Idaho Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin on Monday defended her decision to impose a ban on mask mandates while Gov. Brad Little was traveling out of state, arguing the surprise move was necessary to protect individual freedoms from government overreach.
Little, also a Republican, accused McGeachin of attempting a “self-serving political stunt” in a scathing statement last week announcing his reversal of her executive action. McGeachin, who has been critical of Little’s leadership throughout the pandemic, said the ban on mask mandates was “absolutely not” a bid to garner publicity for her recently announced 2022 gubernatorial run.
“My action was to uphold my sworn oath to uphold and protect the rights of our citizens in Idaho, as guaranteed to us in our U.S. constitution, our Idaho constitution and the rule of law in Idaho,” McGeachin said in an interview with Fox News. “That is what I did.”
While Idaho never implemented a statewide mask mandate during the pandemic, state law allows local governments to dictate their own public health policies. McGeachin enacted an executive order banning local mandates while Little traveled out of state for the Republican Governors Association conference in Nashville, Tennessee.
McGeachin’s order lifted requirements at several institutions, including public buildings and schools. The action did not apply to hospitals or other health care facilities. Little reversed the ban within 24 hours of its implementation.
The lieutenant governor said she had hoped Little would leave her ban in place.
“I truly hoped that the governor would see the value in this. We’re at a different place today for sure than we were then,” McGeachin said. “The vaccine is readily available to anyone who wants it. Lead by example and show that you trust and respect the voice of the Idahoan citizens, that we don’t need to continue to have these dictates placed on us, especially by some that are appointed and not duly elected.”
The governor said the reversal was meant to “restore local control” after an instance of state government overreach. He warned that McGeachin’s order would have had “alarming consequences” if it had remained in place, preventing state authorities from implementing safety requirements for social workers visiting at-risk individuals or at “facilities that are particularly vulnerable to outbreaks.”
“Taking the earliest opportunity to act solitarily on a highly politicized, polarizing issue without conferring with local jurisdictions, legislators, and the sitting Governor is, simply put, an abuse of power,” Little said in a statement. “This kind of over-the-top executive action amounts to tyranny – something we all oppose.”
More than 590,000 of Idaho’s 1.8 million residents were fully vaccinated as of last Friday, according to state data. The state has reported more than 192,000 individual COVID-19 cases and 2,090 deaths since the pandemic began in March 2020.
McGeachin said Little’s initial stay-at-home order in March 2020, which shut down most businesses, was the “start of the tyranny” in the state. She said she found mask requirements implemented in some Idaho school districts “most concerning.”
“I do not criticize. I respect the right and choice of the individual,” she said. “If somebody asks me to wear a mask around them because they feel uncomfortable or vulnerable, then I will. If there’s a business that wants me to wear a mask into their establishment, then I do. But what I am opposed to is any time of a government mandate that forces us to do these things.”
Little has faced criticism from members of his own party for implementing lockdown measures in the heavily Republican state. Idaho’s GOP-controlled House has made several attempts to pass legislation aimed at curbing Little’s emergency powers. The House also voted to approve a ban on mask mandates earlier this year, but the measure was not taken up in the Senate.
The governor said his approach was meant to protect public health without causing undue harm to local businesses. The state’s unemployment rate has dropped close to pre-pandemic levels amid an ongoing economic recovery.
Little has yet to indicate whether he will run for re-election in 2022 in what is expected to be a crowded field of Republican candidates for governor.
“I am always reluctant to engage in political ploys, especially when I have been steadfast in meeting the simultaneous goals of protecting both lives and livelihoods,” Little added in his statement. “I do not like petty politics. I do not like political stunts over the rule of law. However, the significant consequences of the Lt. Governor’s flimsy executive order require me to clean up a mess.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.