This editorial was published by the Post Register of Idaho Falls.
The 2020 special session was marked by chaos and even violence.
A group of buffoons led by Ammon Bundy and allied anti-vaccine activists, many armed, forced their way into the House gallery, breaking a glass pane, and they were rewarded for their behavior when Speaker Scott Bedke allowed them to violate social distancing measures, as they wanted — in sharp contrast to the way activists for Add the Words were treated a few short years ago. After Bundy decided to occupy a chair reserved for the press, he was arrested in hilarious fashion. Then it happened again the next day.
In some ways, this ludicrous spectacle obscured the less ridiculous, but more consequential, business in which the Legislature engaged. Fools are expected to behave like fools. Lawmakers, called into special session amidst the deadliest event Idaho has faced in a century, are expected to rise to the occasion.
The members of the House and Senate did a few things to address some of the consequences of the pandemic. But when it came to addressing the root cause — the continued rampant spread of the novel coronavirus — they likely made things worse.
By the time this editorial is published, or shortly thereafter, Idaho will reach a grim landmark: 355 deaths due to COVID-19. A few months of the pandemic will have claimed one-quarter as many of our neighbors as did the four years of World War II.
This was not inevitable. It is a consequence of failures in personal responsibility and government policy.
During the stay-home order, cases were effectively kept in check for two months. We know, therefore, it was within our capability to stop what has happened through effective policy.
Steps short of lockdowns can keep the virus in check. In the last two weeks, Idaho has had more than 4,600 new cases. The nation of Canada, with more than 20 times Idaho’s population, has had fewer than 5,600.
The worst could be yet to come. Epidemiologists warn that the true second wave has not yet arrived; we simply allowed the first to roar back to life before it was extinguished. The second, they predict, will come soon, along with flu season.
In the face of this, what did lawmakers do?
l Warned the governor that they plan to rein in his emergency powers.
l Forbade all-mail-in elections.
l Recommended more pay for poll workers.
There is merit in some of these policies. But in this pandemic, they are relatively inconsequential.
In the case of the most significant policy change of the session, extending civil immunity to businesses and schools for COVID-related lawsuits, the Legislature had an opportunity to reinforce public health guidelines regarding masking, social distancing and limitation of event sizes. Instead, it undermined them.
The original bill introduced by Rep. Greg Chaney would offer immunity to businesses if they could show they made good-faith efforts to comply with public health guidelines. The bill actually passed extends immunity except in cases of intentional, willful or reckless misconduct. If a business behaves negligently, violating a duty it owes to its customer, the customer will be deprived of the right to even seek recompense.
This provides little if any incentive for businesses to comply with public health measures such as masking orders, which police have refused to enforce in most cases.
A few things may get better because of the session. Perhaps polling stations will be a bit less overwhelmed. There may be more legislative oversight of emergency powers.
But it is likely that compliance with public health measures will fall, and the consequence will be more cases, more people left with long-term debilitating symptoms and more deaths. And if you are left with debilitating long-term fatigue, heart and lung damage — or if your loved one dies — because a business was negligent, you will find the doors to justice barred.