Crews eased back onto the job on Monday in Sun Valley after Mayor Peter Hendricks announced that the city would allow its strict isolation orders to sunset Sunday night.
The decision breaks the Wood River Valley’s so-far unified response to the coronavirus outbreak, re-opening Sun Valley to construction and landscaping and pulling strident travel and quarantine requirements in place since late March.
A March 25 statewide self-isolation order from the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare exempts workers involved in commercial and residential construction, but Blaine County and Wood River Valley cities en-acted stricter orders prohibiting construction work. Ketchum, Hailey and Bellevue all opted to extend the initial restrictions for at least another week.
Citing “positive signs” and expressing a “strong faith in our citizens to continue to do the right thing,” Hendricks said the city “will be the canary in the coal mine as far as residential construction is concerned” in an open letter to constituents.
Construction will resume under standards “some of us had agreed upon,” Hendricks wrote. Hendricks said that he had watched most of the discussions held by other jurisdictions, and consulted with contractors. He did not specify those standards in his letter.
“We need to allow and encourage businesses to operate in a way that protects the health of workers and customers and aids the economic well-being of the commercial enterprise,” Hendricks wrote. “Remember, these are not faceless and long-distance owners. Our businesses are operated and staffed by our friends. Our theater staff, our restaurant owners and servers, our retail clerks, are the same people we’ll see at the fundraisers for our local nonprofits’ celebratory events. And these are the same people who contribute so generously time after time to these gala events. They need our help and support now in this crisis. We need to allow them to recover and be successful.”
Sun Valley remains subject to the statewide “shelter in place” order through Wednesday. Those rules are less restrictive than those set in the Wood River Valley, a hotspot for Idaho’s COVID-19 outbreak. But the state’s order does ban lodging for nonessential employees entering the area—a major chunk of the city’s economy.
The Sun Valley City Council did not meet to discuss extending the order. It will convene for a special meeting on Monday, April 20, to revisit the public health order, Hendricks said. As of press time on Tuesday, no time for that meeting had been set.
Hendricks’ decision fell under emergency powers granted to the mayor during the body’s last meeting, City Councilman Keith Saks told the Idaho Mountain Express over the weekend. The council “anticipated that quick action might be needed before a council meeting could be set,” allowing the mayor “to enact, limit or extend such bans at his discretion without the need to obtain council approval each time.”
“In this way our city can be nimble and effective to adapt to the COVID 19 pandemic,” Saks said.
Other jurisdictions labored longer in coming to their decisions.
The Hailey City Council met Thursday and Friday to discuss its extension, mostly debating residential and commercial construction.
The council voted 3-1 in favor of extending the ban until Monday, April 20. With the backing of Mayor Martha Burke, council members Sam Linnet, Juan Martinez and Heidi Husbands voted to keep the rules in place. Council President Kaz Thea voted against it, arguing that construction should resume this week, on the condition that contractors enforce safety measures.
“It’s in the best interest of contract and trades groups to be their own best stewards,” she said. “If they don’t practice [COVID-19] regulations, their employees will contract the virus and that’ll look bad.”
The remaining officials weren’t swayed.
“The overarching reason we put a hiatus on landscaping and construction was to prevent those who live outside of Blaine County from coming to work, entering a COVID-19 hotbed and taking the virus home to their families,” Burke said. “It wasn’t just to slow our curve here. It was to take pressure off Twin Falls’ and Boise’s hospitals. It isn’t right to contaminate our neighbors.”
At the Old County Courthouse, the Blaine County commissioners followed Hailey’s lead Saturday morning. Their vote was divided, too: Commissioners Jacob Greenberg and Angenie McCleary opted for the extension, which Commissioner Dick Fosbury opposed.
Much of the discussion in Saturday’s meeting revolved around whether to loosen restrictions on construction in the county, replacing the ban with a set of safety guidelines for construction workers. Fosbury suggested that the county allow construction workers to return to work on Wednesday, April 15.
“I believe that our workers can adopt these standards and follow our guidelines sooner and I have confidence in them,” Fosbury said.
But Greenberg and McCleary said they would rather wait an-other week to ensure that Blaine County continues to see a downward trend in coronavirus cases.
“We’re really at a critical time in our community,” McCleary said. “We have a few days of data that we’re in a better position, but that’s not a lot of information. Relaxing [the standards] at this point could give the community the wrong message.”
Farther north, Ketchum agreed late Saturday afternoon.
There, the City Council voted to cut language recommended by Mayor Neil Bradshaw and city staff that would have allowed construction to begin on Monday under a set of 18 safety guidelines in favor of extending the original ban until April 20.
After three failed motions, Bradshaw ultimately cast the tie-breaking vote to add a week to the restrictions. The other option, favored by Councilwomen Courtney Hamilton and Amanda Breen, who voted against the measure, would have been to extend it without a firm sunset.
In the virtual meeting, Bradshaw favored a plan to allow people to “hike and hammer nails.” Lifting the construction ban, he said, was a “calculated balancing act.”
Hamilton wasn’t swayed, telling the council that she feared the new safety standards could not be followed or properly enforced on job sites.
“Construction in the city of Ketchum is not an essential service right now,” she said.
Councilman Michael David also said it was too soon to lift the ban, but saw it necessary to set a tentative reopen date to give job sites time to prepare, gather necessary safety equipment and inform workers. Councilman Jim Slanetz said the city should adhere to the less strict statewide order.
The council will hold another special meeting at 2 p.m. on Friday, April 17, to reassess the decision based on how the coronavirus outbreak proceeds this week.
On Monday, the Bellevue City Council unanimously voted to extend the city’s orders until April 20, too.
Carey never had any ordinance in place beyond the state’s mandate.
That leaves attention on Sun Valley—the Wood River Valley’s smallest town—as work resumes.
As of 11 a.m. on Tuesday, the South Central Public Health District had recorded 458 lab-confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Blaine County.
“I do not believe there is a single person in Blaine County that does not desire a successful and safe re-opening,” Hendricks wrote. “As a last thought, if this method works, perhaps we could look to use it for other re-openings and have other jurisdictions take charge in areas such as gyms, libraries, retail, bars and restaurants.”
Alejandra Buitrago, Emily Jones and Gretel Kauffman also contributed to this story.