While many are wishing “good riddance” to 2020, there’s no denying it was a year packed with news.
And, in March, much of that news centered around the novel coronavirus pandemic, prompting a statewide “stay home” order by Idaho Gov. Brad Little, which caused a cascade of closures and emergency declarations.
Among the top news of March 2020:
• Selkirk Fire Rescue & EMS launched a recruitment drive in early March for volunteer and resident firefighters to add to its current roster. The volunteer and resident firefighters supplement career crews during large incidents, whether it’s a big fire, a big rescue call, or highway accident when more hands are needed on scene or to staff the station because all
hands are needed to deal with an incident.
• Idaho’s veteran educators were in the limelight in early March after being
overlooked last year when lawmakers passed legislation that increased the starting pay for new teachers. This year, the House Education Committee passed a $233 million teacher pay proposal that would be awarded to high-achieving educators through a five-year allotted plan.
• As officials awaited information in early March on Gov. Brad Little’s statewide response plan for the coronavirus outbreak, the city is urging
residents to adopt Centers for Disease Control & Prevention safeguards for warding off the virus, which leads to COVID-19.
“As the number of cases worldwide continue to grow, it is important for everyone to take necessary precautions to protect ourselves and our loved ones from possible infection. Fortunately, from what we know today about the virus, it is containable and can be avoided with simple steps everyone can take,” Mayor Shelby Rognstad in news release that was distributed March 2.
• In early March, a triumvirate of federal agencies released a draft environmental impact statement and preferred alternative for operations of 14 federal dam and reservoir projects that comprise the Columbia River system.
The draft EIS triggers a 45-day public comment period on the draft EIS and the preferred alternative, which ended April 13.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Bureau of Reclamation and the Bonneville Power Administration developed the draft EIS to review and update the system. The document also evaluates impacts to resources in light of new information and changed conditions in the Columbia River Basin and addresses a U.S.
District Court order in Oregon.
More than 30 entities from across the region, consisting of tribes, federal agencies, and state and local governments, participated as cooperating agencies in review under the National Environmental Policy Act.
“Not surprisingly, there is a wide range of views and opinions about the best approaches to managing the Columbia River System. However, it was also apparent that people throughout the Northwest share many common values and interests,” federal officials said in an executive summary of the document.
• The Lake Pend Oreille School District began keeping a close eye on coronavirus reports in the region in early March, as well as on cases of the flu. The district began an emphasis on cleaning protocols and implemented a heightened emphasis on sanitization each evening.
Superintendent Tom Albertson said at the time that the district is following precautions outlined by the Panhandle Health District and the Centers for Disease Control.
• Bonner County Sheriff Daryl Wheeler announced on March 3 his plans to seek a fourth term in office. Wheeler was first elected in 2008, facing four challengers in the primary before going on to win the general election. Wheeler prevailed in a three-way race for the GOP nomination in 2012 and prevailed again in 2016.
• Idahoans learned in early March that they could keep looking forward to (or
dreading) setting their clocks forward every spring despite efforts in the Idaho Legislature to stop daylight saving time.
House Bill 358, by Rep. Christy Zito, R-Hammett, would have exempted Idaho from observing daylight saving time. This would have put the state at odds with neighbors Oregon and Washington, which have both passed legislation putting them on permanent daylight saving time pending congressional approval.
• First District Judge Barbara Buchanan said on March 4 that she would issue a written decision within 30 days on cross motions for summary judgment in the legal controversy over the Lake Pend Oreille School District’s permanent levy.
Counsels for landowner Don Skinner and the school district agree that the matter can be adjudicated as a matter of law and without a trial because there is no genuine dispute as to any material facts.
Skinner’s counsel, Sandpoint attorney Stephen Smith, argued that the results of the Nov. 5, 2019, levy election should be nullified because sample ballots and the
ballots cast by voters did not contain language outlining the tax impacts of the $12.7 million levy. The district’s counsel, Coeur d’Alene attorney Caitlin Kling, maintained that the burden of proving the alleged ballot defect rested with the plaintiff, who needed to prove the irregularity would have a produced a different outcome in the election.
• Lake Pend Oreille School District Trustee Gary Suppiger announced in early March that he planned to seek the Republican nomination for the Idaho House of Representatives District 1B seat. Suppiger would go on to face incumbent Rep. Sage Dixon in the May 19 non-presidential primary.
• Bonner General Health officials assured the community in early March that they were prepared to handle COVID-19 cases if and when they arrived in the community.
BGH staff said they were working with local and regional partners to prepare for the coronavirus. Bonner General has, is and will continue to follow CDC guidelines for the virus and has identified contained areas for infected patients, prepared with appropriate supplies at this time, continued education with all staff, Erin Binnall, community development manager for Bonner General Health and Foundation, told the Daily Bee.
