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Previous story Mask burning rally in Idaho fans COVID-19 worries in Oregon Next story
  POLITICS   Covid-19  

Story by Sergio Olmos (OPB) - Story Source
Published on Monday March 8, 2021 - 9:48 PM

The protest event was promoted by the People's Rights Network, a far-right catchall group organized by Ammon Bundy. Parents cheered Saturday on the steps of the Idaho Capitol building as children threw handfuls of surgical masks into a fire. Far-right groups and some lawmakers held similar demonstrations in more than 20 Idaho towns, seizing on growing impatience with COVID-19 restrictions.

"Hey fire, you hungry?" asked one boy as adults watched him toss face coverings into a burn barrel. "Here's another mask!"

Idaho Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin and state Rep. Dorothy Moon addressed the crowd of more than 100 people, standing behind a lectern on the Capitol steps. Nearby, a banner with the racist phrase "Wu Flu" was draped over a replica Liberty Bell.

"We've got people in groups from Bonners Ferry ... all the way to Pocatello," said Darr Moon, one of the organizers and husband of Moon. "It's a widespread grassroots movement, an uprising in that regard."

The extent of the "movement" looking to undermine COVID-19 health protocols is likely less far-reaching than the rally organizers hope, but it may pose challenges in the months ahead for neighboring states like Oregon, where stricter health and business guidelines are likely to remain in place until large swaths of the public become vaccinated.

Idaho is one of 16 states that have not implemented a statewide mask mandate. Still, some cities in the state like Boise, where Saturday's rally was held, have emergency orders requiring face masks and social distancing.

Saturday's rally fits with recent actions by Republican-controlled states across the country, including Texas, Mississippi, Alabama and West Virginia, which have gone as far as announcing plans to loosen or repeal COVID-19 restrictions entirely.

Idaho leads the Pacific Northwest in COVID-19 cases and death count per 100,000 residents. In the Gem State, people are dying at almost twice the rate of Oregonians, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.

Data show some stark differences in border counties as well. In Oregon's Malheur County, the daily new cases for the past week stood at six per 100,000 residents. Across the border, in Idaho, the numbers jump: Owyhee County is at 13 cases, Canyon County is at 11 cases, and Ada County is at 15 cases per 100,000 residents.

That pattern isn't universal with border counties in the states, however, as people in the region regularly travel. For example, Idaho's sparsely-populated Payette County has a much lower case count than Malheur while Oregon's Baker County far outstrips it. But health officials are concerned lax health safety measures in one area could drive up case counts elsewhere.

In response to recent moves to scale back or end coronavirus restrictions, U.S. Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky warned that "now is not the time to stop wearing a mask."

She said that while rates are falling since the start of the pandemic, "we cannot be resigned to 70,000 cases a day, 2,000 daily deaths."

Economic drain Oregon's efforts at containing the coronavirus have come at a great cost to the state's economy, but those restrictions on businesses and social gatherings have curtailed the spread of the virus. Oregon has among the lowest infection and death rates in the country.

Still, some businesses along the border have felt the firsthand effects of Idaho's more open business policies during the pandemic.

Ashton Chuck runs the board game store ProSoul in Ontario, on the Oregon-Idaho border. Chuck said half of his businesses involve customers coming into the store to play board games, a part of his revenue that has disappeared.

"Some of our players drive regularly to Idaho because of the restrictions we have here," Chuck said.

While Chuck said he's happy to comply with whatever mandates health officials feel are necessary, he knows his customers will continue to cross the border until Oregon can safely return to indoor activities.

"Try playing a board game with six feet of distance," he said.

Some counties in Eastern Oregon have already expressed concerns that social gatherings in Idaho could mean more cases on their side of the border, a fact that could prolong state-mandated restrictions.

If an Oregon county's infection rates rise too high, they risk entering into the "high" or "extreme risk" categories. The state reevaluates those categories for each county every two weeks, but for businesses like Chuck's, a two-week wait to reopen can significantly hurt his revenue.

"COVID fatigue has hit Ontario bad, people are tired of the lockdown and masking," said Eddie Melendrez, an Ontario City Council member.

He said he's among the people who are tired of wearing masks and enduring business restrictions, but he added he still adheres to health guidelines.

"I follow the science, not some conspiracy theory on YouTube," Melendrez said.

He's seen Idahoans often travel into Malheur County for work, to visit businesses like the local Walmart, or just to buy recreational cannabis, which is legal in Oregon but illegal in Idaho. He has concerns that if Idaho residents abandon health safety guidelines, it could hurt people in Malheur County.

Melendrez saw videos of the mask burning rally on Facebook, which he called "crazy."

"Some people have got a little taste of what it's like to have rules put on them," he said, "something Black and brown people have had to deal with their whole lives."