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Idaho Special Session Raises Health Concerns, Legal Questions

Emilie Ritter Saunders
Boise State Public Radio
The dome of the Idaho Capitol in Boise. Lawmakers will gather for a special session Monday and that has some health experts worried. It also might raise some legal questions.

The special legislative session that begins Monday is bringing hundreds of lawmakers and staff to Boise from around the state. Some lawmakers and health experts say the gathering is risky. It also might run into some sticky legal issues.

These off-calendar sessions are already rare. This time it’s the height of a pandemic. On top of that, they’re meeting in Boise, the epicenter of the current spike in COVID-19 cases.

“You have to be concerned about any gathering, whether it's a legislature, whether it's schools, whether it's a backyard or park, picnics,” said Dr. David Pate, a member of Idaho’s coronavirus task force. 

He says the session is all the more worrying because lawmakers are traveling to the Capitol and then back to their districts.

“(The virus) does not respect county borders, city limits, your zip code, your political party,” he said.

Senate President Pro Tem Brent Hill, a Rexburg Republican, says he’s asked all senators to wear masks.

“I really have confidence that they're going to be considerate of their colleagues as well as the public and others that are there,” he said. “I think you'll see everyone wearing masks during the session.”

We emailed all 105 state legislators asking if they were going to mask up for the session. Of the 22 who responded, 15 said they would. The rest said they wouldn't, were undecided or would wear a mask only some of the time.

Some Republican legislators have publicly questioned the efficacy of wearing masks, despite wide agreement among health experts that it slows the spread of COVID-19. A few lawmakers have even questioned whether the pandemic is real.

But we are talking about more than just a health recommendation. In Boise, masks are the law in public places — violation is a misdemeanor. And Central District Health has mandated physical distancing and no social gatherings of more than 10 people in Ada County.

“We're being asked to violate a legal health order and violation of that health order is a misdemeanor,” Sen. Maryanne Jordan (D-Boise) said.

But do those orders apply to the Capitol?

The short version is yes, Boise and Ada County laws apply. The long answer is, it’s complicated.

The law says, “Ada County and Boise City are granted jurisdiction to enforce the laws of the state of Idaho and the ordinances of Ada County and Boise city for the Capitol building.” 

But it’s Idaho State Police, not Boise police or Ada County Sheriff’s deputies, who do the enforcing. And there’s some question about what chambers are subject to local laws as opposed to House or Senate rules.

An Idaho State Police spokeswoman would not say whether or not officers would enforce the local pandemic laws. Boise Mayor Lauren McLean also wouldn’t comment for this story.

Senate leader Hill says it would take a two-thirds vote to make a rule mandating any kind of mask-wearing or social distancing. 

“I don't know if we could get a two thirds majority,” he said.

But Hill says they are taking precautions. The gallery will be open to the public but with limited seating. Same for committee rooms; and plexiglass barriers will separate some senators. But there won’t be enough for all 35 of them.

Many of the most strident critics of mask orders are in the House. Speaker Scott Bedke did not respond to a request for an interview.

This session was called to debate legislation on how to hold elections in November and civil liability. And, like seemingly everything else these days, both are connected to COVID-19.

Asked if all of that was worth the risk, Hill hedged.

“Well, that, again, is a difficult situation, and whether it's worth it is a guess is in the eye of the beholder,” he said.

For many Democrats, like Jordan, the answer is “no.”

“In addition to violating the health order, we're being asked to put ourselves at risk in the face of all science that tells us we shouldn't be doing this,” she said.

Despite the risks, worries and legal issues, both chambers are set to gavel in Monday morning at 10 a.m.

This story has been update to reflect some late responses from legislators on our mask survey.

Follow Heath Druzin on Twitter, @HDruzin

Copyright 2020 Boise State Public Radio

Heath Druzin was Boise State Public Radio’s Guns & America fellow from 2018-2020, during which he focused on extremist movements, suicide prevention and gun culture.