ProPublica investigation: E. Washington absorbing human, economic costs of Idaho’s lax response to pandemic

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Virginia Mayo

SPOKANE, Wash. — An investigation from ProPublica has found that eastern Washington appears to be absorbing the costs – both human and economic – of Idaho’s “laissez-faire” approach to handling the coronavirus pandemic.

The report, which was published Tuesday, takes a look at states with strict restrictions that border states with a more relaxed approach and dives into the effects of the inconsistency.

In Washington, restrictions have been in place since early on in the pandemic. A statewide mask mandate has been in place for months, restaurants and businesses are expected to operate with limited capacity and gatherings are restricted to small groups of people.

Meantime in Idaho, Governor Brad Little has refused to implement a statewide mask mandate, insisting that it be a decision made by local jurisdictions.

In North Idaho, city and county leaders have varied in their decisions to put forward a mandate. The Panhandle Health District Board voted to implement a mask mandate across five counties in November, weeks after lifting one they had put in place in July. And though masks are now required, there is little enforcement.

RELATED: Panhandle Health Board implements mask mandate for all five N. Idaho counties

Idaho has also been lax on their restrictions for restaurants and businesses. The state spent months in Stage 4 of the Idaho Rebounds plan — which allowed higher capacity in-person dining and large group gatherings — only to be moved back to Stage 2 as case rates and hospitalizations rates skyrocketed.

“You might have one city and a neighboring city with different requirements for masks, you have county to county differences, you have regional health districts that are different,” ProPublica reporter David Armstrong said.  “It’s really kind of a jumble of approaches to the virus.”

ProPublica’s investigation found Idaho’s accessibility drew people across the border.

Spokane Regional Health District epidemiologist Mark Springer said people bringing back COVID from larger events in Idaho has been a problem for eastern Washington.

“We’re sister cities, and so, all it takes is 10,000 people coming back and forth each day and 5 percent of those people pick up covid or bring it back and forth,” Springer said. “The virus doesn’t care about borders, it is looking for opportunities to reproduce itself.”

That trend is not only hurting people’s health, but also Washington businesses that are losing customers to competitors in Idaho.

ProPublica’s report also found that Washington schools are suffering as a result of Idaho’s lax response. The report featured the Newport School District, which lost a fourth of students to online-only programs or nearby private and public schools across the border in Idaho. Superintendent Dave Smith said that plunge led to a $1.2 million drop in funding.

In Newport, some in-person learning was introduced, but the school district had to return to online instruction because of a COVID outbreak that was linked to a Christian church and school across the border in Oldtown.

These trends are not solely happening in eastern Washington and Idaho, though. ProPublica’s investigation found similar happenings in other border states with varying pandemic responses, like Minnesota and South Dakota, as well as Illinois and Iowa.

“What’s really interesting is the lack of national standards for the most part about how to approach this pandemic, and so you have a lot of conflict, a lot of confusion,” Armstrong said.

The dean of Brown University’s School of Public Health said the whole country is having to live with the strategy of the least effective states because states are interconnected and one state “not doing a good job will continue to spread the virus to other states.”

Read ProPubica’s full report here.