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Shiva Rajbhandari, here at age 13, wears a Babe Vote T-shirt.

Gov. Little moves Idaho back to Stage 3 of reopening, does not issue mask mandate
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BOISE — With coronavirus infections and hospitalizations surging at “alarming” rates across Idaho, Gov. Brad Little announced Monday that the state will move back to Stage 3 of its reopening and reimpose some restrictions.

He stopped short, however, of imposing a statewide mask mandate, opting instead to leave that decision to local officials.

“My fellow Idahoans, we’re in a crisis throughout the state of Idaho with regard to the pandemic,” Little declared at a press conference at the state Capitol. “Last week, things changed for the worse. Idaho is at a critical juncture. This is unacceptable and we must do more. Today I’m signing a statewide public health order moving Idaho back to Stage 3 of our statewide Idaho Rebounds plan, with some modifications.”

The governor’s new order limits indoor gatherings to 50 people or less; limits outdoor gatherings to 25% of capacity; requires physical distancing at gatherings of all types; requires masks on the premises of long-term care facilities; encourages employers to protect at-risk employees by offering telework or other accommodations; and allows bars and restaurants to operate only for seated customers at tables.

Little declared that Idaho’s economy “remains open.” Schools don’t all have to move to remote learning, he said; churches still can hold services.

Though the state has been in Stage 4 of reopening since June 13 — allowing virtually all businesses to reopen, as long as precautions are followed — Ada County was moved back into Stage 3 on June 23 by the local health district, due to community spread of the COVID-19 virus.

Idaho has reported 60,041 cases of COVID-19 as of 5 p.m. Monday. Ada, Canyon, Kootenai, Bonneville and Twin Falls counties have added more than 2,000 cases combined from Oct. 18 to Oct. 24. Idaho was averaging 46.3 new daily cases per 100,000 people statewide as Monday, up from 37 per 100,000 a week earlier.

Hospitalizations also have surged, with state figures posted Friday showing 272 Idahoans in the hospital with COVID-19, 75 of them in intensive care.

The governor was joined by two doctors at his press conference, who detailed a major COVID-19 outbreak at the Boise VA Medical Center and a situation nearing crisis levels in the Magic Valley, where St. Luke’s hospital is so swamped with coronavirus patients that it stopped admitting any pediatric patients on Friday.

Dr. Andrew Wilper, chief of staff at the Boise VA Medical Center, said, “These men and women who have sacrificed their freedom and lives for their country need your help. We have unchecked spread of COVID-19 in Idaho.” The coronavirus pandemic, he said, is “threatening our ability to maintain hospital operations. … We are working with our regional and national partners to identify health care workers to travel to Boise to help care for our patients.”

Idaho has for months left decisions about mask mandates and other restrictions to local health districts, counties and mayors across the state.

In the past week, the South Central Public Health District board in Twin Falls voted to request the governor to impose a statewide mask mandate, but voted against imposing such a mandate in its own district — even as local hospital officials pleaded with the board to take action.

Asked about that on Monday, Little said, “That’s their job.”

“Everybody in Idaho wants somebody else to do something for COVID,” the governor said. “That’s why we’re talking about personal responsibility.”

The governor said he believes “that if somebody locally asks us … to do something … the compliance rate is a lot higher.” He said, “The issue isn’t who does it, the issue is I want to get it done.”

In North Idaho, Panhandle Health District board members last week voted to lift a mask mandate in Kootenai County, at the same time they moved the county into the “red” zone for coronavirus spread and the local hospital hit capacity. One board member said he doesn’t believe COVID-19 really is making people sick.

But Wilper said Monday, “COVID is real, deadly for some, and good studies show that masks help prevent the spread.” Soon, he said, its death toll in the United States will exceed that of combat deaths in World War II. Nearly 225,000 Americans have died because of COVID-19, compared to roughly 291,500 battle deaths in WWII.

“We are in a battle with COVID-19 and we cannot surrender to this virus,” he said.

Dr. Joshua Kern, vice president of medical affairs at St. Luke’s Magic Valley Medical Center, said the situation also is worsening in Utah, and that state won’t be able to take Idaho’s overflow patients.

“Wearing masks, particularly in public, slows the spread of the virus,” Kern said. “That is unequivocal.”

Little said, “I sincerely hope that some people have finally passed the point of thinking the pandemic is not real or not a big deal, or that their personal actions don’t really affect anything. We have seen the direct impact between rising case numbers in our communities and the overwhelming impacts on our health care system, something that affects all of us, whether we have COVID or not.”

About a dozen protesters who refused to wear masks were in the hallway outside the Lincoln Auditorium as the governor announced the move; a line of Idaho State Police troopers prevented any of them from entering the auditorium. The governor’s press conference was open only to credentialed members of the news media and masks were required.

Idaho Press reporter Thomas Plank contributed.

Kuna elementary goes remote amid COVID outbreak

After three Hubbard Elementary School teachers tested positive for COVID-19, the Kuna school is holding exclusively remote classes this week.

Last week, the first Hubbard student or teacher tested positive since reopening in August, which was reported in a letter sent to parents Friday. The three teachers who tested positive were reported over the weekend after that notice was sent out, district spokeswoman Allison Westfall confirmed by email Monday. In-person classes were subsequently canceled Sunday.

On top of the three teachers who tested positive, another is quarantining, according to a press release. That’s squeezed the district’s substitute teaching pool, forcing the move online.

Multiple calls for substitute teachers have been sent out by the district this school year, most recently in the Friday letter to parents. The district currently has 30 active subs to support 10 schools, Westfall wrote.

The district first opened in a hybrid model in August, at which point all district students were given a personal device to use for online learning, including those at Hubbard who will learn remotely through Nov. 2.

As of Friday, the district has reported a total of 19 positive cases of COVID-19 — four cases in employees and 15 positive cases in students.

None of those 19 previously reported cases were traced to the school district as the source of the transmission, though it’s unclear whether the climbing cases at Hubbard Elementary are connected.

K-3 students at Hubbard and all other district elementary schools returned to in-person classes daily Oct. 5. Grades 3-5 started back full time Oct. 19 throughout the district.

The district now plans to include more in-person learning for middle school and high school students on Fridays. Previously, half of those students attended school in-person on alternating days Monday through Thursday, with Fridays entirely remote. Fridays will be added to the alternating schedule Nov. 2.

Over 120,000 Ada County voters cast ballots early so far

BOISE — Over 100,000 Ada County voters have already cast their ballots for the Nov. 3 election, according to new data from the Ada County Clerk’s office.

The Ada County Clerk’s office has been tabulating voting data online for the past month. As of Monday, 143,668 absentee ballots had been sent to voters, and 92,886 of those votes had been returned to the Elections Office.

Ada County’s early voting has seen strong turnout as well, with 30,226 voters casting their ballots at early voting locations around the county.

The Ada County Clerk’s Office also provided a breakdown of ballot requests by demographic, with people between 60 and 74 years old requesting the most ballots:

n 18-29 years old: 22,446 requests

n 30-44 years old: 38,816 requests

n 45-59 years old: 42,509 requests

n 60-74 years old: 49,780 requests

n 75+ years old: 20,522 requests

Interestingly, Ada County has a large number of unaffiliated voters requesting ballots. Registered Republicans requested 69,138 ballots, while unaffiliated voters requested 60,257 ballots. Registered Democrats requested 43,101 ballots, while Libertarian and Constitution Party voters only requested 1,500 ballots in total.