Not only does Idaho Gov. Brad Little have to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, he has to fight major elements of his own Republican Party at the same time.
Topping the GOP pyramid is President Donald Trump, who until recently politicized the wearing of face masks and pressured Little and other governors to reopen their economies without the necessary tools — more testing and contact tracing — to contain the infection.
State legislators are second-guessing Little with talk of trimming the governor’s emergency powers while authorizing themselves to convene into special session, leaving the governor nothing to say about it.
At the state GOP convention, some of the debate was overtly hostile toward Little’s stay-at-home orders during the spring.
This comes on the heels of public displays of defiance from firebrand Ammon Bundy, Idaho Freedom Foundation President Wayne Hoffman and Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin.
There’s also a recall movement budding. However unlikely to succeed, talk of recall tends to rattle any elected official.
Little’s polling also is suffering. As documented by the COVID-19 Consortium for Understanding the Public’s Policy Preferences Across States, 64 percent of Idahoans supported Little’s response to the pandemic in April. That dropped to 48 percent in late June.
And any pragmatic Idaho Republican is cognizant of his light grasp upon the loyalties of those voters within the closed GOP primary — many of whom distrust if not despise science and expertise, and who bristle at any instruction — whether it’s donning a mask or staying at home.
So you can empathize with Little’s plight.
But his deference to regional health districts and local officials hasn’t worked.
Ada County is under a face mask order, but Bundy has cowed the health district in Canyon County from acting, much like the Liberate Idaho group led by Heather Rogers stalled the Lewiston City Council’s face mask ordinance last week.
Nor has the emerging infection rate enlightened any of those who’ve led the resistance against the governor. As Hoffman writes elsewhere on this page, he’s not about to tell anyone to wear a mask.
Like it or not, the governor faces a choice between his personal interests and the well-being of his state — when time is running short.
No one has framed that issue better than Ken Krell, a critical care specialist at Eastern Idaho Regional Medical Center in Idaho Falls. Writing in Tuesday’s Lewiston Tribune, Krell noted Idaho’s rolling seven-day average of new cases — at 30.4 per 100,000 — ranks it ninth in the nation. That, says Harvard Global Health Institute, puts Idaho in the red zone for risk — along with other hot spots such as Florida, Arizona and Texas.
So far, caseloads are spiking in Idaho’s population centers — Ada and Canyon counties — and the numbers are trending up in the rural areas.
Idaho’s health care capacity — never robust — could easily be overwhelmed. At EIRMC, Krell says all 29 of his intensive care unit beds are filled.
A face mask mandate would work. A University of California at Berkeley study says 80 percent compliance would cut the number of cases by a similar amount. But that assumes a masking order takes effect sometime within the first 50 days of an outbreak.
Major retailers such as Walmart and Albertsons are mandating their customers and employees to wear masks. Compliance elsewhere is sporadic. By one count, only 31 percent of Idaho adults are wearing masks. It’s a stretch to envison Idaho cops handing out citations to scofflaws. Still, a statewide face mask mandate has the virtue of stiffening the resolve of retailers and businesses to enforce it.
For Little to impose a mandate means a tradeoff: It may save lives while costing the governor votes — quite possibly enough of them to send him back home to Emmett in a couple of years.
But how does Little want to be remembered?
Like Idaho’s version of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, whose refusal to impose a face mask is drawing hecklers at press conferences, or Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, who went to court to block local face mask mandates?
Or does he emulate fellow Govs. Greg Abbott of Texas or Asa Hutchison of Arkansas, equally conservative Republicans who nevertheless confronted a harsh reality?
“It’s not popular. It’s not something we want to do,” Hutchison said. “It’s not the first lever we pull. But it is one that, when the data says it’s necessary, we do it.”
Krell’s warning should not be dismissed. Time and again, he has distinguished himself as a man of conscience.
For Little, the hour has come to prove whether he is one as well. — M.T.