Hundreds defy Idaho’s stay-at-home order at Capitol protest

Protesters gather at the Idaho Statehouse on Friday afternoon, April 17, 2020, in Boise, Idaho, in defiance of Gov. Brad Little’s extension of the statewide stay-at-home order. The crowd pictured here was taken as the rally began; the size of the crowd grew. (Darin Oswald/Idaho Statesman via AP)

Boise, Idaho • More than 1,000 protesters gathered at the Idaho Statehouse Friday afternoon in defiance of Gov. Brad Little’s extension of the statewide stay-at-home order.

Little announced Wednesday that the order would extend to the end of April in the effort to slow the spread of coronavirus, although he lightened some restrictions so nonessential businesses could begin providing curbside service. Still, the news was met with derision by some members of the far-right in Idaho, and some libertarian, gun-rights and anti-vaccine organizations began directing members to defy the order.

The Idaho Freedom Foundation, a libertarian think tank and lobbying group, emblazoned its social media feeds with “Disobey Idaho” graphics and announced that it would host Friday’s rally along with Health Freedom Idaho and the Idaho Second Amendment Alliance.

“I can’t get a haircut, but by golly I was able to walk into Pet Smart this morning and get my dog a grooming appointment. It defies logic,” said Wayne Hoffman, president of the Idaho Freedom Foundation. “The damage that’s being done to the individuals, to businesses and the economy is horrific.”

Hoffman said the governor should allow all businesses to open to give owners a chance to demonstrate that they can take appropriate steps to mitigate the risk.

“I worry that if we don’t adapt our approach that we will continue to battle COVID-19 in incremental ways for weeks, months and years to come,” Hoffman said. “It’s like a lot of other variables that you have to deal with in the world -- people with all kinds of ailments come to your doors.”

Most at the protest were standing shoulder-to-shoulder and not wearing masks. Some carried signs claiming the coronavirus is a hoax, while others held signs with slogans like, “All workers are essential” and “Freedom not fear.”

The effect of the coronavirus on the economy has been dire. In Idaho, nearly 96,000 people have filed for unemployment since Little first declared a state of emergency on March 13. That's far more than the number of claims filed in Idaho during all of 2019.

Similar protests have been held across the country, with groups pushing back against stay-at-home orders in places like Michigan, Texas and Virginia. Dozens circled Oregon’s state Capitol in their vehicles Friday to protest that state’s stay-at-home order.

In the southern Utah city of St. George, several dozen people protested Wednesday to show their displeasure with the closure of businesses. Organizer Larry Meyers said the event was to assert “God-given, constitutionally-protected rights,” the Spectrum newspaper reported.

Protests were also planned for the weekend in Salt Lake City and Helena, Montana.

The debate is not likely to end soon, with some health experts warning that returning to normal activity too early could lead to a resurgence of the virus. Meanwhile, tempers -- and rhetoric -- is escalating.

In northern Idaho, Republican state Rep. Heather Scott referred to the governor as “Little Hitler” and compared the stay-at-home orders to Nazi Germany during the Holocaust.

“I mean, that’s no different than Nazi Germany, where you had government telling people, ‘You are an essential worker or a nonessential worker,’ and the nonessential workers got put on a train,” Scott told Houston-based podcast host Jess Fields in the interview posted online Thursday.

Local human rights advocates called Scott’s remarks offensive, The Spokesman-Review reported.

“Mass murder and genocide is not the same thing as deciding which businesses should essentially stay open and which should stay closed,” Rabbi Tamar Malino of Spokane’s Temple Beth Shalom said.

More than 1,600 Idaho residents have COVID-19, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University. At least 41 Idahoans have died.

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough, that clear up in two to three weeks. But it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and death for some people, especially older adults and people with existing health problems.

Associated Press writers Brady McCombs in Salt Lake City, Matt Volz in Helena and Andrew Selsky in Salem, Oregon contributed.