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COVID-19 pandemic illustrates Idaho’s split personality



Writers on the Range columnist Jerry Brady discusses the two sides of Idaho during the COVID-19 pandemic. PHOTO COURTESY OF WRITERS ON THE RANGE


Some say there are two states of Idaho. It’s true that the Gem State is divided by mountains, desert and a time zone. It’s also true that it’s split by radically different political temperaments—on  one hand there’s the spirit of cooperation and belief that government can be helpful, on the other there’s outright contempt for anything governmental. Although other Western states also exhibit this mostly urban-rural split, Idaho’s extremes can seem more extreme than most.

In the state capitol of Boise, population 225,000, where I live, signs of a positive response to fighting the COVID-19 pandemic are everywhere with American flags flying on some streets to show this is a time for patriotism.  

After Gov. Brad Little stepped up on March 25 to close non-essential businesses and order Idahoans to “stay at home as best you can,” helpful initiatives have been so numerous in Boise that our two local newspapers (yes, we have two!) cannot seem to document them all.  Consider just one: residents began sewing protective masks well before the recent recommendation by the Center for Disease Control.  

Boise’s mask-making campaign enlisted 1,300 participants in 13 days, and one woman alone cuts out 800 cloth masks a day for others to add tie strings.  The initiative expects to provide 10,000 masks to clinics, hospitals and retirement homes.

In Idaho Falls, population 62,000, a group called the Sewing Sisters is filling a request for 4,000 masks from nursing homes and other care centers. The 200-person Idaho Falls Chinese Community raised $9,500 to buy masks from around the world for hospitals.  

Under Little’s order, construction continues full-tilt in this fast-growing state. The hospitality industry has slowed to a crawl, though we still can buy takeout cocktails at local bars, yet enough of us are working from home that it appears the governor’s order has been mostly followed, at least in southern Idaho.

In more rural, northern Idaho, where about a quarter of Idahoans live, it’s a different world.

Mary Sousa, a state legislator from Coeur d’Alene, told the Idaho Statesman that not a single constituent has spoken to her in support of the governor’s order.  

Tim Remington, another Coeur d’Alene legislator and a pastor, defied the governor’s order by holding in-person church services. In nearby Bonner County, Sheriff Daryl Wheeler not only supports mass church services, but, in a letter to the governor declared it was also “unconstitutional” for him to prohibit healthy people from going to work.  

Not surprisingly, Ammon Bundy, the rancher who organized the occupation of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge four years ago, also defied the governor by holding a rally in Emmett, Idaho, on Easter Sunday for about 100 people. He said people needed to challenge government orders that infringed on constitutional rights: “We want to be with each other. We thrive on that. It’s part of our life. It’s part of liberty,” reported the New York Times.

Moreover, Northern Idaho is the center of what’s called the Redoubt Movement. This movement of well-armed survivalists imagines a future in which adherents from eastern Washington and eastern Oregon, along with partisans from western Montana and western Wyoming, will join with Idaho in self-defense when society inevitably disintegrates. During this pandemic, Redoubt advocates have purchased ever more arms and ammo, saying they need to be prepared to fight outsiders coming for their food and land.  

Meanwhile, this year’s session of the Idaho Legislature appropriated $2 million for virus testing but otherwise paid little attention to the pandemic. It did, however, prevent transgender persons from changing their sex on a birth certificate, authorize concealed carry of weapons for non-residents, and came close to defunding public television. At issue was the children’s cartoon Clifford the Dog, which apparently offended because the dog visited a lesbian couple. North Idaho’s extremists have many friends in the state legislature. 

Yet here in Boise there is a “school’s out” quality to these radiant spring days, though hard times lie ahead: This is a state that ranks near the bottom in most categories of education and social wellbeing, and where about a third are renters living paycheck to paycheck—now without paychecks. 

Recovery will be largely dependent on the federal government, a bitter pill to swallow for the disaffected government-haters of this state. Like it or not, we are all in this together and most of us want to help each other, not run away or stockpile more guns.

Jerry Brady is a contributor to, a nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversation about the West. He published the Idaho Falls Post Register for 25 years.

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