In North Idaho, COVID-19 Restrictions And Social Media Stoke Deep Political Divisions
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It's Cinco de Mayo in Sandpoint, Idaho, and a downtown pub is giving away free meals to families in need. Not many people are out. A few are wearing masks. Outside the pub, a teenager is playing the Beatles' song "Yesterday" on his violin.
Jeff Nizzoli, owner of Eichardt's Pub and Grill, is handing out tostadas. He and a few other restaurant owners began doing this after the pandemic hit and people lost their jobs.
"It's a very uplifting thing to do," he says. "It's fun to give away free food."
It's also helping Sandpoint struggle through this crisis. This resort town of 8,700 people sits along the shores of Lake Pend Oreille in rural Bonner County, where new unemployment claims have recently climbed past 2,000. Restaurants, bars, gyms and other non-essential businesses have either been closed or operating at a limited capacity for the past month.
Meanwhile, like many counties in the rural West, the Sandpoint area has mostly been spared by the virus – so far, it has four confirmed cases.
Still, Nizzoli says the lockdown has been worth it.
"It's been financially tough on the pub but I think, for our town, it's been the best thing," he says. "Even though we only have our four cases and we feel so rural and isolated, a lot of people come here from a lot of different places. So you take one for the team."
Idaho plans to lift its stay-at-home order in phases over the next two months. Many folks here such as Nizzoli were fine with the government taking drastic steps to contain the virus.
But North Idaho is also deeply divided. Sandpoint split the vote between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton in the 2016 elections. But the rest of Bonner County and the surrounding area is more libertarian. It’s long attracted both moderates and some far-right, anti-government activists who see the stay-at-home orders as affronts to personal freedoms.
In early April, Bonner County Sheriff Daryl Wheeler urged Idaho Gov. Brad Little to reconsider the statewide stay-at-home order, writing in a letter, "I do not believe that suspending the Constitution was wise. Because COVID-19 is nothing like the Plague. We were misled by some Public Health Officials, and now it is time to reinstate our Constitution."
On April 17, around 200 protesters marched across the long bridge into Sandpoint echoing Wheeler's sentiments. Many carried both American and "Don't Tread On Me" flags. Republican state Rep. Heather Scott was among them.
"We will not comply to nonsense and I believe this is nonsense," she said in a speech to protesters.
Scott is one of the loudest and most staunchly libertarian voices in North Idaho. She recently called the governor "Little Hitler" over his stay-at-home order. But the protest she was a part of angered progressive Sandpoint resident Gail Bryan.
"How dare they put us in harm's way because they want to grandstand," she says.
Bryan and her family moved from the Bay Area a few years ago and take the virus very seriously – especially considering that Sandpoint is a tourism destination in the summer months.
"If we get this influx like we do on a normal year, or even half of what we do on a normal year, I think there's going to be a really big outbreak," she says. "And I think it's going to do some real damage to people here."
She believes the protests were an example of how big and loud the far-right movement has gotten here in recent years. They've held rallies over gun rights and abortion. She says they can also be pretty mean – especially online.
Bryan recently wrote a message on a community Facebook page asking whether local gyms were opening before the statewide order was officially lifted. Her Republican county commissioner, Dan McDonald, replied in the comments that there was a hotline for people to turn in neighbors and businesses called "1-800-IMA-NAZI."
Bryan calls him the biggest bully on the planet, "and it's real safe to do it behind a keyboard."
Social media appears to help stoke the partisan divide over the pandemic in Sandpoint and Bonner County. Resident Ryan Garrett says the cruelness cuts both ways. He watched as the protest was live streamed and said some of the comments from local progressives weren't kind either.
"I did see a whole lot of really nasty stuff on the social media about how stupid those people are, the Darwin Awards, and that, 'Hopefully you Republicans will all die,'" he says. "You wouldn't say that to somebody's face."
As for the rally itself, Garrett was fine with it. He's politically independent.
"I'm not a Republican but I sure as hell ain't no damn Democrat," he says.
He feels like the threat of the virus for rural places like Bonner County was overblown. It wasn't worth shutting down the local economy for more than a month. But he says it also isn't worth the online vitriol coming from both sides about it.
"Maybe it's the media or social media, whatever, but it seems like politics has infected life more than it did when I was a kid," he says.
Back at Eichardt's downtown, owner Jeff Nizzoli says his town has been politically split for awhile. But there's also been a spirit of civility and community here.
"If you're my neighbor and you have totally different beliefs, we both still care about the forest, we both care about our driveways, we both care about where we live," he says. "It's been that way for a long time."
This is especially true when folks are able to speak with each other face-to-face – something that's much harder to do during a pandemic.
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
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