The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Idaho lieutenant governor banned mask mandates while the governor was out of town. It didn’t last.

Idaho Gov. Brad Little (R). (Darin Oswald/Idaho Statesman/AP)
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Idaho’s Republican governor, Brad Little, rescinded an executive order Friday canceling mask mandates that his second-in-command issued this week while he was away at a conference, calling it an “abuse of power.”

“I do not like petty politics. I do not like political stunts over the rule of law,” Little said in a statement. “However, the significant consequences of the Lt. Governor’s flimsy executive order require me to clean up a mess.”

It was the latest clash in a pandemic-long feud between Little and Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin, also a Republican, over public-health measures designed to protect Idahoans from the coronavirus.

McGeachin, who recently announced that she is running for governor, has spent months criticizing Little’s response to the crisis as too heavy-handed. Last year, she appeared in a conservative think-tank’s video that suggested that the pandemic may not be real, and in March attended a protest at the Idaho Capitol in Boise where people were burning masks.

Idaho lieutenant gov. appears in video slamming virus rules, whether ‘a pandemic may or may not be occurring’

With Little attending a Republican Governors Association meeting in Nashville this week, McGeachin escalated the conflict. On Thursday, she signed the order barring mask mandates, saying it was intended “to protect the rights and liberties of individuals and businesses” in Idaho.

The text of the short-lived order falsely asserted that face-coverings are “ineffective mitigation measures,” despite widely available evidence that masks are a critical tool for containing infections.

Little said he had received no warning about the decision from McGeachin and promised to review it when he returned. By Friday morning, about 24 hours after McGeachin issued the order, Little repealed it.

In a statement, Little said the measure “unilaterally and unlawfully” stripped local officials from setting public-health policies in their jurisdictions. If it were left in place, he said, the state wouldn’t be able to require safety measures for social workers visiting homes of at-risk patients, or workers in state testing labs. He also noted that the order mirrored a bill that was debated in the legislature and ultimately failed.

“Just like the states begrudge federal government mandates,” he said, “local governments in Idaho resent the state doing the same thing.”

Little also blasted McGeachin’s decision to issue the order while he was out of town. “Taking the earliest opportunity to act solitarily on a highly politicized, polarizing issue without conferring with local jurisdictions, legislators, and the sitting Governor is, simply put, an abuse of power,” he said.

A call to McGeachin’s office wasn’t immediately returned Friday afternoon.

From the outset, McGeachin’s order appeared more like grandstanding than serious policy. Idaho never had a statewide mask mandate. Some cities, counties and schools have required masks, but many have lifted them in recent months as more residents get vaccinated.

Coronavirus cases in Idaho have steadily declined for weeks, with the rolling average for new daily cases down to about 140, the lowest point since last June. Nearly 580,000 Idahoans have been vaccinated, according to The Washington Post’s tracking.

Statewide, about 192,000 coronavirus infections have been reported in Idaho and more than 2,000 residents have died of covid-19, The Post’s data shows.

Idaho is one of more than a dozen states where the governor and lieutenant governor don’t run on the same ticket. In Little and McGeachin’s case, the practice created friction almost immediately.

When the pandemic hit, the two officials sparred over whether to shut down businesses and public life. By this time last year, they were hardly speaking.

After Little’s stay-at-home order was lifted in May 2020, McGeachin attended a “Disobey Idaho” protest outside the Idaho Capitol building. Then she flew to Kendrick, a town in the Idaho Panhandle, to voice her support for a brewery that had been cited for violating statewide restrictions, according to the Daily Beast. Speaking to the online news site, Christine Lohman, co-owner of the brewery, compared Idaho under Little to Nazi Germany.

As coronavirus cases began to surge in the fall, Little announced he would delay the state’s reopening plan. Shortly after, the right-leaning think-tank Idaho Freedom Foundation released a video arguing that the state’s virus restrictions were hurting Idahoans and infringing upon their rights. The video also appeared to question the reality of the pandemic, saying it “may or may not be occurring.”

McGeachin, a former legislator who worked on a statewide committee to elect President Donald Trump, was one of several elected officials who appeared in the video.

“We recognize that all of us are by nature, free and equal, and have certain inalienable rights,” she said in the footage, sitting in the front of a truck while holding a gun and a Bible. “Among which are enjoying and defending life and liberty, acquiring, possessing and protecting property and pursuing happiness and securing safety.”

At the time, Idaho, like many parts of the country, was facing a spike in covid hospitalizations. The pandemic’s deadliest wave of infections and deaths would soon follow.

Teo Armus contributed to this report.

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