Idaho entered Stage 3 of reopening its economy on Saturday, allowing bars to reopen, and allowing public or private gatherings of up to 50 people if social distancing can be maintained.

In a surprise announcement last Thursday, Gov. Brad Little also moved up movie theaters to Stage 3, allowing them to reopen Saturday as well, as long as they can follow COVID-19 safety protocols including social distancing.

“We were doing pretty good in the real critical issues,” the governor said. “And the other part of it is the industry came together and they said. ‘We would work under these protocols.’” He said, “I would much rather start something a little bit earlier than have to delay things.”

“We’ve been through a lot since March, when the first case of coronavirus was confirmed in our state,” the governor said. “Sadly, 82 of our fellow Idahoans have passed away after contracting this unexpected and unwelcome disease, and more than 100,000 fellow Americans have died from it.”

“Unlike the flu and related illnesses, there are still no therapeutics or vaccines for coronavirus, and we are far from achieving herd immunity,” he said. “The highly contagious coronavirus could cause serious complications in one-third of Idahoans considered at-risk if they contract it.”

Little said, “In view of the sacrifices Idahoans have made in the past two months and the care that they’ve shown for their neighbors, I’m hopeful that we’ve passed the worst of COVID-19 in our state — if we all continue to routinely practice measures to prevent its spread.”

He called on Idahoans to continue preventive measures including social distancing, hand-washing and mask-wearing, along with staying home when sick.

“Our personal actions are the most effective way to manage the virus and get our economy roaring again,” he said.

Little drew a distinction between bars and nightclubs for the Stage 3 reopening. “If you have a nightclub, you’re still in Stage 4,” he said. “If you’ve got dancing, if you’ve got higher concentrations, you’re still in Stage 4.” He said if a nightclub wanted to implement strict social distancing and forgo dancing for now, “You can move up into the bar category.”

Asked about outdoor theaters, he said, “You could have the Idaho Shakespeare Festival with just 49 people” in attendance in Stage 3. Hosting larger crowds isn’t permitted until Stage 4, he said.

The Stage 3 reopening also lifted a requirement that arrivals from out of state self-quarantine for 14 days, unless they are coming from an area with community spread.

Little made the announcement during a Statehouse news conference, in which he wore a mask that he lowered only when he was speaking. Reporters and photographers covering the event all were required to wear masks.

State epidemiologist Dr. Christine Hahn said Idaho has met all three of its criteria for moving ahead to the next stage, including showing — just barely — an overall downward trend in new cases, along with a positive testing percentage of less than 5%; it’s currently 3.37%. The others are the burden on the health care system; and fewer Idahoans arriving at the emergency room with COVID-like illnesses and being admitted to the hospital.

The final stage, Stage 4, is scheduled to start June 13 if all goes well. It would permit gatherings of more than 50 people, with social distancing requirements; would allow visits to nursing homes to resume; and would permit large venues to reopen, again with social distancing requirements.

In Stage 3, employees should continue to telework whenever possible, according to the state’s reopening plan, and employers should continue to return employees to on-site work in phases. Employees who are considered vulnerable individuals should continue to self-quarantine.

Betsy Z. Russell is the Boise bureau chief and state capitol reporter for the Idaho Press and Adams Publishing Group. Follow her on Twitter at @BetsyZRussell.

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