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Member of Idaho's Coronavirus Task Force Testifies Against State Legislature In Lawsuit

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James Dawson
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Boise State Public Radio

One of Idaho’s most prominent voices of the governor’s pandemic response is supporting a new lawsuit against the legislature’s lack of COVID-19 precautions.

Dr. David Pate, the former CEO of St. Luke’s Health System, has filed a brief in support of a lawsuit by disability rights advocates against top Republican legislators.

“The current COVID-19 precautions in Defendants’ policy that provide for optional use of masks and physical distancing inside the Idaho Capitol Building is wholly inadequate, contrary to public health advice, and not safe for anyone of any age or health status,” Pate wrote.

The plaintiffs have health conditions that put them at higher risk for severe complications if they get COVID-19. They include Ahniah Selene, who has quadriplegia and asthma and Kassie Howe, who is immunocompromised. Each said they want to testify as both private citizens and advocates on issues related to health care, disability rights and housing. 

Disability Action Center Northwest, Disability Rights Idaho, Living Independence Network Corporation Idaho, Life, a Center for Independent Living and the Intermountain Fair Housing Council have also joined the lawsuit, saying their staff and supporters who want to testify before the legislature on several issues are also vulnerable to COVID-19.

The suit claims the legislature’s lack of a mask mandate and no guarantee for them to be able to testify remotely violates the Americans with Disabilities Act. Legislative leaders have said it will be up to each committee chair to decide whether they will accept remote testimony.

Two Democratic lawmakers last week filed a similar lawsuit demanding they be able to participate remotely.

Pate, who’s also a member of Gov. Brad Little’s coronavirus task force, said he fears the current legislative session could become a superspreader event, given the lack of a mask mandate.

That’s due to Ada County’s uncontrolled spread of the virus. As of Thursday afternoon, the county’s seven-day average incidence rate was at 43.8 cases per 100,000 people. Public health researchers at the Harvard Global Health Institute recommend states implement stay-at-home orders when those levels reach more than 25 cases per 100,000.

Just factoring in the 105 legislators themselves, aside from staff, security and others who come to the Capitol, Pate said it’s more than 95% likely that at least one lawmaker has COVID-19 and can spread it.

“I would not feel safe entering into the Idaho Capitol Building for the legislative session even with a mask (while many others are not wearing a mask) even at my age of 64 and even without a disability,” he wrote.

He said he fears transmission rates will balloon even higher in a matter of days or weeks for three reasons: a post-holiday surge in cases, an expectation that the number of flu cases will simultaneously rise and the emergence of a more transmissible strain of COVID-19 that’s been detected in several states. Pate said the new viral variant is 50-70% more infectious than what the U.S. has dealt with during the pandemic so far.

In a response to the lawsuit, House Speaker Scott Bedke (R-Oakley) and Senate Pro Tem Chuck Winder (R-Boise) slammed the case. They say the plaintiffs are asking the federal courts to “infiltrate the Idaho Legislature to force the Speaker and Pro Tem to override constitutionally authorized House and Senate Rules.”

They also say precautions, such as optional mask policies, hearing room capacity limits and new air purifiers are reasonable accommodations to promote the safety of those who come to the Idaho Capitol in-person. They also say that advocates may submit written testimony or contact legislators directly if they want to weigh in on pending legislation.

Both lawsuits are ongoing.

Follow James Dawson on Twitter @RadioDawson for more local news.

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