Ammon Bundy, who led an armed occupation of a federal wildlife refuge in Oregon in 2016, hadn’t been drawing much attention from news cameras or social media lately, until COVID-19.
In defiance of Idaho’s stay-at-home order, which he claims is an affront to personal liberties, the militia leader — who was acquitted by an Oregon jury in 2016 — has been regularly holding in-person meetings in the Idaho farming town of Emmett where he now lives.
Bundy, in a cowboy hat and jeans, usually addresses a couple dozen people while glancing at notes on his MacBook.
“If it gets bad enough and our rights are infringed upon enough, we’ll physically stand in defense in whatever way we need to,” he said recently.
Bundy often strikes a similar tone as his father Cliven Bundy did in the days leading up to an earlier standoff near the family’s Nevada ranch in 2014. The meetings are usually streamed on Facebook and garner several hundred followers and scores of passionate comments.
Ammon Bundy had pledged to hold a nondenominational Easter service in a venue holding up to 1,000 people. In reality on Sunday, a much smaller crowd would turn out at a warehouse he owns in a dusty lot near the Emmett railroad tracks.
“They’ll speak all matter of evil against you, they’ll say that you are just trying to bring attention to yourself, they’ll say that you are trying to destroy other people’s freedoms because if you go outside and you breathe somebody might die,” said Diego Rodriguez, a minister who spoke at the event.
The event appeared to draw about 60 people, about half of whom when asked by Rodriguez said they’d traveled from out of state. Some seemed to know each other and hugged and shook hands. No one wore masks or any other protective gear. Outside, American flags were mounted on pickup trucks with bumper stickers promoting the Three Percenters militia, as a man at the entrance blew on a shofar, an adopted symbol of the rebellious anti-federal Patriot Movement.
Even in one of the nation’s most conservative regions, all of this might have been dismissed as bluster were it not for the fact that several elected officials in the rural Northwest are making similar calls for defiance as Ammon Bundy.
“Quite frankly, I don’t know why Idaho is falling in line with some of the most liberal governors across the nation,” said Rep. Heather Scott, a state lawmaker from Blanchard, in northern Idaho.
On her YouTube channel and in her regular newsletter to constituents, Scott called COVID-19 the virus that threatened to kill the Constitution. She also routinely casts doubt on the severity of the pandemic.
“The lying, Trump-hating media who continues to push global and socialist agendas has told us that there is an emergency,” Scott said in her YouTube video.
Fellow local Republican and Bonner County Sheriff Daryl Wheeler also sent a letter to Gov. Brad Little (R-Idaho) asking him to call an emergency session of the legislature to rescind the stay-at-home order. It’s been in place since March 25 and is set to expire this week.
The governor and the state’s attorney general have maintained the order is constitutional and will be defended in court if a challenge comes.
So far their strategy also appears to be one of non-engagement. Both declined interview requests and have spoken very little about their party’s defiant group. There have been no reports of police responding to any of the recent militia gatherings. This region — from conservative eastern Oregon and Washington state to the remote forests of the Idaho panhandle — has had a long history of far-right extremism, both homegrown and imported.
Randy Blazak, chair of the Oregon Coalition Against Hate Crime, says the COVID-19 pandemic is fertile ground for these groups’ recruitment efforts. It’s a time of high anxiety when civil liberties are taking the back seat to public health restrictions.
“They’re really focusing on how this might be an opportunity to advance their very extremist views,” Blazak says.
“The people in rural America don’t quite see the real body count,” he says. “So it’s very real for them to deny the severity of the virus.”
Health officials say it’s dangerous to cast doubt on stay-at-home orders, one of the only real tools to stop the spread of COVID-19 until a vaccine is available.
In Bonner County, where the sheriff has said businesses should reopen and people should be free to move about, Dr. Morgan Morton, the chief medical officer at Bonner General Hospital, calls it a small, vocal minority in her community that’s trying to drown out the urgent guidelines crafted by the experts, in this case the medical community and health care workers like her on the front lines.
“There are a lot of levelheaded people up here,” Morton says. “I just hope they’re listening to us and not them.”
Morton, who’s also an OB-GYN in the lakeside town of Sandpoint, worries that the county’s 25-bed hospital will be quickly overwhelmed if COVID-19 keeps spreading. They only have four ventilators and six emergency room doctors.
Doctors there have said recently that their community shouldn’t be taking medical advice from its sheriff.
“The most frustrating part is these are people who have clout with the community and are giving these recommendations when really it’s not their area of expertise,” Morton told NPR.
As of Monday, Idaho was reporting more than 1,400 coronavirus cases and more than two dozen deaths.