The biggest stories in Idaho last week — a two-day “sickout” by West Ada teachers, hospitals in some parts of the state overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients — all had to do with coronavirus.
While this isn’t the type of thing I usually write about in this column, it is very much a political story in the sense that the official response to coronavirus has become one of the most divisive issues in the state and will likely dominate much of next year’s legislative session. When Gov. Brad Little lifted most statewide coronavirus restrictions this spring, he put responsibility going forward in the hands of local health districts and has since resisted calls for a statewide mask mandate or other regulations, saying they should be local decisions and emphasizing voluntary compliance. Last week Little urged people to exercise personal responsibility in the face of rising COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations.
“This is about personal responsibility — something Idaho is all about,” Little said. “Wear a mask. Watch your distance from others. Wash your hands. Do these things so our kids can stay in school, our loved ones stay safe, and our economy can continue to prosper.”
While a few cities and public health districts have passed mask mandates (there is one in effect in Bonneville County at the moment), others have resisted them, including in areas with a high number of cases. On Wednesday, the South Central Public Health District board voted against a mask mandate for the entire region, instead opting to send Little a letter urging him to implement a statewide mask mandate and promulgate gathering size limits.
Hospitals in the Magic Valley are feeling the strain from the rising number of cases; St. Luke’s Magic Valley announced Friday it could no longer admit children due to the increase in coronavirus patients and would be sending them to Boise instead. North Idaho’s Kootenai Health is similarly stressed; the hospital system said on Wednesday it was at 99% capacity and would have to start sending patients to Portland or Seattle if things didn’t improve. On Thursday, the Panhandle Health District voted to rescind the mask mandate in effect for Kootenai County. Rep. Tony Wisniewski, R-Post Falls, questioned why masks were mandated for everybody when older people are the most likely to be affected by COVID-19.
“In Germany, where my parents were living during World War II, it was a law that you had to report a Jewish neighbor,” Wisniewksi said, according to the Bonner County Daily Bee. “A law is not necessarily a good thing just because it’s mandated.”
Wisniewski is far from the only person to see shades of the Third Reich in government-mandated coronavirus restrictions. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard others making the same analogy and could point to many other examples, from protesters at the special session in August screaming Nazi references at state troopers to other lawmakers such as Rep. Heather Scott, R-Blanchard, who in April said people were calling Little “Little Hitler” due to his stay-home order and compared the treatment of nonessential workers to that of people who were killed during the Holocaust.
Rep. Laurie Lickley, a Magic Valley Republican whose son Cole tested positive for COVID-19 in March and spent months recovering from it, posted a video on Twitter decrying the politicization of coronavirus safety precautions and urging people to wear masks that had racked up 9,000 views as of this writing. Lickley is also one of the few Republican lawmakers who consistently wore a mask during the special session. In her video, she asked her colleagues to follow her lead in encouraging people to behave responsibly.
“Are we pro-life until we’re not?” Lickley asked. “We have gone backwards and are thumbing our noses at the health professionals, the very health professionals we need to be working with.”
Early voting is off to a busy start in eastern Idaho and with a week to go has already exceeded the number of people who voted early in 2016. On Monday state Republican Chairman Tom Luna sent out a press release criticizing Democratic U.S. Senate nominee Paulette Jordan on numerous grounds, including accusing her of not supporting gun rights and referring back to a comment she made during her 2018 gubernatorial run that the AR-15 doesn’t have a place in Idaho.
“As a typical liberal, Paulette refuses to support the Second Amendment, however, she always travels with armed security,” Luna wrote. “It’s OK for her to be surrounded by armed protection, but apparently she does not feel the same way towards American citizens.”
Jordan is running against incumbent U.S. Sen. Jim Risch, who has been endorsed by the National Rifle Association and has emphasized his support for gun rights in one of his TV ads this year. On Friday Jordan sent out a statement emphasizing her support for the Second Amendment, saying she owns and shoots guns. (Her campaign’s first TV ad features her firing a handgun at a target and bragging about her marksmanship.)
“Like my neighbors, I grew up learning to respect the power of guns, and that if you’re going to carry a gun, you should have appropriate training to do so,” she said.
Jordan said she supports universal background checks and “red flag laws” that allow court orders temporarily taking guns from people who are deemed to pose a danger to themselves or others, but that she opposes assault weapons bans or limits on magazine sizes.
“I won’t let anyone take your guns,” she said. “I will always support the safe use of them.”
Reporter Nathan Brown can be reached at 208-542-6757. Follow him on Twitter: @NateBrownNews.
By: Nathan Brown