More than a year into a pandemic that has claimed 523,000 lives in the United States, right-wing protesters in Idaho, including a handful of elected officials, set protective masks aflame Saturday, claiming face coverings stifle their personal liberties.
Although local, state and federal health officials are clear that masks are crucial in the fight against COVID-19, helping to prevent the disease from spreading, some 70 adults and children — none wearing face coverings — stepped forward on a downtown street corner in Coeur d'Alene and dropped masks into a symbolic burn pot containing dry ice. "U.S.A, U.S.A," they chanted.
The protesters held mask-burnings Saturday in locations across the state, where masks are strongly recommended but not required by Idaho Gov. Brad Little. At a gathering of more than 100 in the state capital, protesters tossed coverings into a flaming barrel and cheered at supportive remarks by Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin, a far-right militia supporter whose relations with Little, a fellow Republican, are strained.
“If a woman can kill an unborn child and it’s her body and her choice, I can decide whether to wear a mask,” a man shouted at the rally in Coeur d’Alene, a hub of the conservative northern Idaho panhandle.
The protesters appear to inhabit an alternate reality, one in which they claim that the coronavirus is no more dangerous than the flu and that public health directives based on science are dictatorial.
On Saturday, they planned burnings in two dozen Idaho cities, equating them to the Boston Tea Party despite the fact that tea dumped into the harbor by colonists to protest British taxes in 1773 did not, like masks, help protect others from a deadly disease. Experts on extremism say that dismissing the rallies simply as antics of a fringe movement would be a mistake, much like overlooking signs of an imminent attack on the U.S. Capitol.
“The denial of the reality of the pandemic and the denial of the legitimate results of the election are not too far apart from each other,” said Lindsay Schubiner, a program director at Western States Center, an organization that tracks extremist groups. "It's hard to have a functioning democracy if we don't live in the same shared reality, and that's one reason why spreading conspiracy theories has been so damaging and such a useful tool for the far right."
The Portland, Ore., organization had been monitoring activists planning Saturday's rallies in private Facebook groups and other online forums that fall below the radar of everyday social media. Such groups include People's Rights, an organization founded by Ammon Bundy, who led the 2016 occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, and Idaho G-416 Patriots, described as an anti-Muslim hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
The main organizer appeared to be Darr Moon, a mining engineer whose wife, Dorothy, serves in the Idaho House of Representatives. She and a fellow Republican lawmaker, Heather Scott, spoke in a YouTube video Thursday to endorse the burnings of masks as well as copies of an emergency declaration that Little issued for authority to take steps to reduce viral spread.
"Even if you don't have a mask — because in my district a lot of people don't wear masks — it's still symbolic," Scott said. "It gets the word out to the governor that it's time for this emergency order to end."
In many states, Little might be regarded as a laissez-faire leader regarding the pandemic, but in deep-red Idaho, he gained approval for declining to impose a statewide mask mandate even when COVID-19 cases peaked in mid-December. The disease has claimed nearly 1,900 lives and infected more than 170,000 people in Idaho, where daily new cases have declined to average fewer than 300, on par with last fall.
Responding Friday to plans for the mask burnings, Emily Callihan, the governor's communications director, said in an email that the emergency declaration had enabled Idaho to get federal money for expanding vaccinations and testing. "He took a measured, balanced approach that has worked to prevent a crisis in our hospitals while keeping our state open longer than almost every other state," she wrote.
Idaho's policies are watched especially closely in Spokane, Wash., and other communities west of Coeur d'Alene in Washington state, where face coverings are required in public, gatherings are more strictly limited, and restaurants and bars are capped at 25% of capacity. Owners of competing businesses in Washington have complained of losing business to restaurants and bars in Idaho, which are merely required to keep patrons seated.
Dr. Francisco Velázquez, Spokane Regional Health District interim health officer, said in an interview Saturday that his main concern about people holding mask-burning rallies was that they would spread the virus and potentially result in hospitalizations — including in his area. He worries that COVID-19 variants that have yet to be detected in eastern Washington and northern Idaho could contribute to another surge of the disease.
"I don't think the intent is to violate anyone's rights, the intent is mainly to protect all of us," he said. "I do respect their opinion, but the facts are the facts."
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.