By Zach Hagadone
The Panhandle Health District reported 292 new cases of COVID-19 in the five northern counties Dec. 16, bringing the total number of cases to 13,662 since virus tracking began in the spring. A total of 145 North Idahoans have so far died as result of contracting the virus, including 12 Bonner County residents — three of them in December alone. PHD reports 1,453 cases in the county to date, 411 of which are classified as active. Eighty-four people districtwide are currently hospitalized.
Idaho health officials reported that the state added 1,433 confirmed and probable cases Dec. 16, as well as 17 deaths. To date, 125,452 Idahoans have tested positive for COVID-19, resulting in 1,231 total deaths.
Meanwhile, the first batches of COVID-19 vaccines produced by drug company Pfizer and partner BioNTech made their way to Idaho on Dec. 14, with Dr. Russ McUne of Rexburg receiving the first dose of the vaccine in the state, according to Idaho Gov. Brad Little.
The Idaho Department of Health and Welfare announced Dec. 14 that it is expecting the entirety of the state’s first allocation of 13,650 doses of the two-step vaccine by the end of the week.
“We are thrilled to finally have the vaccine in hand to get vaccinations started, but we know there won’t be enough in this first shipment to vaccinate all health care workers who want it,” stated Elke Shaw-Tulloch, the state’s public health officer and administrator of the Division of Public Health, in a news release. “We are expecting weekly shipments going forward, but exact details are still being determined and will be forthcoming.”
As of Dec. 16, a total of 119 doses of the vaccine have been administered in the state.
Despite the positive news regarding the vaccine, uproar over mask wearing continues in Idaho, as Moscow police responded to an incident Dec. 10 at Tri-State Outfitters, where a group of 25 to 30 customers pushed back at store employees when asked to wear face coverings. The mask protest was apparently spurred by a Facebook post from controversial Pastor Doug Wilson, who posted the call to action on the private group “De-Mask Moscow.”
Wilson and his supporters have been vocal and visible opponents of Moscow’s mask ordinance, which went into effect in early July and was extended by city officials in September. Some previous mask protests in the university town two-and-a-half hours south of Sandpoint have drawn police, and the most recent demonstration at Tri-State Outfitters is currently under investigation, according to a Dec. 16 report from the Moscow-Pullman Daily News.
According to the paper, the store had to close for upwards of 30 minutes after the incident, later posting a handful of employees at the entrance, only admitting customers wearing face coverings.
Further south in Boise, Idaho Democratic lawmakers have requested that Statehouse leaders shut a different set of doors — postponing the upcoming legislative session until April 2021, at the earliest, citing concerns about the rapid spread of COVID-19 in the state.
According to a letter sent to GOP leadership, Democratic Minority Leaders Sen. Michelle Stennett and Ilana Rubel urged their Republican counterparts to hold off on the session — which is scheduled to open Jan. 11, 2021 — “until those Idahoans who so desire have had an opportunity to be vaccinated.”
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, more than a dozen states have either delayed their sessions, opted for virtual proceedings — even meeting outdoors — or otherwise altered how they conduct business both as lawmakers and with the public. Multiple others are still considering how to safely convene.
Little recommended Dec. 10 that legislators take seriously the idea of delaying the session, telling Idaho Ed News that the Statehouse in Boise is “a pretty good petri dish for transmissible moments of COVID.”
Yet, Idaho Republican leaders indicated Dec. 16 they will not consider a delay, with House Speaker Scott Bedke writing to Statehouse Democrats that, while, “We understand the concerns stated in the letter, and House Leadership has looked at all viable options to meet safety protocols within our existing rules … We are duty bound to follow the Idaho Constitution and the rules of the Idaho House of Representatives and will continue to work within those parameters to find the best possible solution.”
Earlier this month the Idaho House adopted identical rules as those in place during the pre-COVID session in 2020, requiring legislators to be present in their seats on the floor to debate or vote. As such, Bedke wrote, a joint resolution approved by a two-thirds majority would be needed to alter the start date and terms of the session.
Nonetheless, “We urge you not to distinguish Idaho as the most reckless legislature in America,” Stennett and Rubel wrote.
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