State Legislature

Representatives at work in close quarters on the floor of the House chambers at the Idaho State Capitol, Thursday, March 18, 2021. The Idaho Legislature abruptly shut down on Friday, recessing until April 6 amid a worsening COVID-19 outbreak at the state Capitol.

COVID-19 infections climb to 15

BOISE — The Idaho Legislature abruptly shut down on Friday, recessing until April 6 amid a worsening COVID-19 outbreak at the state Capitol.

House Speaker Scott Bedke said, “I’m not all that surprised. We knew it was a possibility, and we planned for it as best we could.”

In the past week, there have been nine new COVID-19 infections confirmed at the state Capitol: Six House members, one Senate staffer, and two House staffers. In total during the session, there have been 15, including the six House members, two senators, a total of five House staffers and two Senate attachés. In addition, at least one House member is currently in quarantine.

GOP legislative leaders declined to require masks or enforce social distancing during their in-person legislative session and refused requests to allow lawmakers to participate remotely. They did, however, begin allowing members of the public to testify remotely in legislative committee hearings, an option that proved popular.

“I am so grateful that happened, at least,” said House Minority Leader Ilana Rubel, D-Boise. “It’s concerning that legislators and staff were subjected to some pretty unsafe conditions, but I think it would have been really unconscionable if we had subjected the public to that kind of health threat just to have a voice in their democracy.”

Bedke said masks won’t be required when lawmakers return, either.

“It would’ve been nice if we could’ve finished completely, but we didn’t, and we’ll come back and finish the job,” he said. “There are many outstanding issues, including property taxes, the transportation bill, the income tax bill, the separation of powers bill just to name a few.”

“All we did was press pause,” Bedke said. “Nothing gets erased. We take it back up on the 6th.”

Lawmakers had gathered at the state Capitol on Friday morning for various meetings and committee hearings, including a scheduled 8 a.m. meeting of the budget-writing Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee. It was past time for the meeting to start and members were milling around their ornate hearing room when the word began to spread — “like a virus,” one said.

That meeting never started. Instead, Co-Chair Rick Youngblood, R-Nampa, announced that the meeting had been canceled, and the Legislature was looking to adjourn until April 6 due to the COVID-19 outbreak. “It’s just that we want to take a break and let some of this settle,” he said.

The decision was made a day after case numbers at the Statehouse rapidly climbed. Late Thursday afternoon, two more House members, one Republican and one Democrat, tested positive for the virus, on the heels of announcements that the House Education Committee chair and vice-chair were out with COVID-19, as were two freshman GOP representatives.

“It is probably prudent that the House take a step back for a couple weeks until things calm down and it’s not hot around here for COVID,” House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star, told the Associated Press.

House Republicans met in a closed-door caucus early Friday morning and resolved to ask for the recess; it takes both houses to make that official. Senate Republicans called an early halt to a Senate State Affairs Committee around 8:45 a.m. and also headed into caucus for more than an hour.

When the House convened mid-morning, Moyle, said, “Mr. Speaker, I move that the House in concurrence with the Senate do now recess until the hour of noon, Tuesday, April 6, 2021.” The motion passed on a voice vote.

A bit before 11:30 a.m., the Senate followed suit.

Senate President Pro Tem Chuck Winder, R-Boise, called the request the Senate received from the House for the recess “an unusual and kind of historic request that’s been made of us.”

“When we came here in January, we didn’t know what was going to happen,” Winder said, “and we had two members of our body come down with COVID. Fortunately, they’re both back with us. It’s an answer to a prayer that they’re here. It’s also an answer to a prayer that more of us did not succumb to the virus.”

Minority Democrats had requested GOP leaders to allow remote voting and other measures to keep lawmakers and the public safe as the Legislature convened during a pandemic, but those requests were rebuffed. “Given that there were not going to be the precautions taken that were recommended by health professionals, we thought the one thing that might be feasible would be just delaying until people could get vaccinated, but then that proposal was not accepted,” Rubel said.

GOP Gov. Brad Little also suggested lawmakers consider delaying their session or operating remotely during the pandemic, but his suggestion wasn’t heeded.

“The Idaho Legislature’s decision to recess to protect the health and safety of their members and staff is the responsible choice,” Little said in a statement Friday afternoon. “This is an unfortunate reminder to all Idahoans that we are still in the midst of a global pandemic. Continue to practice safety measures. Wash your hands, wear a face covering, stay home if you’re feeling sick, and choose to get the safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine as soon as you’re eligible.”

Rubel said, “I’m very glad we’re doing a recess now. It’s probably overdue, it may not be long enough, but it is much better than just proceeding with business as usual under these circumstances.”

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.