BOISE (AP) — Angry spectators who couldn’t get into the Idaho House of Representatives for a special session to deal with the coronavirus pandemic Monday shattered a glass door and rushed into the gallery that had limited seating because of the virus, including at least one person carrying an assault-style weapon.
State Rep. Chris Abernathy, D-Pocatello, said social distancing guidelines inside the House gallery, and in other locations in the Statehouse, went largely ignored Monday. He said it wouldn’t surprise him at all if people are diagnosed as having COVID-19 after attending the special session, of which a majority of the people present Monday were not wearing face coverings.
“Unacceptable,” is how Abernathy described the scene inside the House gallery Monday morning. “We will probably see people getting sick because of this, which means I’ll have to hide out and quarantine for another two weeks because my grandmother just had a stroke.”
Abernathy had car troubles Monday and was late for the start of the special session Monday, though he said he would have hitchhiked from Pocatello to Boise to ensure his vote was included on measures relating to COVID-19 liability lawsuits and elections laws.
Several conservative lawmakers went into the gallery to ask for calm and decorum, and the special session started anyway with a full House gallery and few if any people wearing masks.
The special session called by Republican Gov. Brad Little will look at changes to election laws to smooth voting in November, including dealing with extra absentee ballots and solutions to a potential shortage of polling places and poll workers amid the virus.
Lawmakers also plan to consider changes to liability laws they say are needed to protect businesses, schools and government agencies from lawsuits from people who get COVID-19.
People not let into the House gallery over social distancing requirements began chanting and banging on the glass doors. Witnesses said the crowd appeared to surge forward and the glass broke, and people rushed in to fill the gallery.
“This is our house,” said Allen Clark of Meridian, who was among those who rushed through the broken doors. “We own this house. We pay taxes. We’re citizens of Idaho. Why can’t we be allowed in a public meeting?”
Clark also carried across his chest what he said was a Yugoslavian M70B1 with a loaded 30-round magazine. Idaho permits the open carry of firearms, including in the Statehouse. People carrying assault-style rifles are not uncommon when the Legislature is in session, but usually when legislation involves gun restrictions. No such legislation has been proposed for the special session.
“I think it’s unfortunate that a few people felt like they had to do damage,” said Republican House Majority Caucus Chairwoman Megan Blanksma as she stood near the broken door. “We’ve not experienced this type of atmosphere before, and my hope is that going forward for the rest of the day, people can conduct themselves in a little bit better fashion where we do our best to get along rather than resort to violence.”
Republican House Speaker Scott Bedke reminded the crowd there was no standing, and some filed out of the gallery.
The special session also drew anti-government activist Ammon Bundy, who led the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon in 2016. He stood on the Statehouse steps with about 100 others opposed to legislation on liability laws.
The House meeting ended and lawmakers went to several committees to consider proposed legislation.
The Idaho State Journal contributed to this report.