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When catastrophe strikes, remember these names

by Editorial from THE LEWISTON TRIBUNE
| July 17, 2020 1:00 AM

If you’re expecting to read a fervent plea that Idaho Gov. Brad Little impose a statewide face mask mandate, you’ve come to the wrong place.

Frankly, Little probably has done all that he could in stemming the COVID-19 pandemic within the Gem State. He no doubt saved many lives with his stay-at-home order last spring. President Donald Trump pressured him and other governors to move too quickly toward reopening the economy.

For all of that, Idaho Freedom Foundation President Wayne Hoffman and his ally, insurgent Ammon Bundy, pilloried the governor at Statehouse rallies.

His lieutenant governor, Janice McGeachin, turned on him in newspaper columns, at protests and even at a Kendrick bar.

Not surprisingly, renegades such as Rep. Heather Scott, R-Blanchard, challenged his authority with an unauthorized “special” legislative session.

To top it off, Little is facing a recall movement.

So when asked what he would say to people who refuse to wear masks at a news conference last week, the governor was curt: “Wear your mask. Next question.”

Condemn the governor, if you choose, for passing the buck to individual cities and public health districts — much as Trump passed the buck to Little and the governors. So far, a handful of mayors — including Moscow’s Bill Lambert and Boise’s Lauren McLean — have stepped up to the challenge. Lambert endured a volley of criticism last week when he was accused of hyping the threat. McLean is under threat of a recall campaign after six months on the job.

No wonder Lewiston City Manager Alan Nygaard and the city council are dragging their heels.

If a mandate has any value, it at least compels public accommodations — stores, restaurants and offices — to add one more admonition to the old standby: “No shirt, No shoes, No service.”

But if a nearly 40 percent spike in COVID-19 caseloads in one week isn’t enough to get Idahoans to voluntarily follow medical advice to wear masks, what’s the point of a mandate — either from the governor or a mayor?

You can’t fine everyone. You’d merely clog up the courts.

Not when individuals believe their own medical knowledge is second to none.

Not when people believe a face mask mandate is another variant of tyranny.

Not when people believe wearing a mask is a matter of individual choice and personal protection — akin to wearing a seat belt or a motorcycle helmet.

Where did they get that information?

Not from the governor.

Not from the mayors.

Not from the health officials.

That’s not who they listen to.

That’s not who they trust.

If anyone has the means to persuade this group of people to set aside ideology in order to bring this surging infection under control, it’s Hoffman. Don’t ask this ardent foe of government to call for a face mask mandate. But could he at least acknowledge the basic health science behind a face mask? Hoffman could tell them too many people think in terms of a sandblaster or drywaller wearing a covering to avoid breathing in contaminants. This is more like the mask a physician wears to avoid spreading infection to his patients.

If anyone has credibility with those within the Idaho GOP who are virtually militant in their antipathy toward Little, it’s Scott.

Should Scott tell her loyalists the journal Lancent found adding a face mask can cut the risk of transmitting the coronavirus almost 5.6 times, maybe they’d believe her. Or Scott could repeat Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield’s prediction: “I think if we could get everybody to wear a mask right now, I think in four, six, eight weeks we could bring this epidemic under control.”

If anyone knows how setting new records of infection will affect the economy it’s McGeachin who operates a bar and grill in Idaho Falls. Have her explain how wearing a face mask is far less painful to a business than customers who stay away because they’re afraid of getting sick.

And if anyone can break through the swirling mass of paranoia and conspiracy theories, it’s Bundy. Let him at least set an example by donning a face mask in public.

Why do they have such an influence over Idaho’s COVID-19 naysayers?

Because they sought it. As every opportunity came their way, they encouraged resistance toward government and skepticism toward medical expertise. Month by month, stunt by stunt, rally by rally, they accumulated this audience and nurtured this defiance.

Only they can break through the fog of misinformation.

How long will they wait?

Until Idaho’s COVID-19 caseload doubles — and then doubles again?

Until more of the state’s health care responders become ill? Among the latest fatalities was a 45-year-old nurse practitioner in Caldwell.

Until health districts or even the governor have no alternative to placing the economy back on lockdown?

Hoffman, McGeachin and Scott are no mere spectators. Having built a movement, they are now bound to lead it.

This makes them morally obligated to help end this catastrophe. They only need to speak up.

Otherwise, this health care crisis will escalate. When it does, remember their names.

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Marty Trillhaase is the longtime editorial page editor and writer for The Lewiston Tribune.