By Lyndsie Kiebert and Zach Hagadone
Idaho Gov. Brad Little announced June 25 that Idaho would remain in Stage 4 of the Idaho Rebounds reopening plan — which was set to expire the next day — due to an inability to meet certain COVID-19 case number criteria. As case numbers continue to rise, Little said the state will soon transition to a regional response system, by which agencies at the local level will make future calls about pandemic-related restrictions.
The cumulative number of confirmed and probable COVID-19 cases statewide reached 6,370 on July 1 — a 119.2% increase over the total a month ago on June 1. The Panhandle Health District reported a total of 341 novel coronavirus cases in the five northern counties on July 1, of which 219 were active.
While Bonner County cases increased 40% from June 1 to June 13 — rising from five to seven during that time — that number ramped up to 32 from June 13 to July 1: an increase of 357.14% in the 18 days following Stage 4 reopening.
Of those 32 local cases reported July 1 in Bonner County, 25 were active.
The decision makers
In his June 25 press conference in Boise, Little said that moving forward, restrictions might be put in place by “a mayor, the health districts, or by the [Idaho Department of Health and Welfare] director or myself.”
According to Little’s press secretary, Marissa Morrison, the omission of the words “counties” or “county commissioners” was not an accident. She referred to sections of Idaho Code that give cities, health districts and the director of IDHW the authority to impose restrictions during a public health crisis.
“[Counties] may have jurisdiction, but I am not aware of the Idaho Code that outlines that,” Morrison told the Reader.
Scott Graf, a spokesperson from the Idaho attorney general’s office, confirmed Morrison’s findings, or lack thereof. While some municipalities and government agencies have the ability under Idaho law to coordinate a pandemic response, counties do not.
This is of particular interest to residents of Bonner County, where some members of the board of county commissioners have been vocal about their opposition to Little’s actions during the coronavirus pandemic. The board issued a proclamation May 28 that alleged the governor’s Stay Healthy order for Stage 2 — and, likely, subsequent orders — was unconstitutional. Commissioners Dan McDonald and Steve Bradshaw voted in favor of the proclamation while Commissioner Jeff Connolly voted against, arguing the board was making too many “assumptions” about the governor’s intent.
More recently, Bradshaw shared an open letter to Little with the Reader on June 25 that stated Little had “caused many to lose all they had and spent their lives to build and save,” and asked the governor to either “become the honorable leader we elected you to be or step down and pass the torch to a true leader.”
Asked whether the commissioners were aware that Idaho Code granted the county no jurisdiction over local pandemic response — and that the cities and health district would instead be the entities making decisions — McDonald told the Reader in an email June 30 that he was aware, and that it “concern[ed]” him that “county elected officials don’t have similar authority.”
However, McDonald made note that Bonner County — along with four other northern counties — fund the Panhandle Health District, which does have the ability to enact health orders.
“So we do have some indirect authority, and the ability to look at the funding level if we believe the PHD is not looking at a balanced approach for businesses and individuals in the county as a whole,” he wrote.
According to McDonald, an unbalanced approach by PHD might be “threatening a business that they feel is not complying.” He added that when the governor’s order was first put in place, the county received reports of health inspectors who “had allegedly made threats to a number of businesses in that they couldn’t enforce the governor’s order, however, they would find some other violation to shut a business down that they felt wasn’t complying.”
McDonald told the Reader that he “followed up with PHD and had them correct the behavior.”
In response to McDonald’s comments, PHD spokesperson Katherine Hoyer told the Reader in an email July 1: “PHD is working closely with our community partners and the public to provide guidance and answer questions related to the Governor’s staged approach to keep Idaho opened. We work collaboratively with our city and county elected officials and will continue to coordinate with them as we monitor local disease trends and health care capacity related to COVID-19.”
Sandpoint city officials did not respond to a request for comment by presstime, though City Administrator Jennifer Stapleton delivered a detailed COVID-19 update at the July 1 regular meeting of the City Council.
Noting the dramatic increase in confirmed cases of the virus in Bonner County, and the state as whole, Stapleton said citizens have been contacting City Hall with questions about why the city doesn’t revert to Stage 3 reopening. Of critical importance is health care capacity and, following a conference call with Little during the afternoon of July 1, the state has between 40 and 50 hospitalizations, 10-20 individuals in intensive care and between five and 10 patients on ventilators.
“That’s far below our capacity,” Mayor Shelby Rognstad added. “We still have a lot of bandwidth there.”
Given that, Rognstad said that “the governor made it very clear, over and over, that he’s handing it over to the local health districts” while PHD Executive Director Laura Whalen also “made it very clear that they’re monitoring four data points.”
Those include active and community spread cases, the number of cases among health care workers, cases in long-term care facilities and the number of ICU beds.
“[PHD] are the one who are going to be providing leadership on this,” Rognstad said, and based on the four criteria, “I wouldn’t expect any action from PHD at this point.”
Still, he expressed concern not only over the rise in active cases but the potential for many more as Sandpoint swings into the summer season and asked council members to weigh in with their thoughts on how the city should respond.
