04 idaho special session
CNN  — 

Earlier this week, a group of mask-less protesters – many of whom were armed – forced their way past police and stormed the Idaho statehouse. Why? Because they believe that the state government is overstepping its authority in trying to contain the Covid-19 pandemic. Yes, you read that right. Doing too much to contain the pandemic.

For some insight into how we got here – and how widespread the views of the protesters are – I reached out to Melissa Davlin, the host of “Idaho Reports,” which just happens to be the longest running public affairs show in the West.

Our conversation, conducted via email and lightly edited for flow, is below.

Cillizza: On Monday, a group with armed (and unmasked) people broke their way into the Idaho statehouse galleries to protest Idaho’s Covid rules. How the heck did we get here?

Davlin: Monday morning marked the start of the Idaho Legislature’s special session to consider COVID-related liability and elections bills. House leadership attempted to limit spectators in the House’s fourth-floor gallery to allow for social distancing, but protesters shoved their way past Idaho State Police troopers and security guards. The fray resulted in a shattered glass door, and prompted House Speaker Scott Bedke to negotiate with protesters and allow them into the gallery and subsequent hearings, ending attempts to socially distance.

As of Wednesday morning, none of the protesters faced charges for shoving the state troopers. Notably, ISP arrested dozens of protesters in 2014 for merely blocking doors at the statehouse. Those protesters tried unsuccessfully to convince the legislature to add protections for the LGBT+ community to the Idaho Human Rights Act.

The protests this week weren’t random or spontaneous. Many of the people who showed up on Monday morning were members of the “3 Percenters” or “Health Freedom Idaho.” Ammon Bundy, of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge occupation fame, was also there. (Bundy was arrested on Tuesday afternoon and charged with trespassing for refusing to leave a hearing room at the state house.) Members of those groups, especially “Health Freedom Idaho,” are regulars at legislative hearings concerning vaccinations, and have recently turned their attention to regional public health district meetings.

In April, Bundy and members of these two groups protested at the private homes of Gov. Brad Little (R) and a police officer who arrested a mother for trespassing on a closed playground. In July, they shoved past public health district employees to enter a regional health district building, disregarding requests to wear masks and mocking those who did. Again, no one faced charges for the July protest.

Cillizza: Little has taken a ton of incoming for the way he has approached coronavirus in the state. Is this an outgrowth of that frustration?

Davlin: In part. Gov. Little enraged members of his own party when he issued a stay-at-home order early in the pandemic. Idaho’s lieutenant governor, Janice McGeachin, and then-chairman of the Idaho Republican Party Raul Labrador openly defied the order and appeared at a brewery’s reopening event before restrictions eased. (That brewery has since faced fines.) Though Idaho was one of the first states to reopen, and has had almost no statewide restrictions for months, that rage has never let up, and prompted a recall effort that ultimately failed.

But this is also the result of “3 Percenters” and similar organizations cozying up to some elected officials throughout the state. McGeachin has been photographed with “3 Percenters” multiple times, and news outlets have repeatedly documented the links between some lawmakers and anti-government groups.

During regular sessions of the Idaho Legislature, it’s fairly common to see anti-government members of the public openly carrying firearms in the halls of the statehouse.

Cillizza: Idaho has one of the highest per capita rates of Covid-19 right now. How does this factor in – or not – in terms of the protests at the state capitol?

Davlin: It’s a little surreal to watch testimony from protesters who say they feel like they’re living under martial law. There are nearly no restrictions statewide, and any restrictions that do exist come from individual cities, counties or public health districts. The state’s current hottest spots are under no restrictions and have no mask mandates.

Since his initial stay-at-home order, Little has shifted much of the decision-making on mandates and restrictions to counties, cities, and Idaho’s seven local health districts. Those districts operate independently of each other, and have approached managing the pandemic in wildly different ways. Some have issued mask mandates for counties with high case rates. Other districts have board members who are skeptical of the pandemic. A handful are vocally anti-mask and have repeated false information about the severity of the virus and how hospitals are impacted.

The same is true for a number of Idaho’s elected officials, both in the legislature and on city and county levels. Idaho is a largely rural state, but between schools reopening, outbreaks in food processing facilities, and a lack of virus mitigation efforts, the rural counties have consistently had some of the highest case rates throughout the pandemic. But the rejection of science from certain elected officials is playing into the public’s distrust and anger.

Cillizza: How widespread is this dissatisfaction with how the Idaho government has handled Covid? Are these just a very vocal minority? Or is it more than that?

Davlin: Initially, the dissatisfaction came from the right – people who thought Little was overreaching with his emergency declaration. We’re still seeing the effects of that at the special session, at which House members passed a resolution to end the emergency. (That resolution is likely unconstitutional, according to an opinion from Idaho’s attorney general. As I’m writing this on Wednesday morning, it’s not yet clear if the Senate will take it up.)

Though that anger hasn’t dissipated, I’m hearing from more and more people who are frustrated that the governor hasn’t intervened in hot spots where public health districts and counties decline to implement mask mandates. Little has repeatedly said he won’t issue a statewide mask mandate, but also reserves the right to step in and overrule local health districts on restrictions. So far, that hasn’t happened.

Most of Little’s base recognizes he’s in a darned-if-you-do, darned-if-you-don’t situation, and his recent focus on the economy and schools reopening has made business owners happy. But as is the case with nearly every executive in this country, this will surely be an issue in the 2022 primary.

Cillizza: Finish this sentence: “The reaction to the Covid protocols tells us ________ about the current state of Idaho politics.” Now, explain.

Davlin: “Everything.”

It exposes infighting in the Idaho Republican Party, as well as long-running tension between the executive and legislative branches. It shows that people who are skeptical of science have an immense amount of power in state and local politics. It highlights inconsistencies in how the legislature and state treat protesters. And, sadly, it demonstrates how misinformation is steering much of the discussion.