Idaho Gov. Brad Little wasn’t kidding. Fully reopening the state’s economy in the face of a persistent COVID-19 pandemic was a close call.
In fact, the same data Little used for reaching “Stage 4” — allowing large venues, nightclubs and gatherings of 50 or more — might have justified more caution.
“We almost didn’t make it to Stage 4 this week,” the governor said on June 11. “Despite the incredible progress we’ve made, there are still some Idahoans who aren’t practicing measures to keep themselves and others safe.”
Here’s how close it got. To justify reaching Stage 4, Little had to check the following boxes:
l If the number of new COVID-19 cases declined during a 14-day period, great.
But it didn’t. Cases spiked a bit during the first week of June, although the two-week trend was flat — from 49 on June 3 to 46 on June 11. But on Monday, the state reported 54 new cases.
So Little selected a more technical measurement of positive test results, which have been falling since June 3.
l If the number of hospital emergency room visits for COVID-19 decreased, fine. But the trend was hardly detectable. So Little also cited a noticeable decrease in hospital admissions.
l The state’s hospitals are in good shape. Little could note a multiprong assessment of hospital capacity — no need to resort to crisis management, adequate ventilator and intensive care unit resources and 10 days of personal protective equipment.
But there’s a stubborn pattern of health care worker infections. Since he could not claim fewer than two cases occurred during the two weeks, Little had to base his ruling on another metric — a slight decline in the overall trend.
In a nutshell, the governor chose to put things in the best light. In this case, that required him to ignore a larger pool of results — such as the overall caseloads — and draw on positive trends reflected in smaller, less reliable numbers — such as test results.
It’s also a snapshot in time.
COVID-19 symptoms can emerge two to 14 days after exposure. Little looked at trends that took shape before bars were reopened, the Memorial Day weekend and the string of Black Lives Matter rallies.
With no vaccine and a marked lackadaisical attitude, especially among younger people, a rise in COVID-19 infections has been linked to reopening of the economies of other states. Among them: Oklahoma, 185 percent new cases; South Carolina, 156 percent more infections; and Oregon, up 127 percent.
If the same thing happens in Idaho, then what?
Does anyone truly expect Little to impose new restrictions?
Ever since the Idaho Republican issued a stay-at-home order, he’s been the favorite whipping boy of the GOP majority in the Legislature. Members want a special legislative session so they can trim his sails.
His own lieutenant governor, Janice McGeachin, and his own GOP chairman, former Congressman Raul Labrador, have been knee-capping him with relish — egged on by a Trump administration that fumbled the national response to the pandemic and then undermined how the states acted.
Activists ranging from insurgent Ammon Bundy to Idaho Freedom Foundation President Wayne Hoffman have staged public protests. Bundy and his mob even showed up at the governor’s home in Emmett.
Private businesses such as the Hardware Brewing Co. of Kendrick openly flouted the law by reopening early.
And if that’s not indignity enough, Little now faces a recall effort.
Frankly, Little has done all that he can. He’s out of time and political capital.
Like it or not, the people of Idaho are on their own.
They can practice social distancing — or not.
They can wear face masks — which the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation says cuts the infection rate by half — or not.
They can continue washing their hands — or not.
And businesses can support contact tracing and encourage exposed workers to self-quarantine for two weeks with compensation — or not.
The enemy here is a virus with no vaccine. Its allies are complacency and a false sense of security.
Certainly, this is no time to let down your guard. — M.T.