BOISE — With nearly 2,000 cases of the coronavirus reported in Idaho, Gov. Brad Little announced Thursday that the state will move forward with the first stage of its plan to reopen businesses.
Little’s four-stage plan was announced last week, and on Friday, Idahoans will enter stage one. Some businesses, including retail, will be able to reopen.
The plan, called Idaho Rebounds, aligns with federal recommendations, requiring the state to meet certain public health criteria before reopening. The dates are estimated timelines and are subject to change based on new outbreaks.
Almost all retail stores and houses of worship will open in the first stage, which will be May 1-15. Restaurants and hair salons would open in the second stage, May 16-29. Gatherings of up to 50 people would be allowed in the third, May 30-June 12. Bars would reopen in the fourth, June 13-26.
The plan to reopen the state’s economy replaces Little’s stay-home order, which he put in place March 25 and extended through April 30.
According to the order issued Thursday, a violation of the mandatory provisions in Little’s stage-one order would constitute “an imminent threat to public health” and could lead to a misdemeanor charge punishable by a fine, imprisonment or both.
When asked about what happens if local municipalities don’t enforce the order, Little did not have a direct answer. He said he has spoken with mayors and is “hopeful” people will do the right thing.
During the Thursday press conference, multiple reporters questioned Little about the language in the state guidelines, which use language such as “encourages” rather than “mandates” businesses to comply. Little continued to stress that he believes Idahoans and businesses are self-motivated to keep people safe.
Little said he was confident that Idaho could move into stage one because he believed the state had appropriate health care capacity. He prioritizes maintaining that capacity.
“Being overrun in health care capacity is not a good place to be,” Idaho Department of Health and Welfare Director Dave Jeppesen said. “That is something that stays on my mind often.”
Stage 1 of Idaho’s plan to reopen
In stage one of Little’s plan, public and private gatherings should still be avoided. Nonessential travel should be minimized. People should still wear cloth masks and practice social distancing in public. Bars, restaurant dining rooms, large venues, hair salons and indoor gyms should stay closed — even though some such businesses have reopened already in defiance of Little’s orders, with no repercussions.
Nonessential businesses should implement plans for reopening to demonstrate owners can comply with safety protocols.
Day cares and organized youth events may reopen.
People who are considered high-risk should still stay home. High-risk people include those over the age of 65 and people with preexisting conditions such as heart disease, lung disease, asthma, diabetes and immune disorders. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides a full list of people who are at a higher risk for severe illness or death if they contract the coronavirus.
Visits to senior living facilities and congregate facilities, including jails and prisons, should still be avoided in stage one.
What the data shows
The Idaho Department of Health and Welfare’s data and data from public health districts is updated daily. Some of the key takeaways are that coronavirus has been confirmed in 33 of Idaho’s 44 counties and, while the rate of new infections has slowed, it certainly hasn’t stopped.
Idaho has community spread in 17 counties: Ada, Bannock, Bingham, Blaine, Bonneville, Canyon, Elmore, Gem, Jefferson, Jerome, Kootenai, Lemhi, Owyhee, Madison, Payette, Teton and Twin Falls.
Some counties do not have adequate testing, and Idaho must meet certain criteria before the state can move through each stage of Little’s plan.
There must be a downward trend or low numbers of COVID-19-like illness patient visits, as tracked by emergency departments, in a 14-day period, and a downward trend in new coronavirus cases or positive testing percentage.
Hospitals must be able to treat all patients without using crisis care plans, and health care providers must have an adequate supply of equipment.
Taking precautions in stage one
Little’s plan outlines a variety of precautions that should be taken for the places of worship, day cares and youth organizations that may reopen in stage one.
At places of worship, people are encouraged to wear masks or face coverings and try to remain seated at least 6 feet apart. Leaders are encouraged to put up signage and direct the flow of traffic to avoid bumping into each other. Worshipers should avoid handshaking, hugging or any other physical contact.
Leaders are also encouraged to consider altering the service to minimize contact. This would include things like avoiding a communal donation basket and instead mailing in donations or taking online donations. In some services, they could consider avoiding communion or sharing a wine glass.
Youth organizations that may reopen should practice good hygiene habits and consider minimizing the number of participants. Anyone who is sick or has COVID-19 symptoms should not attend.
Parents and guardians should minimize carpooling and try to keep activities local. Organizers should try to prevent children from sharing cups or utensils. Limiting the number of spectators watching activities or games is also encouraged.
Day cares should consider staggering drop-off and pickup times and walking children to cars, rather than bringing guardians into the building. Leaders should cancel or postpone any special events that may bring a crowd. Day care leaders also should consider keeping groups of children together, rather than letting them mix. The state also recommends trying to keep the children of health care workers or first responders together, rather than mixing them in with a large group of children.
The order continues to bar people from visiting long term care facilities, which have been hit hard by the outbreak.
During the Thursday press conference, Jeppesen said that out of Idaho’s 82 care facilities, 18 have either had a staff member or patient test positive for the coronavirus, meaning over 20% of the state’s facilities have been impacted at some point by the virus. Jeppesen added that, as of Thursday, 12 facilities are dealing with an active case.
“About 29” of Idaho’s 60 deaths have been tied to long-term care facilities, Jeppesen said.
With Idahoans eager to reopen businesses and get back to normal, some businesses question whether it’s necessary to wait through all of the governor’s stages.
According to the Idaho Department of Labor, about 1 in 7 members of Idaho’s workforce are now without employment income. Initial unemployment claims filed remained elevated in the week ending April 18, with 13,023 claims filed.
That marked a 30% decline from the previous week, but 12 times greater than all of 2019’s average, according to the Idaho Department of Labor. A total of 108,984 claims were filed in the first five weeks since Idaho’s state of emergency was declared.
Gyms and bars are supposed to remain closed until stage four of the plan.
Pushback and protests in the Gem State
Little has received resistance from Idahoans in his own party who have protested orders of any kind, questioning the legality of his actions, including comments from the state’s lieutenant governor.
Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin spoke virtually at a protest in Rexburg on Saturday, alongside Sugar City Mayor Steve Adams, Rigby Mayor Jason Richardson and Dr. Jim Brook, according to EastIdahoNews.com.
McGeachin, who owns The Celt Pub and Grill in Idaho Falls, said people need to ask Little to eliminate the stay-home order. She said she hoped to “eliminate some concerning language” about which businesses are essential.
“Is it because we, as a society, have not dug down deep enough to truly understand what these guidelines are, and that these are simply guidelines offered by our federal government and not intended to be mandatory?” McGeachin said Saturday.
Criticism of Little’s order has come from a variety of lawmakers, as well as some political groups, including the Idaho Freedom Foundation, which organized a protest April 17.
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