Gov. Brad Little To Hand Off Idaho Coronavirus Response After Months Of Political Pressure

Jun 18, 2020

When he launched Idaho’s phased reopening plan in April, Gov. Brad Little said if cases of coronavirus in Idaho spiked, the entire state could move back through these four different stages. That no longer appears to be the case.

On a call with lawmakers earlier this week, Little was asked about his strategy to handle a resurgence in cases – most recently seen in Ada County.

According to multiple legislators on the call, the governor said decisions on future restrictions would likely take a more regional approach. 

That’s in stark contrast to what he said during an April 30 press conference unveiling his four-phase reopening plan.

“If, heaven forbid, we had a big spike in cases, yeah, the possibility could be there that we could move backwards,” Little said at the time.

When pressed further on this, he said, “It’s all relative to the magnitude of the spike.”

About a month later, when announcing bars and movie theaters would be allowed to reopen during phase three – two weeks earlier than originally planned – Little began laying the groundwork for a decentralized approach.

“I anticipate and in consultation with our coronavirus working group and other people that it'll be more regional, our reaction,” he said May 28.

Work is now ongoing between the governor’s office, the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare and the seven public health districts sprinkled throughout the state to establish the metrics and criteria that will be used to implement any further restrictions.

It’s unclear whether those metrics will match the baselines Little used to move the state through his reopening plan. It’s also unknown who will ultimately have the authority to impose new constraints on businesses or individuals.

Marissa Morrison Hyer, the governor’s spokeswoman, said more details will be announced next week.

The evolution in his approach comes after months of relentless political pressure from within the Idaho Republican Party.

Sitting lawmakers have called the governor a “mighty dictator” and compared his stay at home order to the Nazi regime murdering millions of Jews during the Holocaust, despite it almost never being enforced.

Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin celebrated businesses opening before they were allowed to under Little’s plan, visiting Hardware Brewing in Kendrick in early May, alongside state Republican Party Chairman Raul Labrador and local legislators. McGeachin and Little didn’t speak for weeks.

House Speaker Scott Bedke (R-Oakley) wrote a letter to Little on April 12, calling his statewide stay at home order “ill-advised” and that he should hand over control of the coronavirus response to regional public health districts.

While the legislature was out of session, Bedke said there was little it could do to weigh in on the matter, but warned the governor “the way you exercise legislative powers now will affect how the Legislature views those powers when it next convenes” in January.

When reached by phone Thursday afternoon, Bedke said he wouldn’t second guess the governor’s initial approach, but that delegating to the public health districts is a good strategy.

“You let them do what they do best,” he said. “This multiplies the effectiveness of both the health districts and the state.”

But this shift has taken some aback.

House Minority Leader Ilana Rubel (D-Boise) said she was “surprised” to learn that the governor’s plan has moved away from a statewide approach.

“I just hope that he is leaving all options open because we’re in very uncharted waters,” Rubel said, noting she hoped the change was data-driven rather than bowing to political critics.

The news comes as Ada County, Idaho’s most populous, is experiencing a spike in cases. State data show 94 cases of COVID-19 have been reported in the county over the past four days.

Statewide, the percentage of positive tests declined to 2.3% last week, though more than 3,000 fewer tests were completed during that time period compared to the prior two weeks.

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

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