“Our priority is for the safety and well-being of our patients, their families, and our staff,” Binnall said in early March.
• The City Council voted in early March to request a public hearing in Sandpoint on Avista’s Integrated Resource Plan, a road map for how the utility will meet the
energy needs of its customers.
The council made the request at the urging of the Idaho Conservation League, saying it would provide the public an avenue for involvement in the planning process. Moreover, a public hearing allows Avista to take the pulse of its customer base.
• Joanie McClure, who provides clothing for the homeless and the poor in Sandpoint, as well as counseling for the poor-inspirit, shared her thoughts on March 8 about the need to help others.
“She’s an angel on Earth,” said Sandpoint’s Misty Schubert at the time about
Joanie McClure, who is on a quest to help others with clothing and basic living
supplies they need.
“She makes sure everyone is clothed,” said Crista Bushell, who drives an older friend to the Friday evening soup kitchen at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church each week.
• Bonner County moved on March 9 to compel discovery in its lawsuit against the city of Sandpoint over the Festival at Sandpoint’s firearms prohibition.
Counsel for the county contended discovery — the exchange of information pertinent to the case — is necessary in order to properly argue its case regarding the city’s motion for summary judgment in the matter, according to court documents.
• A bill to increase the tax credit Idahoans receive to help offset the cost of groceries is tentatively scheduled for a vote in the state House on March 10.
House Bill 494 — which increases a tax credit by $15 credit to citizens 65 and older and $35 credit for all other Idahoans — was approved out of the Revenue and Taxation Committee in mid-February and given its second reading on the House floor.
• With a majority percent of the state’s precincts reporting, President Donald Trump claimed the Republican nomination for president, and former Vice President Joe Biden nabbed the Democratic nomination for the office in primary election voting on March 10.
• The U.S. Forest Service gathered public input in mid-March on a Hayden company’s request to conduct exploratory drilling for locatable minerals in the Cabinet Mountains. The Auxer Mine exploration would be located in Auxor Basin, a depression within in the Lightning Creek watershed east of Hope.
• A project to construct additional BNSF Railway bridges in Sandpoint got underway in September and by mid-March, dirt had been turned and the project was in full force.
The railroad in constructing a 4,874-foot-long bridge approximately 50 feet west of the existing railroad bridge over the lake, which will remain in service once the new bridge is constructed. The second bridge will consist of 49 spans with 48 in-water piers. It will be made of precast, pre-stressed I girders and will have a cast-in-place deck, according to project documents. A second bridge will also parallel the existing span over Sand Creek, which also will remain in service if the new bridge is built.
The bridge proposals have been alternately been welcomed and opposed by the community. Supporters of the project contend it will facilitate commerce and reduced holdups in the county while opponents maintain the bridges will increase
the chance of hazardous material spills and derailments.
• Idaho health officials said March 13 that the state’s first case of the new coronavirus was a woman in her 50s in southwestern Idaho in highly populated Ada County, which includes Boise.
Health officials said the woman, whose name wasn’t released, was self-isolating at
home and had mild symptoms.
• A Kootenai County man was shot and killed March 12 while working in his chiropractic office in Bonners Ferry. Brian Drake, 45, was found dead from a gunshot wound in “an intentional act,” Bonners Ferry Police officials said at the time.
• To prepare for the possibility of the novel coronavirus turning up in the community, BGH erected a tent outside its emergency department on March 11 as a proactive measure. The tent enabled the hospital to screen and test for COVID-19 in order to avoid contaminating the staff, patients and the hospital.
• Mother Nature didn’t mess around on March 13-14 as a windstorm that roared
into the region Friday evening knocked power out to almost 16,000 homes and businesses.
The storm never died down and continued to wreak havoc Saturday, toppling trees, knocking out power and creating hazardous conditions throughout the region. At the peak of the storm,
Avista Utilities reported more than 9,600 residences and businesses lost power and Northern Lights, Inc. reported that 6,034 members throughout its coverage area lost power due to the storm.
• In mid-March, Bonner County school districts announced they would be closing in the interest of public safety due to the spreading novel coronavirus pandemic as did the Sandpoint Area Senior Center. Joining suit was the East Bonner County
Library District, which announced the suspension of some programs.
• Counsel representing the Lake Pend Oreille School District in a lawsuit alleging a levy ballot defect moved in mid-March to exclude allegations that the district acted in bad faith as well as witnesses who did not vote in the contested levy vote.
The motion asked the district court to preclude counsel for taxpayer Don Skinner,
Sandpoint attorney Stephen Smith, from requesting equitable relief and all testimony in support of court-ordered relief because the civil complaint in the case made no mention of a request for such relief.
