It takes about three hours to drive from Nelson to Sandpoint, Idaho.
The two small cities are similar: on a lake surrounded by mountains, with a mix of historic downtown, lively arts scene, varied outdoor recreation and tourism.
Nelson and Sandpoint aren’t strangers: they have had an official sister city relationship since 2013.
But the difference in the number of COVID-cases in both regions could not be starker. And the contrast in the public discourse about the pandemic is equally striking.
Idaho’s Panhandle Health Region has a population of 246,000 and 2,034 reported coronavirus cases since January. Bonner County, in which Sandpoint resides, with a population of 46,000, has 171 cases.
Just across the border, the Kootenay Boundary and East Kootenay sub-regions of Interior Health have a combined population of 155,000 and 33 reported cases between January and July 30.
As for the public discussion of the pandemic in Sandpoint, it has become inseparable from debates about gun rights and Black Lives Matter.
In Nelson, there is some debate about mask wearing, and perhaps some growing complacency about social distancing. But it is not a culture war.
The Black Lives Matter demonstration
On June 2, a group of Sandpoint teens decided to stage a Black Lives Matter demonstration, along with similar efforts in many other parts of the U.S. and the world. They gathered and marched peacefully, according to Zach Hagadone, a reporter at the Sandpoint Reader.
But the students had company. A group of people arrived, mostly men, many from out of the area, saying they were there to protect the downtown in case the high schoolers started looting and rioting.
“They came out in battle dress with lots of clips of ammunition and semi automatic weapons,” Hagedone says, “and turned downtown into an occupied zone, marching up and down with their weapons. That made a lot of those kids who took part in the protests feel very intimidated and threatened.”
There were no injuries and no weapons fired.
“They [the people with the weapons] had this unfounded notion that there’s a group called Antifa (Anti-Fascist) that is somehow infiltrating these peaceful groups of demonstrators.”
Hagadone, who grew up in Sandpoint, reflecting on the sight of armed civilian patrols in the streets of his town, says “I’ve never seen anything like that here or anywhere.”
Sandpoint’s mayor Shelby Rognstad thinks the original intent of the armed men was to keep the peace.
“At the time, riots and looting were just starting to break out in other cities around the nation,” he says. “And there was an incident in Spokane where there was some minor looting a couple of nights previously.”
But the armed men were not peaceful, he says.
“They were actively harassing and bullying citizens downtown. It’s one thing to practice your right to open carry in an open carry state, and nobody’s protesting that, but harassing and bullying is totally inappropriate and irresponsible.”
He said some of the people with guns were shouting at the young demonstrators, taking down their licence numbers and following them when they decided to go home.
When Rognstad spoke out publicly about this he says he was accused of being against the right to carry a weapon.
He said open carry is legal and common in Idaho, “but it’s always been very discreet — what I would call responsible open carry. People often will have a sidearm in their vehicle, some people even on their person, but you wouldn’t notice it.”
Rognstad says the same group, which he refers to as Second Amendment activists, is now harassing businesses who are complying with a law that says they and their customers must wear masks.
The Second Amendment is the section of the U.S. Constitution that guarantees the rights of citizens to own and bear firearms.
Fractious and crowded
This mix of tensions has led to some long and fractious city council meetings, with line-ups down the block for the public participation section, and residents and non-residents haranguing city council in what Hagadone calls “a huge, perfect storm of coronavirus anxiety, gun rights, government overreach, and anti-BLM.
“Some of those people said, ‘You saw us protecting liberty when we came downtown to make sure that Antifa is not destroying Sandpoint during a BLM protest. Now we’re going to stand up for liberty again, by saying we’re not going to wear masks. We’re not going to social distance. We’re going to oppose the governor’s reopening plan phases. We’re going to stand against lockdowns.’”
In Idaho, unlike in B.C., city councils have the power to govern such things as mask mandates and business closures. In B.C., citizens would be unlikely to pressure a city council about such issues and instead take their concerns to the health authority or the province.
Hagadone said these public presentations have taken so long that council’s regular business did not start until late in the evening, “when no one wants to be there any more.”
Peace and public safety
Rognstad says his role as mayor is to make peace and stand up for public safety.
Idaho has long been known as a magnet for a breed of survivalist that tends to favour a mix of Christian fundamentalism, libertarianism, home schooling, self sufficiency, white supremacy and gun rights.
This is an organized movement in which Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, eastern Oregon, and eastern Washington have been designated as the American Redoubt, in which like-minded people are invited to move there to prepare for an upcoming world crisis or calamitous event.
In the 1990s, a white supremacist Aryan Nations compound just south of Sandpoint gained international attention after a string of violence and court actions. The group was identified by the FBI as a terrorist threat.
“They were very, very open, very vocal,” Rognstad says. “Not trying to hide who they were or what they believe, they were trying to promote it. So I think the larger concern here is that a lot of those attitudes and beliefs and practices still exist. But now they’re more subversive and in the undercurrent, and I think they hide behind Second Amendment activism.”
He thinks being anti-mask is a more socially acceptable way for the Second Amendment rights advocates to promote their message.
His opinions mean that as mayor he has to walk a fine line.
“I’m trying to educate,” he says. “I’m trying to stand for public safety and integrity, and expose these inappropriate behaviors. But at the same time, I have to be careful not to go too far because I do also acknowledge and respect the constitution and the right of free speech as well as the right to bear arms and all of that.
“So it’s it’s a very tenuous, tense, fragile situation here.”