BOISE — Gov. Brad Little announced last Thursday that Idaho will stay in Stage 4 of its reopening plan for at least another two weeks, and said he’s collaborating with public health district directors across the state to deal with the swelling COVID-19 pandemic.

“When it comes to our public health response, our plans for school reopening, and our support for businesses across Idaho, we are focused on working closely with local officials and local leaders,” the governor said at a press conference at Central District Health offices in Boise. “Strong state-local collaboration is needed to protect Idahoans’ health, get our kids safely back to school, and continue our economic rebound.”

The governor’s comments came after Idaho’s deadliest day of the pandemic so far, with nine deaths reported on Wednesday, July 22.

He said he was traveling to four public health districts around the state on Thursday, including districts in Twin Falls, Pocatello and Lewiston, to stress the need for collaboration.

“We are not where we want to be,” Little said. “We have many things in place to get us where we need to be, with increased testing, contact tracing, availability of PPE for health care workers, businesses and schools, but the one thing that will dramatically slow the spread of virus is for every single one of us to wear a mask.”

While still resisting any statewide mask mandate — but not entirely ruling one out in the future — Little called on Idahoans to wear masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19, saying growing scientific evidence shows masks protect not only others but also the mask-wearers themselves.

“I couldn’t agree with President Trump more: Wearing a mask is the patriotic thing to do,” Little said. “Wear a mask to show you want a strong Idaho and a strong America. Wear a mask if you want our kids to go back to school in August. Wear a mask so our economy can continue to rebound. Wear a mask so we can maintain the capacity of our health care facilities, so no one has to make a difficult decision about who receives care when resources are limited. Wear a mask to protect lives.”

“There is a mounting body of science-based evidence on the effectiveness of masks in significantly slowing the spread of coronavirus,” Little said. “I understand it’s not comfortable, and it still feels strange to interact with our faces covered up. But it is a minor sacrifice we can make to restore health (and) prosperity to our state and to our nation.”

Dr. Christine Hahn, state epidemiologist, said Idaho clearly failed to meet its metrics for the state to move out of Stage 4, the final stage of the “Idaho Rebounds” economic reopening plan, which allows most businesses to open but still calls for precautions.

“We saw a definite increase in our emergency department visits for COVID-like illness,” Hahn said, “which is one of our show-stoppers as far as advancing.”

While most of the state remains in Stage 4, Central District Health has moved Ada County back to Stage 3 and ordered all bars to close.Russell Duke, director of Central District Health, noted that his district a little over a week ago issued a mask mandate for all of Ada County, but not for the other three counties within the district, Elmore, Boise and Valley counties. “This local-control concept is very much supported by myself and the board of health,” he said. “What that allows us to do is exactly what we’re seeing playing out.” While the other three counties do have coronavirus, he said, “it’s nowhere near what we are seeing in Ada County. A lot of that, we believe, is due to population density and community interactions.”

Duke said the Ada County mask order does apply to schools when they reopen, including to students; the mandate is for anyone age 2 or older to wear a mask when in public places.“I really appreciate what I’m seeing in the community here in Ada County, as well as our neighboring counties,” Duke said. “We’re starting to see a lot more compliance with face coverings. That’s a really good indicator.”Little was asked about public comments and social media posts from some health district board members around the state, including in southwestern Idaho and North Idaho, suggesting the pandemic is a hoax and that mask-wearing is dangerous.

“Health districts are either made up of county commissioners or appointed by county commissioners,” the governor said, “and that’s state law. It’s just like once in a while the governor goes off the rails. That’s a part of the electoral process.”

Asked how he’d respond., Little said, “We just continue. Occasionally I defend some of this. Because look at where we were on masks. … It was a foreign concept in the United States of America. For those of us who have the great privilege to travel internationally, we know that it’s been the norm, but it hasn’t been here.”

Originally, there was concern about saving N-95 masks for health care workers amid a shortage, he said.

“Today we know more. … So in defense of people that have been skeptics of it … there’s a reason this is called the novel coronavirus, is because we’re learning more and more about it every day. Today, the evidence about the efficacy of face masks is just way higher than it was,” he said.

Behavioral change will help, Little said.

“The evidence I’m getting back from some of these areas where they don’t have mask mandates is the percentage of the population that’s wearing masks is going up,” Little said. “We all know what’s taking place in a lot of retailers both large and small, about implementing from a private business standpoint a mask mandate. … But at some point in time, if people don’t voluntarily do it, a mandate … is very important.”

If health care capacity is jeopardized, he said. “That’s something we may have to have.”

Asked if that meant he would issue a statewide mask mandate, Little said, “I doubt that very much. What always works best is for us to work with the existing laws, which is the health districts, do all we can, and give them the information to do the right thing.”

Hahn was asked about the change in the federal reporting system for coronavirus cases, and whether that will spark changes in Idaho’s reporting. “We’ll have to see the new data first, make sure that we understand our numbers, we understand the new system,” she said. “I’ll learn more about it today. But we’re actually going to get more information than we were getting in the old system, is our understanding.”

Little said he’ll take the same approach to school reopening that he’s taking to the statewide coronavirus response now, with a state-local collaboration. “We want the default for kids to be in school,” he said. “But at some point in time, if A, parents aren’t comfortable sending their kids to school, B, educators aren’t comfortable going …”

He said the state will provide guidance and local officials will make the calls. Little also noted new research suggesting COVID-19 is more easily transmitted in youth age 10 and older, and said that could play into future decisions as well.

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.