• Bonner County declared a local state of emergency March 17 due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The declaration mainly opens up the county’s spending authority and eases other requirements so the county can respond quickly to the pandemic. It also allows for the county to be reimbursed for expenses it incurs because of COVID-19.
“Basically, it gives us the ability if we have to spend any money on this issue — which we may or may not — it can be a reimbursable amount that can be given back to county taxpayers,” Commissioner Dan McDonald said at the time.
• Acting Bonner County Road & Bridge Director Jason Topp found himself doing more than clearing downed trees that fell across roadways when a March 13 winter storm pummeled the area.
“It started with a life-saving callout that we were fortunately equipped to handle as a 30-inch diameter tree fell through a mobile home smashing an 11-year-old boy to the floor of the home, pinning him with the tree laying across his abdomen,”
Topp told commissioners on March 17.
Topp used the county’s John Deere front-end loader to lift the 30-inch diameter tree off the boy with the help of Sagle resident John Greenwood, in addition to a team of first responders.
• On March 17, the East Bonner County Library District announced it would be closing effective immediately. The news was followed by an announcement by the Greater Sandpoint Chamber of Commerce and Sandpoint officials that the city was expected to make a disaster declaration in the near future due to the ongoing pandemic.
“This is not an easy decision and is not taken lightly,” city and chamber officials said. “Decisions are based upon what health officials are advising. Please keep in mind our demographics of retirees in the area as this is the most vulnerable group.”
The city would go on to declare a stare of emergency on March 18.
“It is incumbent upon all of us to do what we can to protect our community,” Sandpoint Mayor Shelby Rognstad said at a press conference.
• First District Judge Barbara Buchanan upheld the validity of Lake Pend Oreille School District’s $12.7 million permanent levy, issuing a 16-page decision on March 16 and granting the school district’s motion for summary judgment. At the same time, Buchanan denied competing summary judgment motion filed by taxpayer Don Skinner, who argued that the levy’s outcome should be voided because the ballot did not contain a mandatory disclosure of the tax impact on landowners if the measure passed.
School district voters narrowly passed the permanent levy in a 4,265-4,034 vote on Nov. 5, 2019. However, the ballot did not contain an estimated average annual cost based on based on a landowner’s taxable assessed value.
• On March 18, Schweitzer Mountain Resort announced it was closing and so did the Panhandle Animal Shelter Thrift Store and sorting facility. By mid-afternoon, West Bonner Libraries had also announced it was closing for a few weeks.
All were in response to a call by experts for social distancing as a way to combat the spread of the novel coronavirus and decrease the likelihood of vulnerable populations getting sick.
• The first case of novel coronavirus in North Idaho was confirmed in Kootenai County, the Panhandle Health District and Kootenai Health said March 19.
The individual, a male over 60, self-isolated in another state and was reported to have experienced mild symptoms.
This is the first case in the Panhandle and was the 12th in the state – until the south central district reported 12 new cases of its own late March 19.
• After taking students online earlier in March due to a flu outbreak, Forrest Bird Charter Schools announced March 20 that the schools would be going online for the rest of the semester due to concerns over the novel coronavirus.
Also on March 20, Bonner General Health announced it was limiting entry to the hospital to certain access points and screening all who entered, First Presbyterian Church switched to online services and the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho announced a decision to close portions of the Kootenai River Inn Casino and Spa.
• Like many other cities in the state, in mid- to late March, Ponderay and Priest River signed declarations of local disaster emergency in response to the anticipated COVID-19 impact on the communities.
• Restaurants in the community stepped up to make sure nobody, especially children, would go hungry during the coronavirus pandemic.
In addition to the Lake Pend Oreille and West Bonner County school districts, Arlo’s Ristorante, Huckleberry Lanes, Pack River Store and Uptown Bagel Co. offered free meals to anyone who needed them with no questions asked.
Alex Jacobson, who owns the Pack River Store with his wife, Brittany, said they were moved to act because they recognized the need as schools and businesses close.
“We couldn’t fathom kids not being able to get a good meal,” Alex Jacobson said at the time.
• Determined opponents of proposed asphalt batch plant relocation in Sagle took their fight to the Idaho Supreme Court as Citizens Against Linscott/Interstate Asphalt filed a notice of appeal March 18.
The group appealed Judge Jeff Brudie’s Feb. 5 ruling which affirmed Bonner County’s approval of a conditional use permit for the project to relocate Interstate Concrete & Asphalt plan to move its asphalt plant from Sandpoint to Frank Linscott’s gravel pit on the west side of U.S. Highway 95 north of Gun Club Road.
• Scofflaws who try to skirt mandatory watercraft inspection stations in Bonner County this boating season learned in late March they would have to contend long arm of the law. Bonner County commissioners approved a contract Tuesday for the sheriff’s office to enforce the Idaho Invasive Species Act.
