Idaho will move into the fourth and final stage of Gov. Brad Little’s reopening plan on Saturday, meaning all businesses can reopen this weekend, the governor announced Thursday.

Stage 4 allows nightclubs and large venues—such as sports stadiums—to reopen. Visits to nursing homes and correctional facilities may start up again, vulnerable Idahoans can resume public interactions with safety measures, and gatherings of more than 50 people are allowed with physical distancing and other precautions in place.

In a press conference Thursday, Little praised Idahoans for the progress made in slowing the spread of COVID-19 since late March, when the governor issued a statewide self-isolation order.

“There was no other way to effectively slow the spread of this disease in our state without the actions we took together,” Little said. “The no-action alternative would have been a catastrophe and ultimately would have led to deeper economic fallout than we’re experiencing today.”

Still, the governor urged people to continue practicing social distancing and other safety measures, telling reporters that Idaho nearly did not meet the criteria for moving into the final stage of reopening this weekend.

“I want to stress something very important,” Little said. “We almost did not advance to Stage 4 this week."

There were 3,260 confirmed and probable cases of COVID-19 in Idaho as of Wednesday evening, according to the state’s dedicated coronavirus webpage, including 85 deaths. On Wednesday, 40 new cases were reported statewide.

In Blaine County, there were 504 confirmed cases and 11 probable cases, with one new case reported this week. Four confirmed cases in the county were still being monitored by public health officials as of Thursday morning, according to the South Central Public Health District.

State Epidemiologist Christine Hahn attributed some of the state’s recent bump in new cases to an increase in testing, noting that Idaho has been testing a larger share of asymptomatic people, such as health-care workers. The percentage of total tests that produce a positive result has also been trending downward, Hahn said Thursday.

Still, Hahn told reporters, state officials are concerned about a potential rise in cases, especially among health-care workers, and a decrease in ICU capacity.

“We feel like we kind of squeaked under on this one,” Hahn said. “The disease is still here. It is still circulating in the state.”

Nightclubs and large venues that reopen should follow the state’s recommended social distancing guidelines, which include reduced standing room capacity for nightclubs. Long-term care facilities will also be permitted to resume visits on Saturday with safety measures in place. The state was expected to issue official guidelines for Stage 4 protocol after press time on Thursday.

“We are simultaneously nervous about that and excited about [long-term care facilities resuming visits],” Idaho Department of Health and Welfare Director Dave Jeppesen said. “We know that for many of these families, it’s been a long time since they were able to have direct contact with their family members.”

Following the Governor’s announcement, co-owner of Silvercreek Living in Hailey Justin Yarmark told the Express that the facility has already started having socially distanced visits outside. In this new stage, the facility will continue to look at opportunities to give residents “more independence and dignity” with their visitation options from friends and family members, he said.

Silvercreek has continued to accept new residents throughout the pandemic, isolating them and taking precautions to ensure the safety of other residents. After gathering input from family members, Yarmark said he’s optimistic the home will continue to take steps towards reopening to visitors while maintaining the health of their residents and following guidelines from the Idaho Department of Health & Welfare.

Yarmark added that residents are “doing quite well” inside.

A representative with The Cove of Cascadia, an assisted-living and skilled-nursing facility in Bellevue owned by Cascadia Healthcare, said the company was finalizing a plan on Thursday to hopefully allow for visitors beginning this weekend. But trying to reunite residents with family members while maintaining safety for both residents and employees presents a “complex” set of issues, Cascadia Healthcare attorney Steve LaForte said on Thursday, and the company is trying to factor in federal guidelines so that there is a plan that works with everyone. The plan was scheduled to be completed by this weekend and will reflect the specific needs and dynamics of The Cove while at the same time aligning with state and federal guidelines, he told the Express.

“Our goal is ultimately safety,” LaForte said.

In the South Central Public Health District, 76 residents and 66 staff members at long-term care facilities have contracted the disease as of Wednesday. The Cove of Cascadia hadn’t reported any cases as of May 31, according to filings with the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services. As an assisted living facility, Silvercreek isn’t included in those reports, but Yarmark said that no residents have tested positive there, either.

“We know that a case within a long-term care facility can be devastating,” Jeppesen said Thursday. “I want to be clear: we will not be opening the doors for business as normal on Saturday.”

Meanwhile, visits have already resumed in the Blaine County jail, Sheriff Steve Harkins told the Idaho Mountain Express. On June 1, the jail began to allow visits through glass or via video; visitors have no direct contact with inmates. Jail programming also resumed at the beginning of the month, Harkins said.

Starting Monday, the jail will begin accepting new out-of-county inmates from other jails again, according to the sheriff, and weekend sentences and work release programs will resume. Staff will continue to wear masks and the jail will keep screening all staff and new inmates, Harkins said, “but we will reevaluate as recommendations change.”

Fingerprinting for the public will remain by appointment only for the time being.

Email the writer: gkauffman@mtexpress.com

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