Legislature reconvenes Tuesday following Statehouse COVID-19 outbreak

The Idaho House and Senate have been at recess since March 19

Although committee hearing rooms were reconfigured this year to promote physical distancing and remote testimony was often accepted, legislators still assembled in large groups (70 on the House floor, 35 on the Senate floor) where most didn’t wear masks and some continued to huddle close and shake hands or hug. (Otto Kitsinger for Idaho Capital Sun)

Follow the action: The Legislature is scheduled to reconvene at noon on Tuesday. You can watch livestreaming video of every committee hearing and floor vote online for free via Idaho Public Television’s Idaho In Session service.

https://www.idahoptv.org/shows/idahoinsession/Legislature/

The Idaho Legislature is preparing to resume the 2021 session Tuesday following a 17-day recess that legislators abruptly announced amid a COVID-19 outbreak inside the Statehouse.

Legislators shut things down March 19 after at least six House members and one staffer tested positive over the previous week and a half.

Two members of the Senate tested positive for COVID-19 earlier in the session, the Idaho Press reported.

The virus spread as 105 legislators met and voted in person five-days a week since the session convened Jan. 11. The majority of Republican legislators do not wear masks. Republicans control an 86-19 supermajority at the Statehouse. 

It’s unclear what, if any, additional measures will be implemented in the Statehouse to combat another outbreak.

During a March 19 press conference, House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, told reporters he wasn’t going to tell his peers what to do with their lives and has not issued rules or orders requiring masks or social distancing. 

Once they return, legislators have several major pieces of unresolved business to tend to before they can adjourn for the year. Several budget bills, including the state’s largest budgets for K-12 public schools, have not yet passed. 

CDC recommendations largely ignored at Idaho Capitol

Although committee hearing rooms were reconfigured this year to promote physical distancing and remote testimony was often accepted, legislators still assembled in large groups (70 on the House floor, 35 on the Senate floor) where most didn’t wear masks and some continued to huddle close and shake hands or hug. 

“For me, I guess the first few words that come right to the top for me are ‘arrogance’ and that I wasn’t surprised,” said Tommy Ahlquist, a retired emergency room doctor who helped establish nonprofit organization Crush The Curve Idaho to connect Idahoans with COVID-19 testing and vaccinations. Ahlquist also finished third in the seven-candidate Republican gubernatorial primary race in 2018. 

“Anyone who is in health care has been shaking their heads for months,” Ahlquist said. “It’s not about you getting it; it’s been about you spreading it all along.”

It’s not like there weren’t warnings, Ahlquist said. Many businesses and schools adapted and adopted COVID protocols over the previous year.

In December, Gov. Brad Little told Idaho Education News legislators should delay the start of the session or hold it remotely out of safety concerns due to the pandemic. Little changed tradition and delivered his State of the State address remotely in January, to an empty room, instead of a packed House chamber filled up by all three branches of state government. 

In January, Reps. Muffy Davis, D-Ketchum, and Sue Chew, D-Boise, filed a lawsuit requesting accommodation to work and vote remotely because their medical conditions put them at increased risk of life-threatening complications if they contracted COVID-19. Davis, a Paralympic gold medalist, suffered a spinal cord injury as a teenage skier that impairs her lung capacity. 

“But COVID-19 is a serious threat to my health,” Davis said in a written statement in January. “I want to do this job and work safely, just as many healthy state employees and private businesses already do.”

A judge declined to issue an order allowing them to vote remotely, and Chew and Davis dismissed the case in February.

The Legislature controls its own rules and procedures, and the session started on time and proceeded with in-person meetings and floor votes. 

What it’s like inside the Idaho Statehouse during the pandemic

 For Quinn Perry, it’s been a session full of tension and anxiety.

Perry and her husband have taken the pandemic seriously — masking up, maintaining distance, not going to restaurants or bars. 

She was worried about going into the Statehouse because she knew from August’s special session legislators were largely disregarding public health officials’ advice on masking and distancing. But as the policy and government affairs director for the Idaho School Boards Association, Perry felt a duty to go to the Statehouse and be an advocate for schools that have gone through the ringer during the pandemic. 

“Living in Boise, living in Ada County and working for school districts, I’ve been very used to safety precautions and very used to people being masked and people distancing, people not shaking hands,” she said. “When I went to the Statehouse, I had to quickly adjust that mindset. That (taking safety precautions seriously) is sort of the exception to the rule, in most cases.”

Early in the session, a legislator invited Perry to lunch. She declined the invitation and explained that she had her husband hadn’t been to a restaurant or a bar in a year.

“My husband is a teacher, and we have a huge sense of obligation to our community to ensure we are not responsible for the spread of COVID and shutting down schools.”

Perry said the legislator understood.

Inside the halls of the Statehouse “there typically wasn’t masking,” Perry said. But many legislators were open to remote meetings. Some posted notes on their door saying they would wear a mask if the other person was masked up and asked them to. 

But eventually Perry got to a point where she met and spoke with legislators who were unmasked. 

“We felt uncomfortable sometimes to ask folks to do it because it has been so politically divisive to wear a piece of cloth on your face,” Perry said. 

