Idaho stay-home order ends, restoring normal activity begins

BOISE, Idaho -- Idaho residents have been successful at reducing infections and deaths because of the coronavirus, and it’s time to start restoring normal activity, Gov. Brad Little said Thursday.

The Republican governor said that his five-week stay-at-home order will be allowed to expire, and the state on Friday will enter the first of his four-stage plan to recover from the economic damage caused by the virus.

Little said the process will take time, and advancing through the stages to return the state to near normalcy by the end of June will be based on declining infections and strong testing. The readiness of the health care system is another factor.

“Everyone must do their part to ensure we can progress to stage 2,” Little said during the video news conference.

Little said that restrictions in Stage 1, as they were during the stay-at-home order, are enforceable.

In stage one, people should wear face coverings in public and practice good hygiene. Churches and almost all retail shops can open as long as they follow strict physical distancing guidelines and other protocols. Businesses are encouraged, where possible, to have employees work from home. Non-essential travel, prohibited under the stay-home order, is allowed but should be minimized.

“We are really calling on the people of Idaho to help us here,” Idaho Department of Health and Welfare Director Dave Jeppesen said.

Little also announced plans to distribute $300 million in cash grants to small businesses, many of which were hit hard by the stay-at-home order. Little said 90% of businesses will be allowed to open in Stage 1.

If officials are satisfied after two weeks that infection rates haven’t increased, the state would move to stage 2. The state would advance in two-week increments to stages 3 and 4 with increasing lifting of restrictions if infections don’t increase.

Stage 2, for example, allows gatherings of up to 10 people. Stage 3 raises that to 50, and in stage 4, gatherings of more than 50 people are allowed. But even in stage 4, precautions are included that limit occupancy in bars and require social distancing in theaters and other large venues.

Essentially, Little’s plan is a strategy for gradually reopening the state without having a surge in new infections that could require reinstating restrictions because of the potential for the healthcare system to be overwhelmed. But even in its final stage, the plan requires restrictions until the pandemic passes.

Because there’s no vaccine, the state plans a robust contact tracing program to limit new infections by locating people who have been in contact with someone who later tested positive for the virus.

Both Little and Jeppesen said their primary concern was a large group of people flaunting social distancing rules and creating a community-spread outbreak that could cause a return to more restrictions.

Idaho had its first confirmed coronavirus infection on March 13, and within three weeks another 1,000 people had been infected and spread through the community in central Idaho and highly populated southwestern Idaho. Little responded with an emergency declaration on March 13 and on March 25 issued a statewide stay-at-home order for Idaho’s 1.75 million residents that also shut down non-essential businesses.

The measures worked. On Thursday, Idaho had 1,984 confirmed cases with at least 60 deaths due to the virus, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University.

But Idaho has been shedding jobs at a record rate the last six weeks, with about 110,000 workers filing unemployment claims with the Idaho Department of Labor.

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough, that clear up in two to three weeks. But it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and death for some people, especially older adults and people with existing health problems.