While acting as governor in Gov. Brad Little’s absence on Thursday, Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin issued an executive order prohibiting mask mandates issued by the state or its “political subdivisions,” including public schools, counties, cities and public health districts. It also extends to state boards, commissions, departments and divisions.
The order is effective as of 11 a.m.
“It really is a response to what I’ve been hearing from people across Idaho,” McGeachin told the Idaho Capital Sun. “We’re in a different place today than we were a few months back. The vaccine is readily available to whoever wants to have it, and the protection is there.”
From her perspective, McGeachin said masking is an issue of respect and personal accountability. Part of her reason for issuing the executive order was because children in schools have been forced to wear masks.
“Last week when I was on the steps of the Capitol, I had a small child come up to me and said, ‘If you are the governor of the state, would you require me to wear a mask in school?’ and that really pulled on my heart strings,” McGeachin said.
McGeachin said she did not check with schools or give them advance notice the executive order was coming.
Little’s press secretary, Marissa Morrison Hyer, told the Idaho Capital Sun via email that the governor is out of the state collaborating with other state governors, but he will be back Thursday evening.
“The lieutenant governor did not make Gov. Little aware of her executive order ahead of time,” Morrison Hyer said.
The governor’s office is reviewing the order, she said. An expanded statement from the governor’s office on the executive order will be made available after it is reviewed, according to Morrison Hyer.
“Throughout the pandemic, Gov. Little has been committed to protecting the health and safety of the people of Idaho and has emphasized the importance of Idahoans choosing to protect our neighbors and loved ones and keeping our economy and schools open,” she said. “Idahoans value local control and the local approach to addressing important issues.”
McGeachin said she has served as acting governor about five or six times in the past 2.5 years since she was elected, and this is the first executive order that she has issued.
As of 5:15 p.m. Thursday, McGeachin told the Sun she had not heard from Little about her executive order.
“I can’t speculate what (Little) may or may not do, but my hope is that he would see the value in it and let it be,” McGeachin said.
The order states individuals cannot be mandated to use a face mask, face shield or other face covering for the purpose of preventing or slowing the spread of a contagious or infectious disease. It cites serious concerns raised about “both short-term and long-term negative effects caused by wearing masks,” but does not cite what those effects would be. Medical experts have debunked claims that masks are harmful to a person’s health.
What about the mask requirement for long-term care facilities?
McGeachin said she wrote the order so that it would not apply to long-term care facilities.
“This is something that seemed very straightforward,” McGeachin said. “And the way it’s written it’s specific and hospitals and long term care facilities are exempted.”
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued guidelines recently that say people fully vaccinated against COVID-19 no longer need to wear masks. However, those without the vaccine are still advised to wear face coverings to prevent transmission of the coronavirus.
The CDC specifically exempts health care settings from the relaxed guidelines.
McGeachin’s order says the word “state” does not include federal buildings, hospitals or health care facilities.
The Sun asked the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare if the order would remove the mask requirement. The department directed the query to Little’s staff, who directed any questions about McGeachin’s order to McGeachin’s office.
COVID-19 has killed hundreds of Idahoans in nursing homes, residential assisted living and group homes. People in those kinds of facilities have been most vulnerable to the virus nationwide.
Nursing homes and hospitals are held to federal regulations, while residential assisted living facilities and group homes for people with disabilities are state regulated. However, even the state-regulated centers must meet certain federal standards to receive funds from Medicaid, which is how 65% to 68% of residents pay for their care.
“We would hope that the state wouldn’t put us in that position,” Idaho Health Care Association Executive Director Robert Vande Merwe told the Sun.
The residents at these facilities are among the most vulnerable, “and we don’t know which staff and which visitors haven’t been vaccinated,” he said. “We’ve been told to still be ultra-cautious.”
Is the executive order legally valid?
The Idaho Constitution and Title 67 of Idaho Code grants the acting governor the same power and duties as the governor in his absence. In 2019, as acting governor, McGeachin presided over a Real III Percent rally in Boise and administered an oath to the attendees to defend the U.S. Constitution.
Idaho code also gives local governments, school boards and public health boards their own set of powers when it comes to protecting the public.
School boards have a duty “to protect the morals and health of the pupils.” Public health boards have the power to “pass all ordinances and make all regulations necessary to preserve the public health.” And cities have enforcement power when it comes to those public health regulations.
Gov. Little has not issued a statewide mask mandate throughout the pandemic, and many other public entities, such as the cities of Boise and Pocatello, have removed the requirement to wear masks in public spaces as COVID-19 case numbers continue to trend downward. West Ada and Boise school districts are two examples of public entities that still have mandates in place.
West Ada School District sent an email Thursday saying it was in communication with the governor’s office and encouraged parents to encourage students to wear a mask to class on Friday.
“The governor’s office has indicated (it) will make a decision tonight or tomorrow on any action (it) make take when it comes to the executive order,” the communication from the district said.
Three schools in the Coeur d’Alene School District earlier this month instituted temporary mask mandates due to a spike COVID-19 clusters there.
McGeachin has announced she intends to run for governor in the 2022 Republican primary. Little has not announced his intentions for the election.
Correction: This story has been updated to reflect the correct location of a rally led by McGeachin in 2019.