Idaho governor gets flak from own party on virus decisions

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Idaho Gov. Brad Little’s efforts to flatten the curve and slow the rate of infection and spread of the coronavirus after it made a rapid entry into the state last month have succeeded.

But with infections slowing, the Republican governor is facing growing unrest within his own party, and groups are chafing at his stay-at-home order and the closure of non-essential businesses despite the risk of a second wave of infections.

Calls to disobey have increased along with a smattering of defiant actions across the state.

“I think once it looks like we’ve got past the worst of it, it makes it seem like, ‘Why don’t we open back up?’ ” said Jaclyn Kettler, a Boise State University political scientist. “At the same time, there’s a lot of risk we might not fully understand.”

Idaho is unique in that most states facing coordinated pushback for virus closures have Democratic governors. President Donald Trump, playing to his base, has targeted Democratic governors who have issued shutdown orders by tweeting “Liberate Minnesota,” “Liberate Michigan” and “Liberate Virginia.”

Little hasn’t drawn Trump’s ire so far. Earlier this year, Little sat next to the president as Trump praised Little for cutting thousands of pages of regulations in the state.

Little typically listens to health experts when it comes to making decisions involving how the state should react to the coronavirus. That doesn’t sit well with some of his fellow Republicans, despite Little’s success in slowing infections.

Idaho’s first recorded infection came on March 13 in Blaine County, which includes Sun Valley Resort and its ski area that draws national and international visitors, and is thought to be a likely vector for the virus’ entry into Idaho.

Just three weeks later, on April 4, Idaho had 1,000 infections.

Little took decisive action, issuing an emergency declaration on March 13 and a stay-at-home order on March 25 after community spread was confirmed first in Blaine County and then in highly-populated Ada County, which includes Boise. Community spread is when it’s not clear how a person became infected.

Three weeks after hitting 1,000 infections, Idaho’s virus cases have risen by only 766, according to tracking by Johns Hopkins University tally on Wednesday afternoon. Fifty-one people have died.

Little last week extended his stay-at-home order for Idaho’s 1.75 million residents to the end of the April, further irritating his fellow Republicans, but lifted some restrictions on non-essential businesses. Meanwhile, nearly 100,000 Idahoans filed for unemployment benefits from mid-March to mid-April.

Little plans to hold a news conference Thursday morning where he plans to announce a four-phased approach to reopening the state, but cited his concerns of a potential second wave of infections.

“There is going to be risk,” he told the Greater Idaho Falls Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday in a teleconference without providing details of his plan. “The degree of risk in everything we do is much higher than it was before.”

Meanwhile, protests have increased, as have criticisms from other Republicans in what is one of the nation’s reddest states.

“There is a Libertarian ideology that is going to be more hesitant, or question more, the necessity of a statewide stay-at-home order,” Kettler said. “And once the caseload (of virus infections) is slowing, that’s where you can see that shifting of mindset even more.”

That has been manifested in everything from ignoring park closures to holding prohibited yard sales to protests outside the closed Statehouse in Boise.

In northern Idaho, Republican state Rep. Heather Scott last week referred to the governor as “Little Hitler” and compared the stay-at-home orders to Nazi Germany during the Holocaust.

Republican Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin, a small business owner in eastern Idaho, in an April 14 letter told Little she couldn’t support the isolation order going past April 30, which she said would be catastrophic for the economy.

“I also fear the potential of a constitutional showdown between some of the people of Idaho and your Administration,” she wrote.

And early on, Republican House Speaker Scott Bedke in an April 12 letter to Little voiced concerns about the governor’s use of emergency powers and their potential curtailment by the Legislature.

“But I am mindful, as you are, that the way you exercise legislative powers now will affect how the Legislature views those powers when it next convenes,” Bedke wrote.

Still, Little, who took office in January 2019, has been undeterred in doing what he says will get Idaho back on track fastest.

On Wednesday, he said he’d much rather be cutting ribbons and opening new businesses than issuing stay-at-home orders. But he said there’s no guarantee people will show up at restaurants or other businesses if they don’t feel safe once the reopening is underway.

“My job is to make sure that your customers have confidence, that they will show up and that they will continue to show up,” he told chamber of commerce members.

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough, that clear up in two to three weeks. But it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and death for some people, especially older adults and people with existing health problems.

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