Harry Griffith

Harry Griffith

    If Idaho continues to see a downward trend in COVID-19 cases, most businesses in the state could reopen by the end of June, according to a timeline rolled out by Gov. Brad Little on Thursday.

    But in the Wood River Valley, businesses will likely feel the effects of the novel coronavirus for months or years to come, local economic experts say.

    Little’s four-stage plan, which can be found online at rebound.idaho.gov, provides a tentative timeline for reopening restaurants, bars, retail shops, hair salons, youth camps, churches, gyms and movie theaters—along with other businesses currently deemed nonessential under the statewide self-isolation order—over the course of the next two months, provided certain safety guidelines are met.

    Even if businesses open on schedule, however, the long-term economic impact of the pandemic is expected to extend far beyond June.

    “We have a long road ahead,” said Harry Griffith, executive director of Sun Valley Economic Development, in a town hall meeting Wednesday night. “This is not a three-month, six-month or even 18-month process. We’re looking at 24 months of hard work and sacrifice.”

    A self-isolation order restricting “nonessential” business has been in place in Blaine County since March 20; a similar statewide order was enacted March 25. The state order is set to expire at the end of the month.

    The governor’s proposed timeline for reopening Idaho businesses depends on several factors, including testing capabilities, health-care system capacity and a continued downward trend in COVID-19 cases. It’s also contingent on “state and local preparedness plans,” according to the state website.

    Blaine County Commission Chairman Jacob Greenberg said early Thursday afternoon that he had a number of questions about the governor’s criteria—particularly about the local preparedness plan requirement and what it might entail. Under current conditions, Greenberg said, he doesn’t believe Blaine County is ready to reopen the businesses slated to resume work on May 1.

    “There’s a whole list of things we need to make sure are in place before we open the doors,” Greenberg said. “I think we’ve got to really move things along and get those things in place.”

    While the statewide order currently in place is enforceable by misdemeanor, local law enforcement leaders have said their preference is to enforce it through warnings and education, not criminal charges.

    In a press conference Thursday, a reporter asked Little about enforcement of the state order and four-step plan, noting that a handful of businesses in other parts of the state have said they plan to open before they are officially allowed to. Little described those defying the state restrictions as “one or two outliers,” adding that he trusts “99 percent” of businesses “to do the right thing.”

    “My Department of Health and Welfare doesn’t have a big law enforcement division,” Little said. “I trust consumer opinion and peer pressure to be perhaps the best cure for this.”

    When it comes time for businesses to reopen in Blaine County, Greenberg said, he is urging businesses to observe social distancing and hygiene guidelines. In Wednesday’s town hall meeting, he indicated that those guidelines will likely not be enforced by police.

    “We don’t have enough people in law enforcement to go around and check everything,” he said. “It’s going to be a function of the owner of the store, the business operator, that people stay safe and that employees stay safe.”

    Greenberg told town hall attendees that he expects people will naturally want to avoid crowded stores or restaurants—that “they’re going to self-select out of those stores and it’s going to monitor itself.”

    When Wood River Valley businesses reopen and when customers return may be two different questions, Griffith told town hall listeners. In a seasonal economy that’s largely driven by tourism, it’s unlikely that the valley will bounce back right away, he said, adding that he expects this summer—and possibly winter—to be “very difficult.”

    “There’s no question that we’re in for an extended period of people getting less hours, lower wages, and people struggling to make ends meet,” he said. “Some businesses that have been winners in the past are going to fold, close their doors and maybe wither away.”

    However, Griffith told attendees, he sees some “bright spots” in Blaine County’s economic recovery. Beyond the current “lifeline” of federal loans for small businesses and expanded unemployment insurance for workers, he said he sees the valley’s high number of second home owners and scenic rural setting—potentially appealing to urbanites looking for a place to work remotely—as assets in the area’s recovery process.

    “I think it’s an opportunity for our businesses and our business leaders to get ahead of the curve,” he said, when it comes to determining best practices in a post-pandemic economy. “We can become a beacon of a place that really cares about the safety of staff, tourists and everyone that would frequent Blaine County.”

Email the writer: gkauffman@mtexpress.com

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