KOOTENAI COUNTY, Idaho — Kootenai County Sheriff Ben Wolfinger has penned a letter to Idaho's governor asking that the reopening of North Idaho's economy be fast tracked.
Wolfinger wrote that Washington residents are continuing to flock to North Idaho, making an element of the state's current "Stay Healthy" order impossible to enforce.
The letter, which Wolfinger sent to Gov. Brad Little's office on Monday, asked that the state adopt a county-by-county approach to easing out of social distancing measures put in place in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.
"I realize that you are in a very difficult position," Wolfinger wrote to Little. "But as we struggle to recover from the pandemic and return to whatever the new normal may be, it is more and more apparent that a one size fits all approach to the recovery is not practical nor economically sound."
Wolfinger cited North Idaho's 68 cases that were reported across the five Northern counties as of Monday and the lack of confirmed cases in Shoshone, Benewah, and Boundary counties.
"In the five Northern counties, there are only three active cases, currently," the sheriff told KREM on Wednesday.
In the letter, Wolfinger argued that North Idaho's case numbers and the "lack of impact" to local hospitals should allow the region's economy to open earlier than other parts of the Gem State.
Under Little's four-phase recovery plan, social distancing guidelines could be lifted statewide by the end of June, provided there are no spikes or upticks in reported coronavirus cases. For now, bars and large event venues are slated to remain closed until stage four of the plan, which is tentatively set to commence on June 13th. Two week intervals separate each stage of the plan.
Wolfinger argued that the remaining stages of the plan could be completed in one-week intervals instead for many counties.
"May I humbly recommend that we look at an accelerated re-opening for specific counties who continue to show no or very little growth in confirmed cases?" the sheriff wrote. "Yes, I realize that we may see a climb in cases, but based on the actual numbers of current confirmed cases and the lack of impact to much of our in-patient health care system I believe that the people of Idaho will react responsibly and appropriately."
Additionally, Wolfinger took issue with a provision of the governor's plan that asks people traveling to Idaho for non-essential services to self-quarantine for two weeks. Wolfinger called the rule "impossible" to enforce given the number of Washington residents who head to North Idaho to recreate.
"We know that they're coming over here in droves. We've seen them on the golf courses and at the boat ramps," Wolfinger said to KREM. "On top of that, hundreds of Washington residents have waterfront secondary homes in Northern Idaho, and can ostensibly claim to be quarantining at those locations, with the only time out of the quarantine being for essential services and supplies like groceries," he wrote to the governor.
Regardless, the Kootenai County Sheriff's Office has still been informing people of the order and has adopted an "education before citation" motto regarding the rule.
Wolfinger said the agency has printed roughly 3,000 informational fliers about the order to be distributed to cars with Washington license plates parked at popular recreational areas.
But following up further on that section of the order isn't realistic, he said.
"We just don't have the staff to go out and try to do that kind of enforcement," said Wolfinger.
Staff at both Farragut and Heyburn state parks in North Idaho told KREM in April that the parks had been seeing an influx of Washington residents due to state park closures in the Evergreen state. On Wednesday, employees at both parks told KREM that the amount of out-of-state visitors had yet to change.
The sheriff summarized his position by saying that a "one size fits all" policy regarding economic recovery didn't work in Idaho.
"It's one thing to complain, but to give constructive input is something that's valued by an elected official," said Wolfinger. "And I think [the Governor] needs that input."
Wolfinger said that, as of Wednesday afternoon, he was still waiting for a formal response from the governor's office.
The full letter reads:
I realize that you are in a very difficult position, but as we struggle to recover from the pandemic and return to whatever the new normal may be, it is more and more apparent that a one size fits all approach to the recovery is not practical nor economically sound. Here in the five northern counties of Idaho we have had a total of 68 cases with 64 of those in Kootenai County and 4 in Bonner County. That means that the other three counties, Boundary, Benewah and Shoshone have not seen one confirmed case. Today, there are only 4 active cases and they are all home and being monitored by the Health District.
State wide we have had nearly 72% of all cases show recovered. The recovered number is increasing faster than confirmed new cases each day.
The fourteen day quarantine for people from out of state is impossible to enforce with the influx of people from Washington State who come here to recreate. No law enforcement entity has the staffing to patrol the golf courses, boat ramps and other recreational sites to do such enforcement. On top of that, hundreds of Washington residents have waterfront secondary home in Northern Idaho, and can ostensibly claim to be quarantining at those locations, with the only time out of the quarantine being for essential services and supplies like groceries.
I know that many areas around the State, not just Northern Idaho, have the same status as we do, very few cases, very slow if any spread and suffering mostly because of a few counties where numbers are high and spread is still at a quick pace. In many counties, the plans are being made whether or not to have community events this summer and we can only advise them that once the Governor’s order is lifted, we have no legal standing to advise them to not have their events.
May I humbly recommend that we look at an accelerated re-opening for specific counties who continue to show no or very little growth in confirmed cases? I believe that this will be seen as a gesture of good will for those who have done their best to minimize exposure, and contain the virus. Yes, I realize that we may see a climb in cases, but based on the actual numbers of current confirmed cases and the lack of impact to much of our in-patient health care system I believe that the people of Idaho will react responsibly and appropriately. I still believe that recommendations for proper sanitation, social distancing and isolation for the more vulnerable population should stay in place, but as recommendations. I believe that stages 2, 3 and 4 can be done in one-week lengths of time for many counties after consultation with local county officials. If we begin to slide backwards at a rapid rate in a particular area, then we need to clamp back down in that area not State-wide.
Ben Wolfinger, Sheriff