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Far-right militias and members of something called the patriot movement are calling on their followers to openly defy government-enforced COVID-19 restrictions. NPR's Kirk Siegler reports from Idaho.
KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Ammon Bundy, who led an armed occupation of a federal wildlife refuge in Oregon in 2016 and was later acquitted, hasn't drawn much attention from the news cameras or social media until COVID-19. In defiance of Idaho's stay-at-home order, he's been holding regular in-person meetings in Emmett, a farming town in a river valley near the Oregon border. Bundy wears his cowboy hat and jeans and addresses a couple dozen people while glancing at his notes on his MacBook.
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AMMON BUNDY: Actually, if it gets bad enough and our rights are infringed upon enough, that we physically stand in defense in whatever way we need to.
SIEGLER: In Facebook Live streams, he often strikes a similar tone as his father Cliven Bundy did in the days leading up to an armed standoff near the family's Nevada ranch. Ammon Bundy had pledged to hold nondenominational Easter services yesterday for a thousand people here. A much smaller crowd turned up at a warehouse he owns in a dusty lot by the Emmett railroad tracks.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: You guys can park right here...
SIEGLER: One activist played the shofar, an adopted symbol of the patriot movement. I watched from across the road.
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SIEGLER: Since I've been here, it looks like maybe a few dozen people have been coming in - American flags on pickups; bumper stickers saying things like taxation is theft, one over there promoting the conspiracy theory website Infowars. People are hugging. They seem to know each other. I don't see anyone wearing masks.
Even in Idaho, one of the nation's most conservative states, all of this might have been dismissed as bluster were it not for the fact that several elected officials here in the rural Northwest are making similar calls as Bundy.
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HEATHER SCOTT: Quite frankly, I don't know why Idaho is falling in line with some of the most liberal governors across this nation.
SIEGLER: One of the most vocal is Republican legislator Heather Scott in the northern Idaho panhandle - it's a region long associated with far-right extremism, both imported and homegrown. On her YouTube channel, Scott blames what she says is the lying Trump-hating media for spreading unfounded fear about the coronavirus. The local sheriff there in Bonner County urged Idaho's Republican Gov. Brad Little to convene the Legislature to rescind the order. The governor and his attorney general, who declined interview requests, say their policy is constitutional.
Oregon sociologist Randy Blazak studies far-right extremists in the Pacific Northwest.
RANDY BLAZAK: They're really focusing on how this might be an opportunity to advance their very extremist views.
SIEGLER: While there have been hundreds of cases in Blaine County, Idaho, and on Western Indian reservations, Blazak says there haven't been many reported infections in most rural areas.
BLAZAK: The people in rural America don't quite see the real body count. So it's very easy for them to deny the severity of this virus.
SIEGLER: 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 the vaccine is available. Dr. Morgan Morton is the chief of staff at Bonner General Hospital in the county where the sheriff says businesses should reopen and people should be free to move about.
MORGAN MORTON: I think it's a minority of people, and these people have gotten into office. I'm not exactly sure how. But there are a lot of normal level-headed people here, and I just hope that they're listening to us and not to them.
SIEGLER: Morton says her 25-bed hospital has just four ventilators and could easily get overwhelmed if the disease keeps spreading.
Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Boise.
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