On March 26, an aircraft flying from Seattle, Washington, to McCall, Idaho, was met at the airport by local police. The small aircraft only contained a pilot and a passenger — Russel and Patricia Stromberg — who flew into the state to check on the status of a house they are constructing.
Shortly after landing, McCall law enforcement officials instructed the Strombergs to return to Washington, citing statewide travel restrictions due to COVID-19 as the reason. So, the two travelers flew back to their point of origin in lieu of being issued a misdemeanor citation.
The day before, on March 25, Gov. Brad Little issued his initial statewide stay-at-home order. On the same day as the incident (March 26), the city of McCall issued an advisory, stating that city officials interpreted the stay-at-home order to mean they can limit flights into their airport “to those for essential travel only.” They also warned that people who arrive that “do not fit an essential service category will be instructed to return to their aircraft and depart.”
As the incident with the Strombergs shows, McCall officials grossly overstepped their power.
The governor’s initial stay-at-home order did not close Idaho runways. In fact, the order explicitly endorsed the need to continue airline and other travel that supports essential activities. And the governor’s order listed numerous activities that are considered essential, including “construction of housing … and the transfer and selling thereof.”
Thus, the pilot and passenger of the private aircraft were actually entering Idaho as part of an essential activity, before McCall officials forced them to leave.
To make matters worse, the local police did not have the authority to turn around the aircraft. In an April 8 Blaine County virtual town hall, listeners received a perspective on this Valley County incident. Blaine County Commissioner Greenberg shared his view that “while local police do have authority to enforce ordinances and orders concerning the COVID-19 crisis, there are limits to that authority when it comes to the airport. No local authority, for instance, police, health officials, airport staff, can order that an aircraft not use an airport or close the airport to certain traffic based upon their origin city.”
The authority to turn away an aircraft flying into a federally funded municipal airport lies exclusively with the Federal Aviation Administration, which the FAA reminded McCall officials in an April 4 email we obtained via a public records request.
During this COVID-19 pandemic, government officials at all levels assume more power than usual. But they need to remember that their authority is still confined only to what is enumerated in the constitution, state laws, federal laws, and emergency orders. McCall officials overstepped their power and should be wary of doing so again.
To read more about coronavirus responses in Valley County, please click here.