COEUR D'ALENE, Idaho — Idaho Governor Brad Little is repealing Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin's executive order banning mask mandates statewide among state political entities. McGeachin was serving as acting governor while Republican Gov. Brad Little is out of state at the Republican Governors Association conference.
In a statement, Little slammed McGeachin issuing the executive order as "an irresponsible, self-serving political stunt" that subverted the decisions of local officials and the people of Idaho.
McGeachin's order on Thursday caught the Coeur d'Alene School District off-guard, according to spokesperson Scott Maben. There is currently a mask mandate implemented at Lake City High School due to COVID-19 outbreaks. 23 students at LCHS have tested positive for COVID-19 from April 26 to May 21. LCHS Principal Deanne Clifford said 20 of those cases are related to in-school transmission, as reported by KREM 2 news partner the Coeur d'Alene/Post Falls Press. With the Lt. Governor's order banning mask mandates, the school district was left surprised and with a hard decision.
"We're hearing people are confused and they're frustrated and they don't know ‘Are we wearing masks today are we not?'" Coeur d'Alene School District spokesperson Scott Maben said in an interview with KREM 2's Morgan Trau. "We're frustrated."
After a consulting with the District's legal counsel, Maben announced Friday morning that they will not enforce the mask mandate at Lake City High School due to the Lt. Governor's executive order. Students were allowed to attend school without a mask on Friday.
"We were seeing a significant and concerning increase in positive cases," he added. "We knew we were having in-school transmission, we really just wanted to get our arms around that and try to reverse the trend and we think we have been having success with that."
With the executive order banning masks, he was worried that the District’s work mitigating the spread would be for nothing. His biggest concern was making sure the end-of-the-year plans for seniors aren't taken away by quarantines.
"We want everyone to be able to participate and enjoy the graduation ceremonies that we have coming up here in just two weeks," he said. "So we're that close to it and we can cross this finish line here, but we just need this community and everyone to just come together and help us get there."
Then, the governor announced he would be repealing the Lt. Governor's orders.
Following Little's announcement later in the morning Friday, Maben said the district won't be changing course on the mask mandate Friday. However, when LCHS students come back to class after the holiday weekend they will be required to wear masks again. Now that masks are back, he isn't as worried about cases spreading and harming graduation ceremony plans. He added that, luckily, Friday was Senior Skip Day, so the majority of the seniors are not in the building to potentially catch the virus.
"We have just nine school days left," he said. "[If] we band together and adhere to these mitigation measures over the next two weeks, we should be fine."
Only 44.4% of people aged 12 and older have received at least one dose of the vaccine, according to the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare COVID 19 Vaccine Data Dashboard. The site showed 39 percent of the Idaho population is fully vaccinated. As of Thursday, Idaho is the 6th least vaccinated state in the country, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
"It's unfortunate that schools are caught in the middle of a political campaign," Maben said. "And clearly, there's a campaign going on for governor."
In his statement, Little accused McGeachin of making a politically motivated power grab to strip decision-making authority from mayors, school board members, and other local officials.
"Just like the states begrudge federal government mandates, local governments in Idaho resent the state doing the same thing. The executive order usurps legislative powers. It replicates a bill that was debated considerably in the Legislature but failed to pass a body of individuals representing Idahoans from all corners of the state, and makes it law with the stroke of one person’s pen," the governor wrote. "The action that took place while I was gone this week is not gubernatorial. The action that took place was an irresponsible, self-serving political stunt."
"Taking the earliest opportunity to act solitarily on a highly politicized, polarizing issue without conferring with local jurisdictions, legislators, and the sitting Governor is, simply put, an abuse of power," Little continued.
Gov. Brad Little has never implemented a statewide mask mandate. He left mandates to smaller levels of government, such as cities and health districts. He said wearing a mask is an individual decision.
Democratic senator from Idaho's 5th District David Nelson thinks no sitting representatives knew that McGeachin was going to issue this executive order.
"Stunts like this do not lead to good governance," Nelson said.
David Nelson said he watched in surprise as McGeachin issued the order.
"I would say it's very abnormal for a lieutenant governor of the same party to play any shenanigans like that," Nelson told KREM 2's Morgan Trau after being asked how often decisions like this happen. "I can't think of any time that's happened in Idaho."
Despite both being republicans, Nelson said the governor and lieutenant have a dysfunctional relationship and don’t talk often.
"I guess probably people had suspicions that if he ever left the state that Lieutenant Governor McGeachin would do something like this," he added. "But I guess it caught most of the world by surprise."
Differences in opinion during the pandemic have led to more issues, as McGeachin has been an outspoken critic of Gov. Little and his safety guidelines.
"Usually you think politics are Republicans and Democrats, but a lot of it in Boise is the far-right and the less far-right Republicans not talking or working very well together," he added.
Nelson thought McGeachin is more interested in publicity than anything else. The lieutenant announced just last week that she is running to be Idaho's next governor.
"Oh, for sure this is 100 percent politics," he said. "She's been running for governor for two years. Almost everything she's done in her term as lieutenant governor is setting up to run for for governor, especially since COVID hit."
McGeachin said in a tweet Thursday morning that she signed the order to "protect the rights and liberties of individuals and businesses by prohibiting the state and its political subdivisions, including public schools, from imposing mask mandates in our state."
The Idaho State Constitution states that the lieutenant governor assumes the governor's role when he or she has a quote "temporary absence from the state." With Governor Little out of town, McGeachin is able to do anything she would to do if she were the elected governor.