Idaho Sen. Nelson warned against a COVID outbreak in the Legislature last year. That outbreak is here.

click to enlarge Idaho Sen. Nelson warned against a COVID outbreak in the Legislature last year. That outbreak is here.
Photo courtesy of David Nelson
Idaho state Sen. David Nelson, D-Moscow, speaks before the Idaho Senate.

By the time Idaho Sen. David Nelson of Moscow — a rare Democrat in the Idaho Legislature — took the floor of the Idaho Capitol on the morning of March 17, 2020, everyone knew the world was beginning to fall apart.

Infection was spreading in nearby Washington state. Sports tournaments had been canceled. Then-President Donald Trump had called for gatherings to be limited to only 10 people. But the Idaho Legislature continued to meet in person.

"If we continue meeting in this building, we risk sending home legislators all over the state that might be infected and could infect entire communities," Nelson said from the floor. “I will not put my family, neighbors and community at risk."

He’d had enough. He was going home.

“Good luck to all of you in this national crisis,” he concluded. The legislative session concluded just a few days later.
But when it came time for the 2021 legislative session, Idaho didn't go the route of Washington state, with most legislators videoconferencing from home. 

"We could have done this remotely," Nelson says. "We could have all met remotely to do this."

And now, a year after Nelson delivered his speech warning about the possibility of the Idaho Legislature becoming a superspreader event, his fears appear to have been realized.

There's been an outbreak, one bad enough to shutter the Legislature for a few weeks.

Six Idaho House members — Republicans Bruce Skaug, Greg Chaney, Julie Yamamoto, Ryan Kerby, Lance Clow and Democrat James Ruchti — have recently become confirmed COVID cases. A seventh, Boise Republican Codi Galloway is currently quarantining. Most of them are connected to the House Education Committee, Nelson says.

Two house staffers and one Senate staffer have also tested positive.

"I’m shocked it’s taken this long, to be honest," Nelson says.

Other members have tested positive previously, he says. State Senate Agricultural Affairs Chair Van Burtenshaw was one of the first positive COVID cases early in the session. Nelson suspects there may be more we don't know about.

"I’m sure there’s a big group in the Legislature that is refusing to test," he says.

On Friday, the Legislature voted to put the session on pause until April 6.

"You know, I just wish we could have not made this a political issue," Nelson says. "We could have treated it seriously."

Among Republicans, he says, not wearing a mask almost became a badge of honor.

"The Republicans are appeasing their base who don’t believe in mask mandates, who almost don’t believe in COVID," Nelson says. "Wearing a mask has become a mark that you're a Democrat: 'Only Democrats wear masks.' It’s really hard to legislate if most of the body isn't wearing a mask."
It's common for legislators to peel off and talk to each other quietly in a corner about a bill. But if that colleague doesn't have a mask and might be infected with COVID? That gets trickier.

Even after the outbreak, Idaho Speaker of the House Scott Bedke told reporters on a video conference today that while they would look at safety protocols when they return, they would "stop short" of mandating masks.

In fact, this very week, the Idaho House State Affairs Committee approved a bill from Republican Rep. Karey Hanks to ban local governments and health districts from imposing their own mask mandates.

“If people were dying in the streets, we would not need government mandates,” Hanks said, according to Idaho Education News.

Nearly 2,000 Idahoans have died with COVID so far, though many did so in hospital beds and nursing home rooms, not in the streets. Idaho's in the top 20 states for the number of COVID cases per capita, though they're in the bottom dozen for COVID deaths.

Despite the in-person session, Nelson says he has remained healthy so far. The Legislature started offering COVID testing a few weeks into the session.

"I had a test yesterday that was negative," Nelson says. "I did another test this morning." 

Nelson has received his first shot of the Moderna COVID vaccine, and he's a week away from receiving his second shot.

"We got the word about three weeks ago that we could be vaccinated as legislators. I have to say, it felt weird... It was kind of unofficial, you don’t really find us on the list," Nelson says. "[But] I decided if I’m going to be in that damn room with all those unmasked people, I need to be vaccinated."

To be clear, the legislators who were infected weren't necessarily the most reckless members. After all, cloth and surgical masks are more effective at protecting nearby people than protecting the wearer.

Nelson says that
Ruchti, the Democrat who got infected, was very diligent in wearing his mask, and that Republican Rep. Chaney wore masks more frequently than many of his Republican colleagues. Chaney made headlines last year for a Facebook video slamming the snake oil salesmen and political opportunists” who he said were dishonestly using the backlash to COVID restrictions to sell their agenda.

In an interview with the Inlander last year, Chaney warned that if Idaho didn't take Idaho Gov. Brad Little's COVID recommendations seriously the state would pay the price and have to shut down again after it reopened.
"We're going to be right back to where we were before and worse," Chaney told the Inlander last year. "Thumbing your nose at the coronavirus... is probably not the best way to approach it."

Even if you didn't agree with the government imposing restrictions, he argued, following health advice was still a good idea.

"Look, you can believe, and maybe I'll agree with you that the government has no right to tell you that you're not allowed to drink bleach, but that doesn't make drinking bleach a good idea," Chaney said.

Yet Idaho also has a very angry group of anti-mask and anti-lockdown advocates. When state lawmakers limited seating in a special session last year to follow social distancing requirements, an angry mob of protesters broke the glass door of the Capitol and rushed in.

Ammon Bundy — a far-right Idaho resident famous for his 2016 occupation of the Malheur wildlife refuge — united a sweeping number of anti-vaxxers and anti-government activists under a "People's Rights" banner, adopting a tactic of protesting outside public officials' homes.

When Chaney introduced a bill to ban protests outside officials' homes, a mob showed up at his family's home, wielding actual torches, literal pitchforks and an effigy of Chaney. 

Despite Idaho's considerable economic success during the pandemic, Nelson says that much of the legislative session has been over how to strip away much of Idaho Gov. Brad Little's emergency powers, constraining his ability to impose restrictions even during major disasters.

Even in a swing district like Nelson's, supporting COVID restrictions isn't necessarily an easy path to electoral victory.

In 2018, Nelson beat incumbent Rep. Dan Foreman by over 2,000 votes. But last year, facing the same opponent, he only squeaked by with a 220-vote margin. 

"We had two debates and my opponent wouldn’t show up because he had to put his mask on," Nelson says.

In the college town of Moscow, which had a mask mandate, Nelson says wearing his mask didn't bother people while doorbelling. 

"In Moscow, you ended up keeping your mask on all the time,"  he says. "The rural parts, especially in Benewah County, it made people uncomfortable [to see me] walking around with a mask."
So he figured out a compromise for rural areas: He would knock on the door with his mask on at first, introduce himself, and then ask if he could take his mask off so they could have a conversation with 10 feet of distance between them.

"This was a weird campaign," Nelson says.

Gondolas & Garbage Goats @ Spark Central

Mondays, 5:30-7 p.m. Continues through May 20
  • or

Daniel Walters

A lifelong Spokane native, Daniel Walters was a staff reporter for the Inlander from 2009 to 2023. He reported on a wide swath of topics, including business, education, real estate development, land use, and other stories throughout North Idaho and Spokane County.His work investigated deep flaws in the Washington...