For the third time, Gov. Brad Little has pushed pause on Idaho fully moving out of the final stage of his reopening plan as spread of the coronavirus has increased across five of the state’s largest counties.
Little described the rise in confirmed cases in Ada, Bonneville, Canyon, Kootenai and Twin Falls counties as “very concerning.”
Last week, these five counties accounted for 82% of the 3,644 confirmed cases recorded for the entire state – the majority in Ada and Canyon counties.
Little insists that his move from a state response to a regional approach is the correct path for Idaho, though many of those in charge of implementing further restrictions have been hesitant or hostile towards such action.
On Monday, Eastern Idaho Public Health issued a mandatory face mask order for Bonneville County, joining Ada County as the only two areas of the state covered under an order from a public health district.
Southwest District Health’s board rescheduled multiple meetings to discuss a possible mask mandate due to outcry from right-wing activists and vaccine skeptics, as well as threats to public safety, according to police. The board eventually rescinded the item from its agenda this week. Instead, it voted Thursday to recommend the public wear face coverings when there’s a certain level of community spread.
Each of these districts cover counties where spread of the virus has grown, with board members rejecting basic scientific facts about the virus itself or the efficacy of face coverings in reducing transmission.
Many of the members of these boards are elected county commissioners from within their respective regions. Medical doctors or nurses often make up a minority of the membership on these boards.
When asked how Idaho could shake off its rising infection rate when those who are now in charge of implementing any potential restrictions hold views that don’t align with scientific research, Little said state lawmakers designed the makeup of these boards 50 years ago.
“You know, once in a while the governor goes off the rails and that’s the result of the electoral process.”
“Occasionally, I defend some of this,” Little said, noting that wearing a mask in the United States to prevent the spread of diseases was a “foreign concept” until just a few months ago, compared to other countries.
“I understand it’s not comfortable and it still feels strange to interact with our faces covered up,” he said. “But it is a minor sacrifice we can make to restore health and prosperity to our state and to our nation.”
Little’s press conference was held at Central District Health, with stops planned at other public health districts across the state on Thursday.
Central District Health Director Russell Duke said he hopes to release metrics next week to determine whether Treasure Valley schools can safely reopen for in-person classes. Many districts plan to reopen within the next month.
“Our goal at Central District Health is to make sure that the over 75,000 students who will be going back to school here in a matter of a few weeks are able to do that,” Duke said, whether it’s online, or a combination of in-person and distance learning.
Returning to in-person classes in a matter of weeks has been a flashpoint across the country, with many parents, teachers and support staff saying schools will simply become breeding grounds for the virus.
Idaho education officials, along with the governor, drew up recommendations for how schools should safely reopen earlier this month, though local school boards would have the final say in how any policy is implemented.
The American Academy of Pediatrics initially came out heavily in support of returning students to the classroom this fall. The group maintains that should be the ultimate goal, but in a joint statement with national education interest groups released July 10, saying, “Science should drive decision-making on reopening schools.”
“Returning to school is important for the healthy development and well-being of children, but we must pursue re-opening in a way that is safe for all students, teachers and staff,” the groups said.
Follow James Dawson on Twitter @RadioDawson for more local news.
Copyright 2020 Boise State Public Radio
Member support is what makes local COVID-19 reporting possible. Support this coverage here.