It’s been nearly two weeks since Blaine County residents were ordered to stay home when possible, and one week since the rest of the state followed suit.
The immediate effects of COVID-19 on local businesses and workers are evident, as shops and restaurants close their doors and the state reports a spike in applications for unemployment benefits.
But economic experts say it’s too soon to know how the novel coronavirus will affect Idaho and the Wood River Valley in the long term. The impact locally will depend primarily on when, where and how the virus runs its course, said Harry Griffith, executive director of Sun Valley Economic Development.
“The businesses here have put the brakes on hard,” Griffith said. “When they relax those brakes, or when they move to accelerate out of the downturn, is going to depend on a number of issues.”
What the valley’s economic rebound looks like will depend partly on how quickly local employers are able to re-engage with staff and resume operations as usual, Griffith said. But with an economy largely dependent on tourism, that rebound will also be shaped by what’s happening in the rest of the country.
“Where are the visitors going to come from and how fast are they going to revert to more normal behavior in terms of, ‘I want to visit my second home,’ or ‘I want to come and spend the summer here to see these events?’” Griffith said.
Further complicating the virus’s impact on national and global tourism is the fact that the pandemic is hitting different communities at different times, he noted.
“We’re kind of the tip of the spear,” Griffith said. “We’re ahead of a lot of other communities in the U.S. We’re one of the first mountain towns, I think, to sort of see what this can do to the heart of a tourism-based economy.”
As the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Idaho continues to rise, with more than 470 cases statewide and 187 in Blaine County as of Tuesday afternoon, so has the number of Idahoans finding themselves out of work.
There were 13,341 new claims for unemployment benefits filed in Idaho the week of March 15-21, according to the state’s Department of Labor, a 1,200 percent increase over the previous week. Those numbers, released Thursday, are the most recent available.
On Friday, Gov. Brad Little announced new steps to expedite the unemployment application process, including waiving the one-week waiting period and giving both workers and employers an additional 14 days to appeal claims decisions.
Mark Balcos, president of Wood River Insurance in Hailey, said it’s been frustrating to watch the small businesses he works with struggle financially amid the COVID-19 closures.
“Main Street businesses, the average business, lives month to month,” Balcos said. “They’re living paycheck to paycheck. And they’re not getting the money they need right now.”
The typical insurance policy doesn’t cover losses that result from a virus or bacteria, Balcos said, though he speculated that insurers might start offering such coverage in the wake of the pandemic. Insurance companies will usually cover losses if the business is ordered to close by the government, but there must be physical damage to the building itself, such as damage from a fire.
Now, Balcos said, he would like to see insurance companies work with the federal government to help businesses affected by COVID-19.
“We’re in a war with an unseen enemy and I think the insurance companies should step up and do their part,” he said. “They’re one of the wealthiest industries in the world and they’re on the sidelines right now. And I’m just frustrated.”
On Friday, Little signed two executive orders: one that will transfer $39.3 million from the state’s dedicated tax relief fund to the state’s Disaster Emergency Account, and another to reduce non-coronavirus spending from the state’s general fund by 1 percent.
“While the impact of the pandemic on state revenue collection is yet unknown, we must do everything we can to make sure the state is positioned for long-term success,” Little said in a press conference Friday afternoon.
The $39.3 million may be used to buy health care supplies such as personal protective equipment, ventilators, rapid test kits, lab supplies and hospital beds. The state expects to receive at least $1.25 billion in coronavirus aid from the federal government, Little said, but the money from the tax relief fund will allow Idaho to purchase needed supplies right away.
By directing state agencies to shave 1 percent off their budget for this fiscal year, Little said, he expects to save the state about $40 million. That money will likely be used to make up for the expected loss in state revenue from taxes, the governor said.