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As COVID-19 number keep rising, state leaders are at a loss on how to protect Idaho

Coronavirus

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A crowd gathers in the Lincoln Auditorium at the Statehouse in September during the Idaho Legislature’s special session, held to deal with some special coronavirus-related issues. Many people did not wear masks and few tried to adhere to social distancing guidelines. | Katherine Jones, Idaho Statesman

BOISE (Idaho Statesman) — The wave of COVID-19 cases comes first. Then, the wave of sick people arrives a week or two later at local hospitals. Then, as some of those patients die, there is a wave of new obituaries. That’s how it goes in this pandemic.

But when the cases and hospitalizations and deaths all surge at the same time — as is happening in Idaho — it means a tidal wave is coming. With that on the horizon, Gov. Brad Little plans to update the state Friday on his COVID-19 strategy.

Health and political leaders said in recent interviews that they’re at a loss for how to control the spread of the coronavirus, given the resistance some Idahoans have to public health measures taken by the government.

A statewide mask mandate? Revert to Stage 2 or even Stage 1 of reopening? Try a new tack?

There is only one option that doesn’t involve a government response: The virus continues to tear through Idaho until enough people learn the hard way — by losing a loved one, watching friends and family get sick, or being hospitalized themselves.

That leaves overwhelmed hospitals, Idahoans with lingering health problems, and death.

“I just don’t know that we can actually wait for that,” said Dr. David Pate, retired CEO of St. Luke’s Health System and one of the governor’s advisers on COVID-19. “It’s a very sad state of affairs.”

Mandates or education?

Some health care providers and health district leaders in Idaho are split on whether a statewide mask mandate could slow Idaho’s COVID-19 surge. Research suggests that such mandates are effective, and Idaho doctors and medical groups have been calling on Little for months to enact a mandatory mask order similar to those in effect in 34 other states.

Dr. Ronald Solbrig, a Pocatello physician who has been contact tracing and advising the Southeastern Idaho Public Health district, told the Statesman in October that he believes a mask mandate is crucial.

“The best thing would have been to have a strong federal government that didn’t leave it up to individual states, and then governors that didn’t leave it up to individual counties, that then left it up to individual county commissioners,” Solbrig said.

Numerous Idaho counties already have their own mask mandates in place. That didn’t stop Madison County, home to Rexburg and BYU-Idaho, from becoming a major COVID-19 hot spot in October.

“It’s incredibly challenging because we’re not able to enforce the mask orders in place,” Geri Rackow, executive director of Eastern Idaho Public Health, told the Statesman in a video interview. “So I believe our board’s stance is not a lot of willingness to put more stringent things in place because we can’t enforce them.”

Enforcement falls to local police and sheriff’s departments, many of which have opted for an “education” approach over arrests, fines or citations.

In Ada County, which has had a mask mandate since July, neither the Boise Police Department nor the Ada County Sheriff’s Office has issued a single citation related to face coverings. Both agencies told the Statesman they opt to educate people who aren’t following the order.

Barbara Nelson, an Idaho Falls doctor and the physician representative for the Eastern Idaho Public Health board, said education only goes so far. The pandemic has been around nearly all year.

“I think we’ve educated, educated, educated, but people can find these crazy sources on the internet that support their belief,” Nelson said in October. “I was just reading a couple public comment emails and it’s back to issues we’ve been discussing since, like, July. It seems like we’re not making much headway in education efforts.”

After a lengthy public hearing this week, the Twin Falls City Council decided not to vote on a proposed mask mandate.

“The council members are talking about the need for education to an audience that spent three hours telling them they don’t believe in masks,” Boise State Public Radio reporter Rachel Cohen tweeted during the meeting.

Meanwhile, the hospital that serves the Twin Falls region has been so overwhelmed by COVID-19 that it has been forced to send patients to hospitals hours away.

Nelson and Rackow both said they’re not convinced a mandate would change the minds of people who’ve decided they’re against wearing a mask at all costs.

“I hear a lot of talk about a statewide mask mandate,” Rackow said. “Would that give some consistency across the state? Yes, I think it would. Would it help people to follow it? I don’t think it’s going to make any difference. So I personally can’t pinpoint one particular thing that anyone can do to make the response easier.”

