Idaho is still struggling to process a deluge of unemployment claims amid the coronavirus pandemic, but the state is making progress on reducing “transmissible moments” for the virus across the state, Gov. Brad Little said Thursday night.
The governor, who was joined by state Labor Director Jani Revier to respond to viewer questions on a special live “Idaho Reports” on Idaho Public TV, said, “When you talk about unemployment, there are Idaho laws and federal laws and we have to check the box and make sure any program is compliant with those laws.” That includes the new pandemic unemployment assistance program, he said, which is “brand new.”
“Over half the states have yet to make any payments” under the new program, he said, “because of how complicated that is.”
Revier said Idaho just started sending out checks under that new program. The Idaho Department of Labor also is adding and training new employees, and by next week will have 20 new workers on board, she said. Phone lines remain jammed, however.
“We simply don’t have the staff or the resources within the department to try and answer those phones quicker, so we’re pursuing opportunities outside of the department so hopefully we can do a better job here soon,” Revier said.
Little said, “It’s just a big problem, and I feel terrible about it. … Believe me, none of us are delighted in any way, shape or form, but we’re working through it.”
The topic of “transmissible moments” for the coronavirus came up several times, including in the governor’s response to a viewer from Sandpoint who questioned why restaurants with decks can start serving food and drinks on their decks as Stage 2 of the reopening plan begins on Saturday, but bars with decks can’t do the same.
“The bars, for a variety of reasons — there’s some bars that don’t quite fit into that criteria, but the transmission, the transmissible moments that exist in a bar, where people sit closer because they don’t have a table with food around them, is just a higher risk level,” Little said. “And that’s why most states have put bars out further than they have restaurants. And of course the restaurants, they all have food licenses, and we’re giving them counsel, they’re putting plans in.”
Nevertheless, Little announced earlier on Thursday that he’s altering his four-stage plan to allow Idaho bars to reopen in Stage 3, rather than waiting until Stage 4, which means they could potentially reopen as soon as May 30 rather than having to wait until mid-June.
That decision came after Little received lots of questions like the Sandpoint viewer’s. The governor said at an earlier news conference, “To be real accurate about it, it’s a little hard to determine the difference between a restaurant and a bar."
Little also received a viewer question about Idahoans not wearing masks when they’re out in public. “I advise, as strongly as I can, for people to continue with their social distancing, to wear their masks when they’re in public,” the governor said. “But you know, this is a big change. Eighty days ago, when I traveled and I saw people wearing masks, I thought, boy, they’re paranoid. But it has become an accepted standard — not statewide, but we’re getting there.”
He called wearing masks “respectful,” as the practice mostly protects other people rather than the wearers themselves. Usage, he said, has “gone up logarithmically in Idaho. We’ve still got a ways to go, and I want to do all I can to encourage it.”
Little was queried by host Aaron Kunz, who posed viewer questions that were submitted in advance, about lessons learned thus far in the pandemic.
“If we don’t learn from this, we’re missing a great opportunity,” Little said. He said a top lesson regards the supply chain for critical medical supplies such as personal protective equipment: masks, gloves, and the like.
“We are not going to be dependent upon foreign countries for the supply chain going forward,” Little said. “That’s one of the big lessons we learned in this country. ... We need to have inventory here if something happens. This was one of the worst-case scenarios we could have had.”
“There were some wise people that advised us we needed to be prepared for it, and unfortunately we weren’t as prepared as we’d all like to be,” the governor said. “But there were lessons learned, and there will be more PPE that is at a minimum inventoried, and hopefully produced here in the United States.”
A viewer asked whether people under age 50 could be allowed to return to normal activity while older folks stayed home, to establish “herd immunity” with less risk. “That’s a good question,” Little responded. He said epidemiologists initially assumed there would be immunity in those who had been infected, but now reinfections have been seen in other parts of the world. “So before we count on natural herd immunity, we need to continue to do the things we’re doing and continue to look at the science,” he said.
“The issue about 50 and younger, part of the problem there is they are affiliated with people that are in those higher risk plans,” Little said. He said he recently saw figures showing that people age 65 and older, those who take care of them, and people with compromised systems due to “diabetes, asthma, a myriad of other issues” comprise almost a third of the adult population.
So if those younger, healthier people expose those who are more at-risk, we’d be in trouble, he said.
Little also was asked about not having spoken to Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin for three weeks, during a time when she’s been openly criticizing and protesting his handling of the virus response, and whether he worries that this threatens the unity of Idaho’s executive branch.
He responded, “No, I don’t worry about that.”