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Idaho lawmakers use measure to target gathering-size limits

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — A girls’ basketball tournament triggered legislation introduced Friday targeting gathering-size limits due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The House State Affairs Committee approved a measure after the Idaho High School Activities Association on Thursday rejected a request from the committee’s chairman to allow more fans at the girls’ state basketball tournament later this month.

Republican Rep. Brent Crane said the association’s limit of 1,800 fans in the 11,000-capacity Ford Idaho Center in Nampa in southwestern Idaho will harm kids.

He said the association’s board held an emergency meeting on Thursday, then told him that the number of fans allowed would not be increased.

“I said, well, then you can expect tomorrow morning in our committee that we’re going to have legislation that addresses that issue,” Crane testified before the committee. “Should this pass, it would lift the limit for not just sporting events, but for anything. Any type of event. A dance, a prom, whatever.”

It’s not clear, though, that the legislation would affect entities like the activities association or even municipalities. The legislation, made public after the committee meeting and reviewed by The Associated Press, doesn’t contain language involving those entities.

Specifically, the legislation is a resolution that targets Republican Gov. Brad Little’s health order on Tuesday that raised the limits on gatherings from 10 to 50. The resolution says the 50-person limit is “declared null, void, and of no force and effect.”

However, the governor’s health order recommends, but doesn’t require, a 50-person limit, and there is no penalty for exceeding 50 people. Also, the Ford Idaho Center is owned by the city of Nampa, which has no size limits on crowds. Neither does Canyon County, in which Nampa is located.

Republican Rep. Barbara Ehardt helped draft the legislation and also testified.

“This is about our kids at our schools trying to find some normalcy in life because they are struggling,” she said.

Mike Federico, the assistant director of the Idaho High School Activities Association, said the 1,800-fan limit at the Idaho Ford Center and a 300-fan limit at high schools hosting district tournaments were formed following discussions with host sites and schools leading up to the tournament.

Idaho’s State Board of Education and the governor’s office last month increased fan participation to 40% of a building’s capacity.

But Federico said other factors such as narrow hallways and bathroom access were considered in coming up with fan limits set before the 40% number came out.

He said some schools would not have participated if they were not convinced that sufficient public health precautions had not been taken to ensure the safety of participating youth.

Health officials during the pandemic have warned against large gatherings, especially indoors, that could turn into coronavirus super-spreader events. Federico declined to discuss that possibility for the upcoming girls’ and boys’ basketball tournaments.

“We do not want to make sports a political statement, a health statement,” Federico said. “We want our kids to be safe in the environment we are providing for them. Things work out pretty well once the ball goes up. Kids get to play.

The resolution crafted by the lawmakers states that the “Legislature has determined to end orders that diminish personal accountability for health decisions and curtail family participation in extracurricular events.”

Ehardt after the meeting pointed to the measure’s statement of purpose, which says that the Legislature is “supportive of removing all obstacles that prevent full participation of individuals in all activities.”

An opinion from the Idaho attorney general’s office last month requested by a Democratic lawmaker said resolutions like the one introduced Friday are not mentioned in the Idaho Constitution and therefore don’t have the force of law. The resolutions only reflect the wishes of the House or Senate, the opinion said.

Lawmakers hired a private attorney who contradicted the opinion by the attorney general’s office.

The Idaho Department of Health and Welfare has reported that the virus has sickened about 165,000 residents and killed about 1,750.

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