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Idaho moves back to Phase 2, with exceptions; Little mobilizes national guard as COVID-19 cases rise

Idaho Gov. Brad Little wears a protective mask Sept. 18 printed with his state’s flag in Boise before announcing a COVID-19 reopening plan.  (Darin Oswald)

With Thanksgiving less than two weeks away and COVID-19 cases surging, Gov. Brad Little pleaded with Idaho residents Friday to take “personal responsibility” and limit social gatherings, announcing the state will move back to a modified Phase 2 in its reopening plan.

Little announced the new phase restrictions as well as Idaho National Guard mobilization in a news conference but still refused to implement a statewide mask mandate.

The new phase restrictions focus mostly on social gatherings, limiting them to 10 people or less, with exceptions for religious or political expressions. Bars and restaurants can continue to operate if customers remain seated, other than to enter or exit.

The 10-person limit does not apply to businesses or schools, Little said.

“This does not mean Idaho’s economy is on lockdown,” Little said.

Little signed an executive order to mobilize 100 members of the Idaho National Guard to assist with pandemic-related tasks, such as mobile testing assistance, COVID-19 screenings, planning, supply distribution, or medical facility or school decontamination.

The exact missions are not clear yet, Gen. Mike Garshak, commander of the Idaho National Guard said, but they will prioritize them as they see fit.

Cases in Idaho continue to surge, with statewide daily case numbers reaching more than 1,000 every day since Nov. 3. Daily case numbers hit a new record Wednesday, with 1,693 new cases reported.

“This should come as no surprise to any of you that things are not trending in the right direction,” state epidemiologist Dr. Christine Hahn said.

The rollback will not affect schools, which are currently open for at least some in-person learning throughout the Idaho Panhandle. Schools are controlled environments, Little said, and they are not the place where the virus is spreading.

“Our kids need to remain in school for in-person learning,” he said.

The order does put some restrictions on extracurricular activities. Extracurriculars may continue, but attendance by nonparticipants must follow the guidelines in the new order, which limit gatherings to 10.

Little joined Washington Gov. Jay Inslee in urging residents to rethink Thanksgiving plans. Little said the best way to celebrate is with members of your household. Inslee asked residents to limit nonessential travel to other states on Friday.

Little’s renewed plea for limiting social gatherings comes as hospitals across the state are likely to reach capacity limits in the coming weeks.

He called the situations in hospitals “alarming.”

Hospitals statewide, including St. Luke’s in Boise, have already started pausing some elective surgeries. Just three weeks ago, Kootenai Health reported it had reached capacity to treat COVID-19 patients.

As of Wednesday, Idaho hospitals had 395 patients with COVID-19 and 96 patients in the intensive care unit with the virus, the highest numbers yet.

As of Friday, Kootenai Health had 43 COVID-19 patients, with nine requiring critical care.

Little expressed concern with growing hospitalization numbers and overworked doctors and nurses. If trends continue, he said, health care facilities will have to discontinue all but essential services within the next few weeks.

“This impacts all of us whether we have COVID or not,” Little said.

Half of Idaho residents live in a place with some sort of local mask mandate, such as Coeur d’Alene.

However, Little still refused to enforce a statewide mask mandate, saying he does not necessarily think it’s the most effective way to go about it, as some people still refuse to wear them.

Little did admit he could have been doing a better job at urging residents to wear them.

In Friday’s news conference, he brought a young COVID-19 patient from July who is still experiencing complications and a health care provider to help get his message across to residents.

Little said he’s hopeful mask compliance will get better.

“I see face coverings much more prevalent now than I did not too long ago,” he said.

Hahn, who discussed possible vaccine distribution in the state, still urged residents to do their part, as it could still be months before a vaccine is ready.

“Please help others,” she said. “We need everybody to do their part.”

Laurel Demkovich's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.