A COVID-19 outbreak in the Idaho Legislature has sidelined lawmakers there for two weeks as they try to get infections under control.
House lawmakers recessed Friday morning until April 6, with the Senate following suit shortly afterwards.
“It was not our plan to do this yet,” said Senate Pro Tem Chuck Winder (R-Boise). “We wanted to work and try and have all of our business done by a week from today.”
Speaker of the House Scott Bedke (R-Oakley) urged that the move was out of “an abundance of caution” and that it was only a pause to “break the cycle” of transmission.
As of Friday morning, six House members and two senators had contracted the virus this year. Several other staff members have also tested positive for COVID-19 since January.
“Everybody” in the House Republican caucus is supportive of this, Bedke said.
“We need to emphasize that none of the things will be left undone,” he said, mentioning efforts to cut property taxes and shifting authority from the governor to the legislature during emergencies.
Top Republicans have repeatedly declined to implement basic public health measures, like a mask mandate or requiring members to physically distance themselves from others. Instead, they cut capacity in committee rooms and installed air purifiers.
Many lawmakers frequently don’t wear masks, sometimes including Democrats.
“I have no regrets on the way we conducted the safety protocols to this point,” Bedke said, noting he still wouldn’t implement a mask mandate when lawmakers return next month.
“We’ll certainly elevate the issue with our members, but again, I will always stop short of telling them what to do,” he said. “I don’t feel like I have that authority as the speaker.”
The House began debating a measure Thursday to bar any state, local government or school district from implementing a mask mandate in the future, but suddenly tabled the bill to amend it later.
Republican lawmakers have also tried to pass laws to cut a governor’s authority during an emergency and empower the legislature. Several have denied that the coronavirus pandemic should even be considered a pandemic.
Just before the House and Senate recessed, many Republicans and some Democrats could still be seen not wearing masks on their respective floors.
House lawmakers quickly recessed, though the Senate gave time to its members to speak.
Sen. Kevin Cook (R-Idaho Falls), a freshman legislator, introduced his family in the gallery Friday morning, as lawmakers frequently do during the session.
Cook said his daughter and two friends were visiting from BYU-Idaho in Rexburg, which has the sixth highest average of daily cases in the country over the past two weeks. It was third highest in the U.S. Thursday, while Idaho Falls remains at the top.
“They don’t have anything planned tonight, so if you’ve got some cute grandsons that need a date, let me know,” Cook said, with senators laughing in the background.
Sen. Grant Burgoyne (D-Boise) said these have been trying times “for all of us.”
“I’ve felt myself feeling under siege, perhaps sometimes grouchy and grumpy at my N95 mask, which I am going to go home and put aside and not wear for at least several days and then I might think about doing something that motivates me to wear it again,” Burgoyne said.
Sen. Regina Bayer (R-Meridian) closed by wishing her colleagues a happy Easter.
“And remember what grandma says: take your vitamins – zinc, D3, magnesium and vitamin C – and then you’ll be back here healthy,” Bayer said.
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