Frohlich, who issued the mandate amid a recent uptick in confirmed local COVID-19 cases.

Teton County, where Victor is situated, has 40 active COVID-19 cases, a rate of 34.4 per 10,000 people, according to numbers updated Wednesday by Eastern Idaho Public Health. It’s the region’s second-highest case rate, yet ardent pushback over masks lingers.

“Don’t suffocate my rights,” read one of several signs opposing face coverings at a Teton School District board meeting in neighboring Driggs on Aug. 23. Following a 3-2 vote from Teton trustees, who referenced mixed input from patrons, masks remain optional in the district — including at 140-student Victor Elementary, the only one of Teton’s eight schools operating within Victor’s city limits.

The local newspaper has captured dissent over masks in schools, an the issue dominating discussions in districts and charters across the state.

Some locals hoped for a different outcome.

“I’m totally pro-mask,” said Kathryn Ferris, who owns a local shop famous for its souvenirs and huckleberry milkshakes.

For Ferris, masks are an inconvenient precursor to a greater good. “I want to keep my kids in school,” she said, referencing her 12- and 14-year-old kids who attend Teton schools. “I can’t homeschool, and kids do better in-person.”

Ferris helps enforce the city’s mandate, occasionally pitching to-go orders to customers who refuse to mask up inside the store.

Yet one of her employees, local mom Jaime Feinberg, expressed more mixed feelings.

“It’s heartbreaking,” she said of youngsters forced to wear masks on their first day of school. Still, Feinberg cited greater frustration with the lingering local debate.

“I just wish we could make a decision and stick with it,” she said, adding that her four kids, all under age 13, have recently wondered why she wears a mask to work while Victor Elementary teachers don’t have to.

Across Victor’s quarter-mile Main Street, gas station attendant and “born and raised” resident Amy Buttram summed up her qualm with masks.

Amy Buttram works at a gas station off Victor’s Main Street.

“I can’t breathe very well in them,” she said, acknowledging a notice of the city’s mask mandate on the gas station’s front door.

Buttram referenced her deep roots in the community — one factor, some say, that impacts local views about masks.

Realtor Krissy Albert pointed to the town’s blend of conservative longtime locals and progressive transplants more in line with prominent views and culture of nearby Jackson Hole.

Ferris, a native Floridian, agreed.

“Some tend to cast you as an outsider,” she said.

Meanwhile, like the statewide debate over masks, issues in Victor have taken a political turn.

“The City of Victor issued a mask order,” Rep. Chad Christensen, R-Iona, wrote on Facebook recently, with an eye-rolling emoji and a thank-you to Teton Superintendent Monte Woolstenhulme for refusing to comply.

“I’m not concerned about Chad,” said Frohlich, who accused the legislator of trying to divide the community.

Frohlich, a Victor transplant who fell in love with the area during a local fishing trip years ago, acknowledged inconveniences tied to masks. But like Albert, he believes they’re key to keeping kids in school longer.

An uptick in confirmed cases among Idaho’s youth — and current restrictions on vaccinating students under 12 — fueled the city’s effort to make masks mandatory at Victor Elementary, Frohlich said.

Frohlich reiterated the need to keep kids in school and businesses open — something the town has been able to do, so far.

“Does the store have a restroom?” an unmasked woman asked Chavez back at the local market.

“No, but we do have a mask requirement,” said Chavez, pointing to the box of masks next to her register.

 

About Devin Bodkin

Reporter Devin Bodkin covers education issues in East Idaho. He is a former high school English teacher who specializes in stories about charter schools and educating students who live in poverty. Follow Devin on Twitter @dsbodkin. He can be reached by email at [email protected].

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