SWDH Meeting 11/17

A screen grab of a meeting held by Southwest District Health officials Nov. 17.

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The governor’s office has issued new guidance to state and local government agencies regarding the application of the new 10-person cap on public or private gatherings to government meetings. The new public health order, issued by Gov. Brad Little last Friday, came in response to skyrocketing rates of COVID-19 in Idaho and fast-depleting hospital capacity to treat the sick.

“The Stay Healthy Order’s 10-person limit applies to public meetings,” the guidance states. It also notes that to comply with the Idaho Open Meeting Law, agencies must provide a physical location with at least one board member or agency official present where members of the public can come observe their meetings – but if that’s not sufficient capacity for all those who want to attend, especially given the limits, “The political subdivision should ensure that the meeting is available remotely to the public, i.e. by phone or online.”

That requirement under the Open Meeting Law, for the physical location, was waived by executive order during the early part of the COVID-19 pandemic, but that order expired over the summer. Now, all portions of the Idaho Open Meeting Law are again in full effect. “Careful consideration and planning should be made to ensure that the public continues to have access to observe all public meetings,” the guidance memo states.

The guidance also notes that government agencies have authority under existing state law to impose “rules or regulations to protect the public health and to ensure the orderly conduct of public meetings.” They also have authority to allow more than 10 people at a meeting if they deem it necessary to allow “political expression,” but they still must comply with rules requiring social distancing and sanitation, which in that case could require moving the meeting to a larger facility with more space, or taking other measures such as allowing attendees into the room only when it's their turn to testify, then having them leave and watch or listen from elsewhere.

You can see the full guidance, along with a memo from the Idaho Attorney General's office on local agencies' legal powers to impose safety-related limits, online here at the state's coronavirus information website.

Betsy Z. Russell is the Boise bureau chief and state capitol reporter for the Idaho Press and Adams Publishing Group. Follow her on Twitter at @BetsyZRussell.

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