Solbrig said he’s at a loss. He spends most of his days talking to people who’ve contracted COVID-19 or talking to others about how they can prevent spreading it. Still, Idahoans go to bars and restaurants or have small gatherings with friends and relatives.

“I’m getting more and more pessimistic that we may not be able to get people to make a behavior change,” Solbrig said.

Local or State decisions?

Little has declined to make many statewide moves to fight the coronavirus spread after his initial stay-home order in March, instead emphasizing how different areas of Idaho have different needs.

Dave Adler, a political analyst based in Idaho Falls, said he thinks some of the governor’s deference is a response to the backlash his stay-home order inspired from his own party. Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin appeared at rallies in opposition to the order, while the Republican-dominated Legislature has moved forward with plans to limit the Idaho governor’s power in the 2021 session.

Adler said Little finds himself “in a cauldron of white-hot pressures” from high-ranking members of his own party. Local government officials’ recent refusals to implement their own mask mandates likely reinforces to Little how unpopular the idea is in some Idaho circles.

But it should also signal something else to the governor, Adler said.

“I think he can look around the state and see the opposition to mandatory masks, and that tells him that the volunteer basis is not going to conquer or even contain the COVID crisis,” Adler said.

Pate believes those opponents are a vocal minority. He thinks most Idahoans “are reasonable people, are caring people. I think our voices are just not being heard. … We need those people to stand up and contact their legislators, their representatives, their governor, their public health officials and say, ‘If you don’t take action, we are going to vote you out of office.’”

Recent political shifts could encourage Little toward issuing a statewide mask mandate, Adler said. President-elect Joe Biden has been a strong proponent of face masks, and Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, a Republican in a GOP-dominated state, recently implemented a statewide mask order.

“I would like to think the actions in Utah would constitute a heavy influence on (Little’s) thinking as he sees how other Western states can confront the issue,” Adler said.

Outgoing Senate President Pro Tempore Brent Hill, of Rexburg, said he admired the Utah governor for issuing a mask mandate.

Hill said he doesn’t know what the answer is for Idaho.

State and local leaders have to consider individual freedoms, he said. But he also doesn’t understand the resistance to “a simple process, a simple act of covering your face when you’re out in public to prevent the spread” of the virus, he said.

“We have been willing to make those sacrifices in the past to protect the vulnerable … whether that is fighting a war to protect the lives and happiness of our friends and neighbors. Or whether that’s as simple as giving to places that help the homeless,” he said. “When it doesn’t become political, Americans step up to the plate.”

Pate said he sees one politically expedient way to make a mask mandate work: If Idaho’s Republican leaders “come together and say, ‘We’re going to have each other’s back,’” they might reach a compromise on a mask mandate with an expiration date, such as one that lasts through February.

That scenario would require enough of the Republican leadership to say, “You know, now is different, now is a big problem, we’re headed for danger, we’re going to support the governor in a limited mask mandate.”

If Idaho can’t or won’t act, COVID-19 will

Idaho House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, said the pandemic illustrates a “universal difference between people and how they react to certain situations.”

Bedke, whose wife is on the board of Cassia Regional Hospital in Burley, said he has a “healthy respect” for the virus. He knows people who have developed COVID-19, as well as people who have died from it.

He said he doesn’t “have a lot of good answers” about what Idaho should do, but he’s not in favor of a mask mandate.

“In order to enforce it, you would have to cross lines that I am not willing to cross,” he said. “And I guess that leaves us with taking as many precautions as we can and — I don’t, I don’t know.”

What lines would a mask mandate require crossing?

“Are you ready to tattle on your neighbor?” he said. “You’re going to see a lot of infractions that the mask police aren’t going to see, and I don’t think we’re ready to go there as a society.”

Bedke said he thinks Idahoans are taking the virus more seriously after it hits close to home.

“You have to teach people correct principles and let them (govern) themselves. And as the anecdotal (experiences grow), people will take precautions,” Bedke said. “And I think the majority of people are taking precautions, and they’re also taking a few chances, but that comes with getting out of bed in the morning.”

Asked whether Idaho will just allow the virus to spread until enough people experience it firsthand, Bedke said, “I don’t think you can stop it.”

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