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Tensions rise over masks as virus grips smaller U.S. cities

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — Arguments over mask requirements and other restrictions have turned ugly in recent days as the deadly coronavirus surge across the U.S. engulfs small and medium-size cities that once seemed at a safe remove from the outbreak.

In Boise, Idaho, public health officials about to vote on a four-county mask mandate abruptly ended a meeting Tuesday evening because of fears for their safety amid anti-mask protests outside the building and at some of their homes. One health board member tearfully announced she had to rush home to be with her child because protesters were banging on her front door.

In California, Sacramento County health officials had to suspend a meeting Tuesday after more than two dozen protesters pounded on the chamber doors during a debate over whether to strengthen enforcement against businesses that violate virus restrictions.

And in South Dakota, the mayor of Rapid City said City Council members were harassed and threatened over a proposed citywide mask mandate that failed this week even as intensive care units across the state filled with COVID-19 patients.

“I think that’s a sad commentary here in the middle of a global pandemic, the worst health crisis in our lifetimes, and we’re fighting over a mask,” Mayor Steve Allender said.

The tensions are flaring amid an epic surge across the U.S. in deaths, hospitalizations and infections over the past several weeks.

Deaths are running at more than 2,200 a day on average, all but matching the level seen during the last spring’s peak in and around New York City. New cases per day have rocketed to more than 200,000 on average, and the number of patients in the hospital with COVID-19 stood at almost 105,000 on Tuesday, another all-time high.

In Missouri, Greene County officials recorded 51 COVID-19 deaths in the first eight days of December as hospitals overflow and hundreds of health care workers are quarantined. The area’s two major hospitals asked the city of Springfield, the county seat, to renew the city’s mask mandate before it expires in January. The county itself does not have a mask mandate, nor does the state.

In Idaho, hospital officials have repeatedly warned they are becoming overwhelmed and could be forced to implement “crisis standards of care” — that is, reserve life-saving treatment for patients most likely to survive. Idaho health authorities reported more than 2,000 new cases on Tuesday and a running death toll of at least 1,074.

South Dakota has suffered through the country’s worst rate of COVID-19 deaths per capita over the last week, but Gov. Kristi Noem has been ardent in her opposition to mask mandates or other aggressive efforts to slow infections.

That hands-off approach drew vocal support at Rapid City council meetings, even as doctors warned that the only large hospital in the western half of the state is facing a crisis and patients are being flown out of the state. The meetings drew hours of testimony from people who said that the dangers of the virus are overblown and that mask requirements violate their liberties.

Dr. Stephen Neabore, a physician with the biggest hospital system in the region, said he has been frustrated as he tries to persuade people to wear masks. After working in New York City and studying medicine in England, he said, he sees a distinct skepticism toward government around him.

“I still see people out here that will tell me that they don’t believe it’s any worse than a common cold,” he said.

Associated Press journalists from around the globe contributed to this report.