• Sandpoint Parks and Recreation announced March 23 that it was closing its playgrounds. The city has playgrounds at Travers, Lakeview and
Hickory Street parks and City Beach.
“These measures are not being taken lightly,” Sandpoint Mayor Shelby Rognstad said in a press release announcing the move to follow Centers for Disease Control and Panhandle Health District guidelines for COVID-19, and social distance and disinfection guidelines.
Also announced as being canceled were the Sandpoint Lions annual Easter egg hunt, the Ponderay Easter parade and egg hunt and the Kootenai city Easter egg hunt.
• The Idaho State Board of Education ordered schools statewide to close until at least April 20 in hopes of slowing the spread of the coronavirus.
The directive was announced late March 23, a short time after Idaho Gov. Brad Little said during a press conference that he was not yet ready to make statewide or even additional local closure orders in response to the growing number of Idaho residents confirmed to have contracted COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus.
• The city of Sandpoint agreed March 23 to release discovery materials and appointed officials have agreed to sit for depositions in Bonner County’s lawsuit over the prohibition of firearms during the Festival at Sandpoint.
Counsel for the county, Amy Clemmons, made the disclosure
in court documents in the run-up to a March 25 hearing on the county’s motion. The county filed the motion so it can properly defend against a motion for summary judgment, which aims to settle the dispute without going to trial.
• Priest River City Council unanimously approved a declaration of local disaster emergency in response to anticipated impact of the novel coronavirus on the community.
• Gov. Brad Little issued a three-week stay-home order on March 25 for all residents in Idaho deemed non-essential.
“Idaho is now in a new stage,” Little said at a news conference at the time. “The confirmed community transmission [is] now occurring in Idaho’s most densely-populated areas.”
The move ordered all residents — healthy and ill — to stay home.
Those who are high-risk were told to avoid leaving home, according to the proclamation. The governor’s order also limited public transportation and called
on the public to refrain from any non-essential travel in a bid to slow spread of COVID-19.
• The Sandpoint City Council rejected an ordinance March 25 to grant Mayor Shelby Rognstad temporary emergency powers to protect against the coronavirus pandemic. The ordinance would have granted Rognstad the ability to order residents to shelter in place or required restaurants to serve diners only in a takeout capacity.
• In accordance with the statewide stay-at-home order issued by Gov. Brad Little, all Sandpoint city buildings and facilities, including City Hall, were closed to
the public effective March 26 and lasting through Monday, April 20.
All city services continued with staff schedule changes to ensure seven-day
week coverage but limited employee-to-employee contact. Most city office employees were directed to work from home.
• Local photographer Kiersten Patterson who shared messages from business owners and employees to local residents in late March in a bid to unite the community.
“Grateful for me for taking the time to ask how they are doing, photograph their message and their business,” Patterson said of the messages she received. “They are grateful for the Sandpoint community and the people who are still supporting them. They are even finding gratitude for the opportunities this crisis is bringing: time to put priorities right, more time with family, more time to do things they were too busy or too tired to pursue (talk about silver lining).”
• Longtime Sandpoint building inspector Don Carter, 63, retired in late March after almost 43 years on the job.
“He is the holder of all institutional knowledge,” Sandpoint City Administrator
Jennifer Stapleton said at the time. “Every time we want to know something that has happened in the past or why we’re doing something that we’re doing, it’s always call Don even if it’s out of his scope of responsibilities because he is going to know.”
• A Lakeland High School graduate and former Priest River resident appeared on “American Idol” in late March. She made the top 40 and auditioned in front of all-star judges Luke Bryan, Katy Perry and Lionel Richie.
“I watched ‘American Idol’ my whole life with my grandma,” Fiedler said before the show aired. “Every Sunday we would watch ‘American Idol.’ She would always say, ‘Someday that’s going to be you.'”
• Donovan Libring, a ‘94 Sandpoint High graduate; his wife, Caryn; and their three children — David, Isabel and Gianmarco — were counting their blessings.
While they were among those restricted to their homes as part of Italy’s nationwide quarantine affecting some 16 million people, they have each other, and they are able to connect with family and friends through apps such as Skype and Zoom.
The family, which lives in Veneto region, about an hour or so north of Venice, shared their experiences of being under a national quarantine as well as their words of advice for family and friends back home.
• On March 31, the Daily Bee ran a special front page of the newspaper to let residents know their community newspaper is there for them now and always.
“As the United States faces the worst public health crisis in a generation, we want you to know we are here for you — and with you,” the newspaper said in the story. “Whatever happens, whenever it happens, your newspaper will be here for you. We’ll be here to let you know how our community is managing through this crisis — from business to government to the health care system and schools to the drastic impact on individuals and families.”