“It was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”
– Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
Spring is here and the weather is warming. COVID-19 cases have fallen significantly and it seems we are in a reprieve. Now is a good time to reflect on the last year of pandemic. In this case, we will compare the pandemic responses of Boise Mayor Lauren McLean with Nampa Mayor Debbie Kling.
McLean and Kling are mayors of cities in Idaho’s Treasure Valley that lie only 24 miles apart. Boise is the largest city in Idaho and Nampa is the third largest. As similar as they are, their pandemic responses were miles apart.
Mayor Kling’s approach to COVID health orders emphasized freedom and personal responsibility. Early on she recognized the public was divided about health orders like mask mandates and closing non-essential businesses. Being heavy-handed might infringe civil liberties and create a revolt. Instead of issuing mandates, she strongly urged residents to follow health orders like social distancing and staying home to slow disease spread. “Not because someone is making you, but because someone is asking you. I’m asking you on behalf of those who can’t,” Kling stated.
When a few “non-essential” businesses agitated to open ahead of the Governor Little’s schedule, Kling and the Nampa city council decided to prioritize education and enforcement of orders for the safe operation of businesses instead of punishing businesses for opening early. In my opinion, this showed humility and wisdom. After all, who is City Hall to tell a person he cannot open his business to provide for himself and family? Should they suffer in want? There are also many studies linking joblessness with early mortality. The stress of unemployment and financial problems impact long-term health and shorten lives. Are these business restrictions in a pandemic really saving lives, or just trading lives? What about our Constitutionally protected civil rights? These issues are not black and white, but shades of gray, and call for a thoughtful approach that considers all sides.
In contrast, Mayor McLean’s approach was dictatorial and uncompromising. The only thing that mattered was CORONAVIRUS. She declared an emergency, issued public health orders and threatened violators with fines, imprisonment or both. The orders mandated social distancing, mask wearing, hand washing, quarantines, limits on gathering sizes, and business closures and restrictions. Local businesses were turned into COVID enforcement agents by threatening them with fines and license revocation if they did not enforce regulations on employees and customers. Boise set up a phone hotline and encouraged the public to report businesses not complying with health orders. Many felt this was reminiscent of the citizen informants used by the Soviet Union and communist China to root out citizens subversive to the Party. Someone enlisted a robocall system to flood the hotline with calls. Sadly, Idaho Governor Brad Little provided political cover for the city’s snitch hotline by comparing it with reporting drunk drivers on the highway – as if questioning the “science” behind wearing cloth masks was equivalent to getting drunk and killing people with a vehicle.
In December 2020, a group of 400 to 500 men, women and children gathered at the Central District Health building in Boise to protest additional COVID mandates. The board of health was to vote on a mandate for more business restrictions and a ban on gatherings of more than 10 people. The protest was peaceful. People carried signs and gave speeches. However, one woman was detained for trying to enter the meeting. Some rogue protesters also went to two members’ houses and demonstrated, thinking they were attending the meeting virtually. McLean canceled the meeting and called the protesters a disruptive “mob” threatening “violence,” which was a gross mischaracterization. McLean clearly was not comfortable with “the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” (See the First Amendment in the Bill of Rights.”
The meeting was rescheduled for a couple weeks later. Hundreds of protesters showed up again at Central District Health. Mayor McLean and Governor Little had dispatched about 40 Boise Police Department and Idaho State Patrol officers to guard the building, including a sniper team on a nearby rooftop and a surveillance drone buzzing overhead. Unintimidated by this ridiculous show of force, the people still held signs, said prayers and chanted. The board of heath voted against the new mandates, and everybody went home.
It seems Nampa’s Mayor Kling was right: Heavy-handed restriction of people’s civil liberties will provoke a backlash, especially when basic human needs like the ability to work and gather and interact with other human beings is at stake.
All of this over a virus that 99.74% of people who are not in a nursing home will survive.
After a year of pandemic, what are the results? Did laissez-faire Nampa become a hotbed of contagion, while clinically clean Boise escaped unscathed? We can compare counties since Boise is the largest city in Ada County and Nampa the largest in Canyon County. Total COVID cases as a percent of population in Ada County was 10.4%, while Canyon County was 11.3%. Less than one percentage point difference. Not significant.
How about mask mandates? Did they curb the spread, as the mask advocates insisted? Or did they do little or nothing, as some who looked closely at the science concluded? We can examine the CDC’s latest research dated March 5, 2021. It found that mask mandates led to a 0.5 to 1.8% reduction in COVID case growth rates, depending on the duration. On average it was about 1% less. That seems to mean instead of getting 100 new COVID cases, implementing a mask mandate would reduce it to 99. Here again, not significant.
How about the compulsive cleaning and sanitizing that restaurants and businesses were required to do? The latest guidelines from the CDC, dated April 5, 2021, state: “There have been few reports of COVID- 19 cases potentially attributed to fomite [surface] transmission… Findings of these studies suggest that the risk of SAR-CoV-2 infection via the fomite transmission route is low… each contact with a contaminated surface has less than 1 in 10,000 chance of causing an infection.” So, while hand washing was helpful, surface cleaning did little or nothing to curb the spread.
It was much ado about nothing. We could have saved all the expense, trouble and rancor and achieved nearly the same results by simply asking people to wash their hands.
Meanwhile, Mayor McLean continues to maintain a perpetual state of emergency and regularly re-issues public health orders on penalty of fines, imprisonment or both. Which brings me to the final point.
Health leaders are hinting that this is not over. At a recent news briefing, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said she had a feeling of “impending doom” because of a 10% increase in COVID cases. What does she know that she is not telling us? A study from Israel, a nation that aggressively rolled out the Pfizer vaccine, found the South African virus variant can break through the vaccine’s protection. Pharmaceutical companies are already developing second-round vaccine boosters. I don’t wish to rain on everyone’s parade, but it seems we are just one or two mutations away from variant that completely bypasses vaccine protection (leaving aside the question of acquired immunity) and brings us back to square one. Health and political leaders would likely attempt another round of lockdowns at that point.
In March 2020, Boise’s city council voted to revise the Emergency Powers in city code and gave the mayor unilateral authority to declare a public health emergency and mandate social distancing, curfews, quarantines, sheltering in place, closing businesses and restricting gatherings. She can shut down civil society at the stroke of a pen. City Council members are required to vote to rescind or ratify the order at the next official meeting, though the members’ record to date suggests they would likely ratify.
Residents of Nampa, I think you are in good hands if calls for another lockdown emerge. Residents of Boise, I think it is clear what McLean will do. If you are not okay with another severe lockdown, the time to speak up to City Hall is now. Once the gates are shut, you’re stuck inside.
Note: The report defined daily growth rate as the difference between the natural log of cumulative cases on a given day and the natural log of cumulative cases on the previous day, multiplied by 100.
Tags: Brad Little, Covid-19, Debbie Kling, Lauren McLean, Mask Mandate