In March, for instance, a couple hundred people — including Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin and at least three legislators — attended a mask burning rally on the Statehouse steps. 

Lawmakers bring forward bills to outlaw COVID-19 safety protocols

In session, the Republican-controlled Legislature didn’t just disregard safety protocols.

GOP legislators pushed several new bills that would outlaw safety protocols.

House Bill 339, which has been sent out for possible amendments, would prohibit the state and other government organizations from mandating masks, face shields or facial coverings for the purposes of slowing the spread of contagious or infectious disease. 

House Concurrent Resolution 2 and House Concurrent Resolution 5 were designed to make the public health order limitations on gatherings and group sizes that Gov. Brad Little signed “null, void and of no effect.” So far, the Senate has not taken up either of the resolutions.

Perry had been going to the Statehouse in person almost daily. But in the last week before the session shut down, several members of the House Education Committee that Perry works closely with tested positive.

“So, (at ISBA) we made the conscious choice to not attend committee hearings in the last week,” she said. “We didn’t feel comfortable, and it wasn’t urgent.”

Late in the session Perry was able to get vaccinated. Now she feels like she will be protected when she returns. Even so, it’s been a difficult session on many levels.

“People felt early on like everything was on the brink of explosion,” she said. “Anyone could be poked and explode at any time. All of us had been facing the pandemic from different perspectives.”

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 An Idaho legislator’s experience with COVID

Rep. Lance Clow’s symptoms showed on March 10.

The Twin Falls Republican who serves as chairman of the House Education Committee said he was hoarse and had a little cough.

Earlier in the week, on March 8, Clow had talked for a few minutes with another legislator.

On March 10, Clow said the legislator he talked with earlier in the week tested positive and sent a note around asking colleagues to be alert for any symptoms.

“I ran through (my symptoms) and thought, ‘I feel this way every year,” Clow said in a telephone interview March 26.

Clow returned to the Statehouse on March 11 and the morning of March 12. He still had symptoms, so he said he left the House floor at about 11:30 a.m. March 12 and walked downstairs to get tested.

“I thought, ‘Wow, what the heck? I’d get tested so that way nobody could say I didn’t try,’” Clow said.

By the time he finished with the test, the House had adjourned so Clow went home to Twin Falls for the weekend.

At 5:30 p.m. that same day, he got the call.

He tested positive for COVID-19.

Like most legislators, Clow does not usually wear a mask when he is sitting on the House floor or in committee hearings. 

But he said he isn’t anti-mask. Clow said he would mask up when he walked into a committee room before hearings started or if he walked toward the audience during a hearing to testify on a bill. If he got up to use the bathroom, he would often grab his mask.

Inside his office, Clow would sometimes wear a mask. Prior to the session, they installed air filtration systems in legislative offices. Clow said if a person he was meeting in his office with wore a mask or asked him to wear a mask, he would do so. If they didn’t wear a mask or took theirs off, Clow would do the same.

Clow said he wasn’t opposed to getting vaccinated, either. Ten days before he tested positive, Clow said he received his first dose of vaccine. Clinical trials of current vaccines show that it takes weeks to develop immunity from the COVID-19 vaccine. Some research indicates a limited amount of immunity weeks after a first dose of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines. But the vaccines do not protect people from getting infected if they’re exposed before or shortly after being vaccinated.

“I never felt like I was endangering people,” Clow said.

“It felt safe,” he added.

In the days after Clow tested positive, Rep. Ryan Kerby, R-New Plymouth, Rep. Julie Yamamoto, R-Caldwell, and the House Education Committee’s secretary all tested positive for COVID-19, Clow said. 

“I guess the surprise was how many of them were close to me,” Clow said. “I started to feel really bad that maybe I was close enough to pass it on them. But who knows? Maybe somebody else got all of us.” 

At the end of that week, House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star, moved for the House to recess until April 6.

Clow said he feels bad if someone else got COVID from being around him. But he also said he can’t be sure where he or anybody else got the virus from. Clow brought up that it wasn’t just Republicans who tested positive. Rep. James Ruchti, D-Pocatello, announced in a March 18 tweet that he tested positive.

Ruchti does not serve on the House Education Committee.

“The Democrat was extremely careful,” Clow said, pointing out many Democrats wore double-masks and had Plexiglass barriers placed around their desks on the House floor. “This is a mysterious disease, and I wouldn’t blame anyone.”

Clow went back to Boise to get his second dose of vaccine March 22. He said he called the doctor’s office beforehand and told them he tested positive March 12. Clow said they did some checking and told him it was OK to go ahead and get his second dose.

He spoke with the Idaho Capital Sun later that same day. Clow said he was feeling good and never had more than a bad cold. He had a fever reach 100 degrees one day and said he had felt tired and achiness.

Asked if he would do anything differently, Clow said he might be a little more careful and he stressed that he feels bad others around him got sick and he feels bad for anyone who has lost a friend or loved one to COVID-19.

“I don’t think I would change a lot about my behavior,” Clow said. “They say hindsight is 20/20. It’s not. I have no clue about how I got it.”