Idaho governor OKs next step in restoring normal activity

Gov. Brad Little says Idaho will move to the second stage of his four-stage plan to return to regular activity and recover from the economic damage caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Idaho is ready to move to the second stage of a four-stage plan to return to regular activity and recover from the economic damage caused by the coronavirus pandemic, Gov. Brad Little said Thursday.

The Republican governor said that restrictions will be lifted starting Saturday on restaurant indoor dining, hair salons, and indoor gyms and recreation facilities. But social distancing requirements remain, meaning restaurants, for example, can use only 50% of seating capacity.

Little said the move is possible because residents have been doing well at helping avoid the spread of the virus, putting Idaho in a much better position than other states

“We cannot let up,” Little said. “That is not a reason to be inattentive to the practices that helped us get here.”

In stage 2, businesses are encouraged, where possible, to have employees work from home. Businesses returning employees to a workplace should do so in phases and have physical distancing, personal protection and sanitation in place.

As in stage 1, non-essential travel is allowed but should be minimized. Out-of-state travelers from hot spot areas of virus activity will be required to self-isolate for 14 days, but other visitors from areas without community spread won't need to self-isolate. The wearing of face coverings should continue when people go out in public.

Bars remain closed, as are movie theaters and large sporting venues. Little did say, however, that bars will be allowed to open in stage 3 rather than stage 4 as originally planned based on the current infection rate and hospital capacity available.

“I'd rather loosen it up than tighten it up,” Little said.

Little’s plan for moving through the four stages by the end of June in two-week intervals is based on declining infections and strong testing. The readiness of the health care system is another factor. A surge in new infections could require reinstating restrictions because of the potential for the health care system to be overwhelmed.

“That's kind of our Holy Grail, preserving our health care capacity,” Little said.

Little emphasized that the four-stage plan is the best way for people to feel safe going back to work or back into the marketplace as consumers.

As of Thursday, the state had 2,324 cases and 69 deaths because of the virus, according to Johns Hopkins University.

Little has taken criticism from fellow Republicans following his March 25 stay-at-home order for Idaho's 1.75 million residents as virus cases accelerated. Idaho's economy began shutting down in mid-March, and more than 130,000 unemployment claims have been filed in the last eight weeks, the Idaho Department of Labor said Thursday.

But virus cases leveled off under the order, and Little let it expire on May 1 to begin the reopening process with stage 1.

A key part of the reopening strategy is testing to find infected people and contact tracing to alert those they had contact with. Officials are planning to use $7 million from the $1.25 billion the state has received in federal coronavirus rescue money to hire more than 250 contact tracers, a labor-intensive job involving interviewing multiple people who might need to go into self-isolation to avoid additional infections.

If officials are satisfied after two weeks in stage 2 that infection rates haven’t increased, the state will move to stage 3 on May 30, where gatherings of up to 50 people are allowed. If all goes well, stage 4 would follow starting on June 13, with gatherings of more than 50 people allowed. But even in stage 4, precautions are included that limit occupancy in bars and require social distancing in theaters and other large venues.

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