Analysis: A long, slow, frightening road to post-pandemic ‘normal’

Boise police were forced to create a barrier to keep anti-mask protesters from entering a meeting at the Central District Health offices Tuesday. Photo courtesy of Darin Oswald, The Idaho Statesman.

Gov. Brad Little promised a return to normal Tuesday afternoon.

By Tuesday evening, that promise felt hollow.

A Central District Health board meeting fell victim to mob rule — as maskless protesters swarmed CDH headquarters and board members’ homes. At the urging of city officials who said the situation was no longer safe, CDH adjourned its meeting without voting on a new coronavirus public health order.

At the same time, the state reported a record number of daily coronavirus cases, eclipsing the 2,000 threshold for the first time. On any other day, this record would have been the story — but alas, on Tuesday, the mob ruled the narrative.


We have a long, slow, frightening road between us and normal.

As naive as Little’s optimism sounds, it is not without basis.

The state could receive its first 13,000 doses of coronavirus vaccine by next week, as our Clark Corbin reported Tuesday. After health care workers get the first vaccines, teachers and school staff will be among a pool of critical workers who are next in line.

“If everything goes according to plan, there is a good chance that in late April, May, June we should be able to go back to a much more normal life that we have lived here in Idaho,” Little said during an AARP Idaho telephone town hall meeting.

But while Little pins his hopes to the vaccines, Idaho seems to be giving up on pretty much everything else.

Idaho seems to be giving up on basic coronavirus containment, as Tuesday’s numbers illustrate.

Factoring in the numbers from health districts such as CDH — which tend to skew higher than the state’s count — Idaho added 2,115 new cases Tuesday.

Remember April? The month of Idaho’s anti-coronavirus stay-at-home order? For that entire month, Idaho reported 1,602 coronavirus cases.

The surge of cases, building up to Tuesday’s records, has become almost commonplace. And while scientists are still trying to unlock the mysteries of this virus, there is a grim predictability to the coronavirus timetable. Within a couple of weeks, Tuesday’s record caseload is likely to translate into increased hospitalizations, pushing a health care system already nearing the breaking point. In a couple more weeks, these cases are likely to result in another tragic uptick in COVID-19 deaths. (Idaho’s COVID-19 deaths reached a weekly record last week, and another 19 Idahoans lost their lives to the virus Tuesday.)

As the coronavirus courses through the state — unchecked and seemingly unchallenged — it will fall to trustees and administrators to figure out what to do with the rest of the school year.

At the risk of stating the obvious, the surging cases won’t help.

In his tireless rounds Tuesday, Corbin also covered the West Ada school board meeting, and heard a stern warning from Dr. David Pate, the retired St. Luke’s hospital CEO who is consulting with the district. Pate told trustees that the coronavirus outbreak is likely to get worse in the next month, making December look like the good old days.

Not that December is all that good. Not with infection rates in West Ada middle schools and high schools exceeding even Ada County’s overall rates. Not with 875 high school students in self-isolation.

It’s too early to say whether West Ada will be able to keep 38,000 students in school this year, at least part-time. Or whether Boise will be able to return to some form of face-to-face learning in January. But whatever happens, it won’t be normal.

College and university campuses won’t be normal, either. The state’s colleges and universities managed to pull off some form of face-to-face instruction this fall, but it wasn’t easy. But campuses aren’t islands. Students and staff live off campus and shop off campus. If the virus rages through Idaho’s college towns, spring semester could be in jeopardy — especially since it will be months before college and university employees will be eligible for vaccines.

And no discussion of the abnormal would be complete without mentioning the Idaho Legislature.

Lawmakers have some serious work to do, starting with figuring out what to do with a pandemic-defying surplus approaching $600 million. But if last week’s organizational session was any indication, the session could instead make news as a superspreader event. Face coverings were scarce and social distancing was sporadic — as if lawmakers were downplaying the pandemic as a way of burnishing their conservative credentials or improving their standing with the Idaho Freedom Foundation.

To be fair, not every unmasked legislator is an unabashed COVID denier. But as a matter of public record, some clearly are.

COVID denial — and disregard for basic civility — was the storyline Tuesday night, when protesters hijacked the public process.

You could have a fair debate about whether CDH’s coronavirus order would go far enough, after the board amended it to allow school sports and extracurricular activities. After all, the State Board of Education will meet Thursday to discuss a school resolution that would allow athletics to continue, but just without fans.

But the goons who showed up at CDH headquarters and at board members’ homes weren’t there for a nuanced discussion of public policy. They forced Ada County Commissioner Diana Lachiondo to leave the meeting in tears, fearful for the safety of her 12-year-old son. They showed up to intimidate. To shut down the debate. And in a 2020 turn of events, they got their way.

Of course, it’s despicable. But don’t just take my word for it. Little and Boise Mayor Lauren McLean were among the first to condemn the protesters Tuesday night. Perhaps because both know, firsthand, that there’s a world of difference between public dissent and mob mentality. Perhaps because they are both acutely aware that what we witnessed Tuesday should not be normalized.

Unless we’re too late.

And there’s a growing gulf between the normal we crave and the normal we deserve.

Each week, Kevin Richert writes an analysis on education policy and education politics. Look for it every Thursday. Due to the timeliness of the topic, this week’s analysis was published on Wednesday, Dec. 9.



Kevin Richert

About Kevin Richert

Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism. He is a frequent guest on KIVI 6 On Your Side; "Idaho Reports" on Idaho Public Television; and "Idaho Matters" on Boise State Public Radio. Follow Kevin on Twitter: @KevinRichert. He can be reached at [email protected]

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