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With Idaho hospitals reaching capacity and reports of COVID-19 cases and deaths consistently breaking records, Gov. Brad Little announced Friday that the state will roll back to Stage 2 of its economic rebound plan.    

The modified version of Stage 2 means that gatherings of more than 10 people are prohibited—except in cases of “religious or political expression”—with physical distancing required. The 10-person limit also does not apply to schools or businesses such as restaurants or stores, Little said.  

All Idahoans are encouraged to work from home whenever possible, masks continue to be required at long-term care facilities, and bars, nightclub and restaurants will continue to operate in a seating-only capacity.

“This does not mean Idaho’s economy is on lockdown,” Little said in a press conference.

After more than four months in Stage 4, the governor announced on Oct. 26 that Idaho would move back to Stage 3, citing a growing strain on hospitals.

Little also cited health-care capacity and hospital staff availability as a reason for moving back to Stage 2. It’s “a matter of weeks” before hospitals must begin rationing care, Little said, which could mean turning away patients from emergency rooms.

Of the thousands of Idahoans that have been hospitalized with the virus, about 40 percent are in their fifties or younger, he said.

Also on Friday, Little announced that he has signed an executive order mobilizing the Idaho National Guard to assist with the pandemic response.

While Blaine County and the cities of Sun Valley, Ketchum, Hailey and Bellevue have legally required the use of face coverings in public, Little has declined to issue a statewide mandate.

“I believe we have to make a better case for people not only to wear them in a place where they might be seen by somebody in law enforcement, but where they really believe in the efficacy of the mask and the need for the mask to protect themselves and their community,” Little said Friday.

Dr. Joshua Kern, vice president of medical affairs for St. Luke’s in the Magic Valley, Jerome and the Wood River Valley, said St. Luke’s supports the return to Stage 2 restrictions.

“We continue to encourage people to examine their own behavior and the impacts we are seeing on our ability to provide health care in our hospitals and consider if they can do more to help limit the spread of the virus,” Kern said. “The governor is following the rapid rise in cases we were seeing last week and is trying to make interventions to slow the spread of the virus. In light of the impacts we are seeing on our hospital capacity in St. Luke’s, we are in favor of the interventions [Gov. Little] made.”

Kern said individual behavior is paramount in preventing the spread of the virus.

“We encourage everyone to wear a mask, limit gatherings to those in your household, stay home when sick or if they’ve had close contact with a person with COVID,” he said. “It is up to every individual to change their behaviors in order to slow the spread and have our best chance at keeping our kids in school [and] our businesses open and avoid overwhelming our hospitals.”

There were 78,279 confirmed and probable cases of COVID-19 in Idaho at the time of Little’s announcement on Friday morning, according to the state’s coronavirus dashboard. Of those, 749 people have died of the disease.

Those figures continued to rise over the weekend. By Monday evening, upwards of 5,000 additional cases came in and 14 more people had died. Of the 83,344 confirmed and probable cases recorded around Idaho, health officials were monitoring 47,051 as active on Monday.

From March through this Monday, Blaine County had tallied 1,025 confirmed and 70 probable cases of COVID-19, according to the state. The South Central Public Health District was monitoring 203 active cases.

The ongoing surge in coronavirus cases and hospitalizations that drove the governor to take action last Friday has caught the attention of local officials, including Ketchum City Councilwoman Amanda Breen.

In Ketchum, the step back to Stage 2 rules prompted the city to return to protocols for meetings implemented last spring that include holding “virtual” meetings and city officials’ wearing masks in their chambers in City Hall while participating in those meetings.

At the opening of a council meeting Monday afternoon, Breen offered words of encouragement to the community to “take care of each other” in a time when many people are coping with a variety of negative impacts from the virus and actions being taken to prevent further spread.

“It really looks like we’re probably entering what is going to be the most difficult few months of this pandemic,” Breen said. “And, I’m concerned. I’m concerned from communications I get from the public, from the coverage in the media, that, you know, people are having a really hard time. Everybody is. And we’re stressed, and concerned about whether our businesses will survive, whether we have a job, how our kids will get educated, probably not being able to see our extended families over the holidays.”

Breen said people should follow the necessary protocols to stay healthy but should also remember to stay in touch with and offer to help others.

“Check in with each other. Check in on your friends, check in on your families. It can be a pretty lonely time for a lot of people.”

Councilman Jim Slanetz echoed Breen’s comments, as did Councilwoman Courtney Hamilton.

“It’s tough for people out there right now,” Slanetz said. “Everyone’s struggling.”

The city has implemented local health orders that limit gatherings, require masks and issue specific regulations for bars and restaurants. Local health regulations that are more stringent than the state’s remain in effect.

In Bellevue, Mayor Ned Burns told the Mountain Express Tuesday that the city will not take steps beyond what the governor’s measures, though “Clearly, things are not going in a positive direction,” he said.

“It is already quite restrictive and we don’t need to go beyond that,” Burns said of Stage 2. “Unfortunately, the holiday season will be less enjoyable than we usually expected.”  

Bellevue officials plan to implement a sign campaign around the town that will advertise COVID-19 restrictions in the hope of stemming the coronavirus spread.

“This will make it more consistent for people,” said Shaun Mahoney, a restaurateur and city councilman. “These precautions are easy to follow.”

Mahoney said his namesake Main Street restaurant has been following official coronavirus precautions for more than six months now, spacing groups of customers at least 6 feet apart, requiring employees to wear masks and utilizing sanitation stations around the business. Customers must wear a mask when entering or exiting the building.

“As soon as you sit down you can take your mask off,” Mahoney said. “Our business is down about 35 percent. Now all of the sudden we are doing mostly takeout.”

He’s taking it “one week at a time,” he said, and hoping for the best. He said if more people follow the guidelines, he and other business owners will have a better chance of remaining open.

“At this point I wouldn’t be surprised if they close us down entirely like they did back in April,” Mahoney said. “I have 12 employees. If they lose their jobs and I lose my business, what is that going to do for the community?”

Mahoney does not understand the desire some people have to flout the mask requirement in public places and while around others, he told the Express. In April, he contracted the virus himself, and has had friends die from it.

“I still feel fatigue and other symptoms,” he said. “But the worst thing is that all the hospitals in the region and surrounding states are already full. That means people who have an emergency may find that there is no room for them.”

Email the writer: gkauffman@mtexpress.com

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