SANDPOINT, Idaho — Inside an old factory building north of Boise, a few dozen people gathered last week to hear from Ammon Bundy, the man who once led an armed takeover of an Oregon wildlife refuge.
The meeting, which appeared to violate orders by Idaho Gov. Brad Little to avoid group gatherings, was an assertion of what Bundy said was a constitutional right to peacefully assemble. But Bundy said he also hoped to create a network of people ready to come to the aid of those facing closure of their businesses or other interference from the government as a result of the coronavirus outbreak.
“If it gets bad enough, and our rights are infringed upon enough, we can physically stand in defense in whatever way we need to,” Bundy told the meeting. “But we hope we don’t have to get there.”
In a state with pockets of deep wariness about both big government and mainstream medicine, the sweeping restrictions aimed at containing the spread of the virus have run into outright rebellion in some parts of Idaho, which is facing its own worrying spike in coronavirus cases.
The opposition is coming not only from people like Bundy, whose armed takeover of the Oregon refuge with dozens of other men and women in 2016 led to a 41-day standoff, but also from some state lawmakers and a county sheriff who are calling the governor’s statewide stay-at-home order an infringement on individual liberties.
Health care providers and others have been horrified at the public calls to countermand social-distancing requirements, warning that failing to take firm measures could overwhelm Idaho’s small hospitals and put large numbers of people at risk of dying.
“There are a lot of people that listen to those voices around here,” said Dr. Hans Hurt, an emergency doctor at Bonner General Health, a medical center in the town of Sandpoint, 45 miles north of Coeur d’Alene. “Even if it’s just a small group that wants to exercise their right to assemble, it puts the community at large at such a high risk.”
Many of the latest claims about the Constitution have come from Idaho’s northern panhandle, where vaccination rates for other diseases have always been low and where wariness of government is high.
State Rep. Heather Scott, a Republican from Blanchard, northwest of Coeur d’Alene, is encouraging her constituents to push back on the statewide stay-at-home order, saying people have “a God-given constitutionally protected right to peacefully assemble.”
Tim Remington, a Coeur d’Alene pastor who was appointed to the state House of Representatives in January, led a church service open to the public on March 29, four days after the stay-at-home order went into effect.
And in Bonner County, Sheriff Daryl Wheeler posted an open letter saying that the public had been “misled” by public-health officials’ dire predictions and called on the governor to convene an emergency session of the Legislature to debate his stay-at-home order.
“In the spirit of liberty and the Constitution, you can request those that are sick to stay home,” Wheeler wrote. “But, at the same time, you must release the rest of us to go on with our normal business.”
The dissent has left local medical workers pleading with Idahoans to heed the message that has helped contain the coronavirus elsewhere: Stay home. Don’t gather in groups. And, perhaps most challenging: Trust us.
“Don’t take legal advice from a doctor,” said Dr. Benjamin Good, an emergency medicine physician affiliated with Bonner General Health. “And don’t take medical advice from a sheriff.”
At a time when health officials say social-distancing measures are vital to avert catastrophic outbreaks of the kind that could overwhelm hospitals — as happened in Italy — Idaho’s tensions threaten to undermine compliance. While the state was one of the last in the country to identify a coronavirus case, it now has far more cases per capita than California. Blaine County, which includes the popular Sun Valley ski resort, now has the largest per capita concentration of coronavirus cases in the nation.
The state as of Monday had 1,170 cases; 13 people had died.
Yet the blowback to the governor’s stay-at-home order has continued to escalate.
Bundy said a group in the Boise area was looking for a venue to host an Easter service this weekend with a potential crowd of 1,000 people. Bundy said a man in Twin Falls hoped to host communion in a park. And Bundy himself is now leading regular meetings with dozens of people to assess how to fight back against what he calls government overreach, including with a physical presence if necessary.
“I will be there, and I will bring as many people as I can,” he told those who attended the meeting he convened March 26, a day after the statewide stay-at-home order went into effect. “We will form a legal defense for you. We will perform an active political defense for you. And we will also, if necessary, provide a physical defense for you, so that you can continue in your rights.”
Much of the region’s tensions revolve around skepticism over the advice from medical leaders, which some people here regard as unwarranted. Bundy compared the effects of the virus with the flu, even though epidemiologists have warned that it can kill at a much higher rate.
He said that he would prefer, in any case, to become infected soon, while he is otherwise healthy.
“I want the virus now,” Bundy said.
Wheeler, the Bonner County sheriff, said in his letter to the governor that the state needed to discuss how serious the threat was. “I do not believe that suspending the Constitution was wise, because COVID-19 is nothing like the plague,” he wrote.
Scott, while acknowledging the coronavirus outbreak as an emergency, sent a newsletter to constituents calling it “The Virus That Tried to Kill the Constitution.”
Doctors in Idaho have been concerned not only about the public calls for canceling the governor’s stay-at-home order, but also about comments that play down the danger of the virus. COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus, is a particular threat to people who are older or who have underlying conditions, as evidenced by a nursing home in Washington state where the virus contributed to dozens of deaths.
“If we stop doing what we’re doing, it could deteriorate so quickly, and our resources could be overwhelmed so quickly,” said Hurt, the emergency doctor at Bonner General Health. “It’s scary for the people in this community, and scary for us as hospital workers, to be inundated with that.”
Dr. Robert Burnett, the medical director for cardiovascular surgery at Kootenai Health in Coeur d’Alene, just south of Scott’s district, said he personally viewed the comments from the lawmaker and the sheriff as “criminal.” He said he was “horrified” that public officials would use their platforms to encourage behavior that threatens lives.
To Burnett, Scott and Wheeler have “relinquished their claim to a ventilator” should they get sick from the virus and need one — although he hastened to add that they would get complete care should they get sick.
While the region does not have very many patients — there have been about 50 cases in the panhandle — some medical workers said that may be because of limited testing; there could well be more undetected cases. Hospitals have been bracing for a potential surge.
Outside Bonner General Health, officials have erected two tents to help treat patients should extra space be needed. Worried about constrained supply chains, they are reusing masks, storing each one in a paper bag after use to be opened five days later. In a former grieving room, dozens of paper bags are hanging on a line, clipped with clothespins.
One resident rode by the hospital on a bicycle over the weekend and tossed over a bag containing a few N95 masks.
Good, the emergency physician, said the decision to urge people to stay home was not an easy one. Last month, when that conversation was happening locally, Good said, he stopped by the home of his best friends in town, who run a restaurant, to explain the disruption that was going to be needed.
“It was a horrible discussion to have,” Good said.