For the sixth time since mid-June, Gov. Brad Little is keeping Idaho in Stage 4 of his reopening plan due to overall elevated hospitalization numbers statewide.
“I do not classify staying in Stage 4 as a failure,” Little said, noting that the number of new cases of coronavirus has fallen from its peak in July and August, but are still averaging nearly 240 cases per day over the past week.
The overall percentage of positive test cases has also dropped to 8% between Aug. 23-29, though the number of tests performed are at their lowest levels in more than two months.
Dr. Christine Hahn, the state’s epidemiologist, said they don’t want to overinterpret that data, but that they’re confident that Idaho’s testing capacity is better than it used to be.
“I think people are just not availing themselves of it because we don’t have as many sick people,” Hahn said.
Hospitalizations have been slowly declining across the state since Idaho set its record high of 242 on Aug. 3. ICU admissions, however, have stayed elevated – 45 patients with confirmed COVID-19 diagnoses needed critical care as of Aug. 31, the latest data available.
With Idaho remaining in Stage 4, capacity at large venues and nightclubs is still limited and gatherings of more than 50 people are allowed if physical distancing can be observed.
Tensions about Little’s handling of the pandemic boiled over last week during a special legislative session. Dozens of unmasked protesters, some of them armed, pushed their way past law enforcement officers into the House Gallery, which had limited seating to promote physical distancing.
The protesters urged state lawmakers to rescind Idaho’s state of emergency declaration, which wouldn’t have done anything to lift restrictions on businesses or individuals. Instead, Democratic legislators said it would’ve endangered more than $100 million in aid dollars from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Committee hearings were delayed for hours by these demonstrators. In all, four people were eventually arrested, including Malheur Wildlife Refuge occupier, Ammon Bundy.
Bundy was arrested twice – once for refusing to leave a committee room and again the next day after he declined to leave the capitol when he was served a no trespass order.
“I not only understand the frustration, but I share it. It has been a great challenge to balance all the public’s expectations during the pandemic,” said Little, who, along with legislative leaders, signed off on Bundy’s no trespass order.
Some state lawmakers also wanted to take up a proposal that would’ve blocked public health districts from imposing school closures and mask mandates on students, which were never discussed.
That decision to not include the bill fell to Little, who has wide powers to set the agenda for what will be discussed during a special session.
“I don’t think right now is the time to turn over the apple cart because we’ve got a crisis,” he said.
One of the biggest concerns for state officials is the upcoming Labor Day holiday. Family gatherings have been one of the biggest sources of coronavirus outbreaks in Idaho, Hahn said.
She said it’s important to not let your guard down when enjoying time with family with whom you don’t share a home: keep physically distanced, wear a mask and wash your hands to cut down the risk of transmission.
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