Idaho health board meeting halted after ‘intense protests’

Idaho public health officials abruptly ended a meeting Tuesday after the Boise mayor and chief of police said intense protests outside the health department building — as well as outside some health officials’ homes — were threatening public safety

The request from Boise Mayor Lauren McLean and the Boise Police Department came just a few minutes after one health board member, Ada County Commissioner Diana Lachiondo, tearfully interrupted the online meeting to say she had to rush home from work to be with her son. The board had been expected to vote on a four-county mask mandate in Idaho’s most populated region.

“My 12-year-old son is home alone right now and there are protestors banging outside the door,” Lachiondo said.

Another board member, family physician Dr. Ted Epperly, said protests were “not under control at my house,” as well.

Hundreds of protesters gathered at the Central District Health parking lot before and during the meeting. The protest at the health building was organized, at least in part, by a loose multi-state group called People’s Rights. The group was created by Ammon Bundy, an outspoken opponent of mask mandates during the coronavirus pandemic who gained national attention and stoked the so-called “patriot movement” after leading armed standoffs at his father’s Nevada ranch in 2014 and at a wildlife refuge in eastern Oregon in 2016. Members of an anti-vaccination group called Health Freedom Idaho also attended the protest. It wasn’t immediately known if Bundy attended the Boise protests Tuesday evening.

Central District Health Director Russ Duke interrupted the Tuesday meeting to inform board members of the mayor’s request.

“I got a call from the mayor, and it sounds like the police, and she is requesting that we stop the meeting at this time because of the intense level of protesters in the parking lot and concern for police safety and staff safety as well as the protesters that are at some of our board members’ homes right now,” Duke said.

The Boise Police Department later issued a statement on Twitter that said they requested the meeting adjourn “in the interest of public safety.”

“Our first priority is to maintain safety and public order. Officers are currently monitoring the crowd and responding to reports of additional incidents in the city,” the department wrote.

Board members had been scheduled to hear from local health professionals on the impact of the pandemic before making the vote. Last week, regional hospital officials warned that they were so overwhelmed by high numbers of coronavirus patients — and by health care staffers unable to work because they have contracted the virus — that the state could be forced to implement “crisis standards of care” by the end of the month or early January. Crisis standards of care are designed to ensure that the patients most likely to survive COVID-19 are given access to potentially life-saving treatment when there aren’t enough medical workers, hospital beds or medical equipment.

The coronavirus is so widespread in Idaho that contact tracers can’t keep up with demand. The Idaho Department of Health and Welfare reports that at least 113,905 Idaho residents have been infected with the virus so far, including 2,012 new cases reported on Tuesday. So far at least 1,074 residents have died from COVID-19.

The draft mask order is designed to slow the spread of the virus so that the health care system isn’t overwhelmed. If approved, the order would allow youth and adult sports to continue, and would allow visits to long-term care facilities in some situations. Failing to comply with the mask mandate would result in a misdemeanor, but it includes exceptions for those who have trouble breathing, young children and others.