BOISE, Idaho – The Idaho Legislature voted Friday to shut down for several weeks due to an outbreak of COVID-19.
Lawmakers in the House and Senate made the move to recess until April 6 with significant unfinished business, including setting budgets and pushing through a huge income tax cut.
At least six of the 70 House members tested positive for the illness in the last week, and there are fears a highly contagious variant of COVID-19 is in the Statehouse.
“The House has had several positive tests, so it is probably prudent that the House take a step back for a couple weeks until things calm down and it’s not hot around here for COVID,” House Majority Leader Mike Moyle said before the votes.
Five of those who tested positive are Republicans and one is Democrat. Another Republican lawmaker is self-isolating. The chamber has a super-majority of 58 Republicans, most of whom rarely or never wear masks. All the Democratic lawmakers typically wear masks.
The three lawmakers who tested positive this week, two Republicans and one Democrat, had all been participating in debates on the House floor.
The House, with the illness spreading, requested the Senate recess as well. Two senators contracted COVID-19 but have recovered and returned to the 35-member Senate.
The Senate honored the House request and voted to recess about an hour after the House, with Republican Senate President Pro-Tem Chuck Winder calling it “an unusual and kind of historic request that has been made of us."
Republican Sen. Majority Leader Kelly Anthon said senators could use the time to prepare for when the Senate convenes again. “We will use this time productively for the Idaho people so that when we come back together on April 6, we will be ready to work quickly," he said.
Republican House Speaker Scott Bedke said after the votes that the delay could be good because it could give the Legislature time to figure out how to spend the $2.2 billion the state is receiving in the latest round of federal coronavirus relief money.
Republican leaders in the House and Senate, who control both chambers, didn't impose a mask mandate this session.
“I think maybe when they come back, maybe it will be different," Bedke said. "But I have no regrets on the safety protocols here to this point.”
Lawmakers will be paid the per diem rates to cover their normal session-related living expenses during the recess, and secretaries and attachés will also be paid during the break. Bedke characterized it as essentially a long weekend that many will use to catch up on paperwork and other business.
A major goal of GOP lawmakers in the Legislature this session has been curbing the emergency powers of the Republican governor to respond to things like pandemics. Legislators have floated several proposals that would restrict Gov. Brad Little’s ability to make sweeping directives in the future.
The House has also been advancing a bill that would ban local governments from requiring that people wear masks. Little, who wears a mask in public and encourages others to do so, has never issued a statewide mask mandate, but a handful of counties and about a dozen cities currently have such orders in place.
In a joint statement, Democratic House Minority Leader Ilana Rubel and Democratic Senate Minority Leader Michelle Stennett said they hoped that their colleagues ill with COVID-19 recovered.
“But we can’t help but be disappointed in how bad things have become at the Capitol, when we could’ve prevented this from becoming a hot spot all along," they said. "We are just so sorry it took so many people getting sick for us to act. We must do better when we return, or else we’ll keep finding ourselves in this position.”
Besides the eight lawmakers known to have contracted COVID-19, a handful of House and Senate staffers also are known to have contracted the virus this session.
During the recess, the lawmakers are expected to travel home to all parts of the state, potentially spreading the variant of the virus.
Dr. David Peterman, a pediatrician and CEO of Primary Health Medical Group, said Thursday that 30% to 40% of positive tests at the health group’s facilities in southwestern Idaho were the variant.
About 175,000 Idaho residents have been infected with the coronavirus, and more than 1,900 have died. But about 200,000 residents have received both shots of the two-shot vaccine, and another 125,000 have received the first shot. About 1.8 million people live in the state.
Associated Press reporter Rebecca Boone contributed to this report.
This story has been updated to correct that six representatives have tested positive, not five.