In response to a litany of concerns from disability advocates who feared a lack of COVID-19 security would make it impossible for them to attend the upcoming legislature, House Republicans released a memo this week in which some of the actions they have taken are listed.
Idaho GOP leaders have no plans to require most people in the Capitol to wear masks, and it remains to be seen how far testimony will be permitted.
The Idaho Council on Developmental Disabilities and 30 other groups sent a letter to the legislature and Governor Brad Little last week saying that people with disabilities would like to attend the meeting but without proper COVID-19 protocols and action cannot do safely with armed “uncontrolled angry mobs” pointing to lack of mask use or social distancing during the special session in August that brought crowds of opponents of COVID-19 mandates to the Capitol.
“It’s a life-threatening activity for people with developmental disabilities who need a COVID-19 safe atmosphere to be heard during the public policy decision-making process,” said Christine Pisani, executive director of the Idaho Council on Developmental Disabilities last week.
The Republicans of the House posted a memo on Monday detailing the changes they are making to reduce the risk of infection. Hand disinfection stations will be set up around the building and 150 air purifiers have been installed throughout the building. Plexiglass shields mounted on the desk are available to legislators and legislators who wish them. The building’s ventilation system now draws in as much fresh air as possible and runs 24 hours a day to allow maximum air exchange.
“We are making sure that our elected leaders, staff and the public are not only able to participate in the Idaho Constitutional legislative process but are safe,” House spokesman Scott Bedke, R-Oakley said in a statement. “We are in the midst of incredibly difficult times, but we all have to do people’s work and face these challenges. We all have to step up instead of step back.”
While masks are available free of charge throughout the property and lawmakers are required to wear masks outside of their offices, neither lawmakers nor the public visiting the Capitol are required to wear masks. Bedke has said he refuses to issue masks for lawmakers.
The Capitol is exempt from the Boise City mask mandate and elected officials have the power to set the rules in their meeting rooms and offices. However, Attorney General Lawrence Wasden’s office in August believed that the Central District Health’s mask mandate, which covers Ada County, likely applies to public areas of the Capitol.
The memo states that the seating in the committee room has been reconfigured to allow for social distancing by both lawmakers and the public. However, whether people can testify from a distance depends on whether each legislative chamber decides to allow it. While the House Education Committee experimented with this in 2018 and 2019, remote testimony was not a normal feature of legislative operations. All committee rooms have also been set up to allow video streaming of meetings in accordance with the House Republican’s memo. So far, only some of the largest committee rooms have had video, while the rest have only been audio.
Pisani did not return a request for comment on Bedke’s response.
COVID-19 precautionary measures have become another topic that divides lawmakers by ideology. Most Republicans at the special session in August and the legislative organizing session earlier this month did not wear masks, while the Democrats all did, and many also had plexiglass shields around their desks.
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Last week, the Democratic leadership of the House and Senate asked Republicans to postpone the session until April 5, or until the COVID-19 vaccine is generally available to anyone who wants it. The GOP leadership quickly rejected this idea. Bedke said it would require the passage of a joint resolution with two-thirds support to change the start date and terms of the session. Little said last week that all Idahoans could be vaccinated in high priority groups by June 2021.
“We understand the concerns raised in the letter, and the House’s leadership has examined all feasible options to meet the security protocols within our existing rules,” said Bedke. “We are continuously working on a viable solution that will provide all members of Idaho legislature with the greatest possible convenience in the workplace.”
Ilana Rubel, Chair of the House Minority, D-Boise, and Michelle Stennett, Senate Minority Chair, D-Ketchum, wrote that delaying the session would save Idahoans having to choose between their health and participation in their government . Other states, they wrote, are either postponing their meetings or at least requiring masks and distancing.
“We urge you not to call Idaho the most ruthless legislature in America,” they wrote. “In response to our previous inquiries, we were told that the Republican leadership will not consider the mask requirements or virtual / remote procedures that some other states have chosen to implement. Accordingly, we ask you to postpone the session for a reasonable period of time to allow for a more comprehensive vaccination. “
Reporter Nathan Brown can be reached at 208-542-6757. Follow him on Twitter: @NateBrownNews.