EIPH 01.25.2021

Eastern Idaho Public Health’s board met Jan. 25 in a special meeting to address confusion over coronavirus-related gathering limits.

Regional health officials voted early Monday morning to toss all local event and gathering caps, citing confusion among school leaders over shifting public health restrictions from the state and the local agency.

In a special meeting, Eastern Idaho Public Health’s board voted unanimously to lift a restriction from its public health orders that required event organizers to limit attendance to one person per 28 square feet. The change affects five counties currently under restrictions from the regional health board.

The move comes days after the State Board of Education told schools they could let more spectators attend sports games. The agency approved a plan last Thursday to let schools either fill gyms to 40% capacity or invite four spectators per student-athlete, whichever is larger, according to Idaho Education News.

Gov. Brad Little requested that change after state lawmakers and parents pushed back on his restrictions, which previously allowed two spectators per athlete. Little carved that exemption for schools on Jan. 4, Idaho Education News reports, at the request of state education groups.

Local governments can levy stricter restrictions than the state has, unless the state bars local governments from such moves. The public must follow whatever rule is most strict.

Following the state’s rule change, district health board chairman Bryon Reed said school leaders had to decide whether to follow local or state orders.

“It was not the same across the board,” Reed said. Reed said several school superintendents told him they want to abide by the law but that the conflicting orders were confusing parents and others.

Reed said he wanted to let the governor’s order stand.

“I wonder if we’re in a place now where we need to defer to the governor’s control of this,” said Reed, who represents Bonneville County on the health board. “We took control of this last July … when the governor turned it over to local health districts and asked us to control it. And it wasn’t in conflict with us at the time. And now that it is, I just wonder if it isn’t time for us to step back and fall under the orders of the governor rather than being in conflict.”

Little’s Phase 2 restrictions in his Idaho Rebounds plan bans all gatherings of more than 10 people; religious or political gatherings are exempt. Schools have their own restrictions, which were clarified last week.

Representatives for the region’s other three largest counties seemed to agree with Reed.

Brent Mendenhall, from Madison County, said the governor “has more publicity. People are confused. They don’t know which is which. … A lot of superintendents have done their own thing anyway, so if they are more willing to follow the governor and it does not create an uptick, does not … increase cases, I wonder if we shouldn’t address our orders.”

Mendenhall said the health board was “in a very ugly rock and a hard place.”

Shayne Young, from Jefferson County, said although Little’s ban of events of more than 10 people was “unpopular” in November, it “has probably saved lives.”

“We don’t know who those lives were, but it did. And it has probably helped with the decrease,” Young said. “I think when they step in and give these other orders, it’s kind of like they step out into the forefront and that’s who’s going to be followed.”

Event restrictions were one of two aspects of the regional health board’s orders. The other is a requirement that people wear masks when they are in public places and are unable to socially distance from people they don’t live with. That was left unchanged for now, but Reed said he thinks it should be removed.

“I think the public is at a place where they’re either going to comply or they’re not,” Reed said. He credited the region’s and state’s declining infections and hospitalizations to people following public health guidelines to wear masks and maintain social distance. But, Reed said, “it’s time for the public to make the right choice on their own and do it without a health order.”

Idaho has seen its COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations decline while the nation still sees over 3,000 deaths reported each day and a more infectious coronavirus variant is found in several states, including in Teton County, Wyoming, on Jan. 16.

Over the weekend, the eight-county health district’s seven-day new coronavirus case average dropped below 60 — something it hasn’t done since Sept. 13. Local and state hospitals are seeing much fewer COVID-19 patients than they were during the spike last November and December. By Friday, more than 200 eastern Idahoans had reportedly died from COVID-19; two more deaths were reported Monday.

The board’s eight county representatives all voted to remove local gathering restrictions while the board’s physician representative Dr. Barbara Nelson abstained. She did not say during the meeting why she abstained. She told the Post Register in a text message later she thinks “we are being premature in opening things back up.”

“I’m concerned about the new variants in the virus that are reportedly more infectious. I think we have been lulled into a false sense of security with the unexplained lowering of cases and the vaccine rollout,” Nelson wrote. “I hope I am wrong.”

Idaho Education News contributed reporting.

Reporter Kyle Pfannenstiel can be reached at 208-542-6754. Follow him on Twitter: @pfannyyy. He is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.