“I see other communities around us that have pulled the [Fourth of July] event or have discontinued gatherings of over 50 people,” Rognstad said. “How do you feel about this and what do you think is the best path forward?”
Councilwoman Kate McAlister, who also serves as president and CEO of the Greater Sandpoint Chamber of Commerce, cautioned that if the city reverts to Stage 3 businesses will fail “and more than we could possibly think. Our economy would really fail.”
As far as allowing large events such as the Fourth of July to continue, or go ahead with city-sanctioned recreation programs in the summer, McAlister said the key is for residents to take personal responsibility for their health, first by practicing social distancing and wearing masks in public places. She also noted that the Angels of Sandpoint are not participating in this year’s Independence Day parade due to concerns over COVID-19.
Councilmen Joel Aispuro, John Darling and Andy Groat all focused on “personal responsibility” for ensuring public health, opposed the idea of instituting the rollback of Stage 4 reopening protocols and expressed enthusiasm for upcoming summertime events, including the Fourth of July.
“Let’s get ’er going,” Groat said.
Councilwoman Shannon Williamson was not present, but Councilwoman Deb Ruehle voiced grave concerns over responses to the recent growth in cases.
“If we don’t take action now, then the economic viability is going to be affected to an even greater degree and we might lose some of our citizens,” she said. “I do believe we need to shut down our recreation [programs] and return to Phase 3 and close our council meetings to the public at this time and participate remotely until we move through this pretty huge spike in cases.”
Citing the proximity of Kootenai County — which Rognstad noted has the third most COVID-19 cases in the state, behind Ada and Canyon counties in southern Idaho — Ruehle added that “I do believe we are headed down the path of overwhelming our health care capacity … [and] it’s short-sighted to believe that just because we only have a few cases here that this will not blow up significantly.”
Public testimony on the COVID-19 response included one area resident who argued that “there’s an agenda behind [mask-wearing and other COVID-19 restrictions] and it’s really sad.” Another said that antiviral herbs, vitamins and foods — as well as sunshine and fresh air — can kill or mitigate the virus, respectively.
Others who spoke at the meeting pushed back at those assertions, with one resident cautioning the community to “follow actual science” and encouraging the City Council to take a vigorous approach to handling the rise in cases — up to and including “at least some kind of mandate” to use face masks. Rognstad made it clear that no such mandate is being considered in Sandpoint.
Several other residents supported Ruehle’s cautionary note, all expressing the opinion that precautions should be taken now — while caseloads remain relatively small — to avoid even greater spread and longer-term impacts.
“I’m very surprised at the council members who seem to have forgotten that lesson already,” Sandpoint resident Matt Nykiel said.
Around the region
Elsewhere in the state, local authorities are already putting in place their own responses to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Boise State Public Radio reported June 30 that the city councils of Hailey and Moscow voted to mandate mask wearing in public places.
The mayor of Moscow went further, also mandating six-foot social distancing via an emergency order, effective this week.
In Hailey, city officials voted to require that masks be worn in retail businesses, government offices and outdoor spaces where people congregate. The Hailey mandate carries with it a $100 fine and labels failure to comply as an infraction.
BSPR also reported that city leaders in Bellevue and Ketchum — located in Blaine County, along with Hailey, where Idaho experienced its first widespread outbreak of COVID-19 in March — are also looking at ordinances mandating the wearing of face masks in public.
According to the Idaho Falls Post Register, the Eastern Idaho Board of Health cast a wary eye on the Boise area to the west during its meeting June 29, noting that while the region under its jurisdiction is still “a matter of weeks behind” the surge in COVID-19 cases seen elsewhere in the state, health officials said they would consider mandating mask-wearing in public in situations when people can’t otherwise practice social distancing.
Speaking at a weekly AARP Idaho call-in on June 30, Little put a finer point on how he views the recent upswing in cases.
“It is alarming the way the numbers are going up,” he said, according to the Idaho Press, while adding that with Stage 4 reopening, “almost every business in the state that wanted to open could open.”
“We knew this was going to happen,” he said, referring to the spike in cases. “We were hoping it would happen to a lesser degree than it is happening now.”
While the governor has shied away from calling outright for a state-level rule on mask-wearing — because “it’s just maybe not the best practice to mandate something if you know nobody is going to do it” — Boise-based KTVB reported that he didn’t completely foreclose the possibility of a statewide rule, should caseloads demand it.
“If our numbers continue to go up, we’re going to have to continue to emphasize and we may mandate it, but we really don’t have the police force to enforce it,” he said.
Meanwhile, the Spokane Regional Health District logged back-to-back record-high numbers of new COVID-19 cases June 29 and June 30, with 78 and 79 cases, respectively.
The Spokesman-Review reported June 29 that cases in Spokane County have risen more than 50% since it entered Phase 2 of its reopening plan on May 22. Across the border in Idaho, the cumulative number of confirmed cases in PHD rose from 123 on June 15 — the Monday after Stage 4 reopening — to 341 as of July 1: an increase of 177.2% in a little more than two weeks.
As Little said at the AARP Idaho call-in on June 30: “We had really good numbers three weeks ago, and I think a lot of people dropped their guard down.”
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