Never has life seemed more normal in Boise than last week when Kathy and I joined Shakespeare Society members to hear from the artistic director of the Idaho Shakespeare Festival, Charlie Fee, now in his 30th year masterfully leading the Boise company.
Four actors who have returned to work on the Boise stage this summer joined Charlie in talking about what it means to come back from an entire year never setting foot on stage. One actor shared his fear during the COVID-19 pandemic that he might never return to the stage. All celebrated the moment with stories about what it meant to appear before Boise audiences after a year of a darkened theater, applauding Boiseans known for their enthusiastic support.
After dinner, we watched “Sleuth,” the famous English play starring veteran Shakespeare Festival actors who once again reminded theatergoers how fortunate Boise is to have this fine theater company rise from the pandemic as strong and as brilliant as years before.
Leaving behind a year of isolation and fear of contracting the virus that claimed over 800 Idaho lives is a familiar refrain in so many aspects of our daily lives this summer. It may be returning to the mall or our favorite store to shop up close and personal after a year of ordering online. It may be visiting our favorite coffee shop to order a cup of joe without a mask. Or returning to what one airline calls the friendly skies to visit loved ones too far removed over the last year. It could be dining indoors once again, so very appreciative of the wait staff who suffered income and job loss over the last year.
No matter how you look at life this summer in Idaho, it’s about regaining the freedom of access and movement denied by a pandemic that claimed lives and imprisoned us in our homes, shutting down what we took for granted in our Boise lives.
We earned the freedoms we enjoy this summer by showing up for vaccines that allow our community to open up once again.
Although Idaho remains a state with low vaccination rates which could return us to another isolation year if or when the delta variant moves into Idaho, the use of masks, social distancing and vaccinations did the job of freeing us this summer.
Our newfound freedoms raise the question of just what responsibilities we have to each other to keep us all safe from a new variant of COVID-19. With freedom comes responsibility, and Boise’s two hospital systems, fearing a return of the delta variant and armed with Idaho Department of Health and Welfare data showing the unvaccinated account for the majority of the state’s new COVID-19 cases, announced they will require vaccinations of its employees, volunteers and students.
Their decision was timed perfectly with a coalition of health-care organizations warning that a sufficient vaccination rate will not be achieved without vaccination as a condition of employment. Boise hospitals have taken a critical step in enforcing a responsibility we have to each other to remain safe and free of COVID-19.
The reaction to the hospitals’ announcements was quick and predictable from the far-right corner of Idaho politics. From the opportunistic and hysterical voice of Idaho’s Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin, who apparently knows more about running her bar in Idaho Falls than she knows about how to prevent a pandemic, came her request of Speaker of the House Scott Bedke to convene for the purpose of passing a law preventing private businesses and employers from making the COVID-19 vaccine mandatory.
Bedke hasn’t appeared to be buying into McGeachin’s nonsense, but Senate Pro Tem Chuck Winder equivocated in a report on Boise State Public Radio, questioning, on the one hand, whether the state should interfere with a contractual relationship between an employer and employee, but also calling the vaccines “experimental,” which he claimed gives a reason not to require vaccinations as a condition of employment.
To the contrary, Reuters Fact Check corrected that “experimental” claim, by pointing out that the vaccines have been put through standard safety testing before they were rolled out to the public and are not considered experimental. They were studied on tens of thousands of people in U.S. clinical trials before receiving emergency use authorization from the Food and Drug Administration.
Whether it’s Ammon Bundy, now a candidate for governor, McGeachin, legislative leaders such as Sen. Winder who seek to appease the anti-vaxxers by misstating the safety of the vaccine, or the tax-dodging Idaho Freedom Foundation that fuels the rhetoric and actions of the far right while violating its tax-exempt status with illegal lobbying, they all work to deny Idahoans the freedom to move about freely in our communities without fear of contracting the virus.
No one in our constitutional republic has an unfettered right to do what they please when it places large numbers of Americans in peril. Long ago, the Supreme Court ruled there is no right to yell “fire” in a crowded theater. And there is no right to deny hospitals and businesses the right to require vaccines for their employees when the science proves the vaccine protects Idahoans from the pandemic. Now that we have finally emerged safely from the pandemic, this is not the time to interfere with sound medical judgment.
Make no mistake about it. Those who fight vaccine requirements like Janice McGeachin are the autocrats of our times who deny Idahoans the freedom to be safe from a deadly virus.
Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told the Associated Press last week that the vaccine is so effective that “nearly every death, especially among adults, due to COVID 19, is at this point entirely preventable.”
McGeachin also disrespects America’s newest heroes, our health care workers, who do not get to stay home and quarantine with Zoom but who must show up in what has to be one of the most dangerous places during a pandemic unless hospitals can guard against the spread with vaccine requirements.
McGeachin’s raw ambition for headlines in her race for governor endangers patients, volunteers and visitors in hospitals and encourages the spread of the virus and endangers the lives of our unvaccinated neighbors. The freedom to remain free of the virus and go about our daily lives is at stake here. McGeachin has given us yet another reason to reject her candidacy for governor in next year’s primary and send her back to Idaho Falls.
Bob Kustra served as president of Boise State University from 2003 to 2018. He is host of Reader’s Corner on Boise State Public Radio and he writes a biweekly column for the Idaho Statesman. He served two terms as Illinois lieutenant governor and 10 years as a state legislator.