The first stage of reopening Idaho businesses will begin on Friday as planned, Gov. Brad Little announced Thursday.

That means churches, daycares, youth camps and most retail stores will be able to open their doors to the public in the first two weeks of May, as long as they follow required social distancing and sanitation protocol.

“Idaho was one of the last states in the country to have a positive test for coronavirus,” Little said in a press conference Thursday morning. “And it’s no surprise to me, due to your diligent actions, that we are one of the first to reopen.”

The announcement was welcome news to many business owners forced to alter operations, or shut their doors altogether, while Idaho’s shelter-in-place order was in effect. Little also announced Thursday that the state would provide $300 million of cash grants to small businesses from the state’s Coronavirus Relief Fund. (See sidebar)

But as businesses reopen and Idaho workers who lost their jobs in the COVID-19 shutdowns are called back to work, some workers worry they could face a difficult choice in the weeks ahead—between personal safety and financial survival.

It’s unclear whether Idahoans who are offered back their jobs but don’t yet feel safe returning to work will be able to continue receiving unemployment insurance benefits. Yesterday’s press conference shed little light on options that may be available for employees who choose not to return to work just yet for fear of contracting or spreading the coronavirus.

“I’ll be straight with you,” Little said, when asked by the Idaho Mountain Express whether benefits will be available for those who feel unsafe returning to work as Idaho reopens. “I don’t know.”

As states around the U.S. start to formulate plans for reopening businesses, some have addressed the issue directly. In Iowa, workers who choose not to go back to their jobs when called back will lose their unemployment insurance benefits, the Des Moines Register reported. Meanwhile, the Texas Tribune reported earlier this week that Texas state officials are developing parameters that could allow some Texans to still qualify for unemployment insurance if they don’t return to work out of fear of catching or spreading the virus.

According to an FAQ section on the Idaho Department of Labor website, workers may be eligible for unemployment if they quit their job because they are concerned about COVID-19. “Quitting for health reasons may be good cause,” the website states, adding that such applications would be considered on a case-by-case basis. But the website does not specify what criteria those cases must meet. People who are in isolation due to COVID-19 but have not been diagnosed with the illness may also be eligible for benefits, the website says; those decisions will also be made on a case-by-case basis.

The first three stages of Little’s plan, which span from May 1 to June 12, say that employees who are considered “vulnerable” should continue to self-quarantine, and special accommodations for these employees should be made in the workplace if they are unable to work from home. In Stage 4, which lasts until June 26, “special accommodations for employees who are considered vulnerable should be made.”

The new state order is enforceable, Little said Thursday. But it’s unclear what enforcement will look like. In Thursday’s press conference, Little said he was “hopeful” that people and businesses would obey the guidelines, but did not explicitly say what would happen if local municipalities do not enforce the order.

One employee at a retail store in Ketchum, who asked to remain anonymous out of fear for his job, said he expects that his position may be offered back to him in the coming weeks or months—and he understands his employer’s need to resume business.

But the employee, who is in his 60s, said he’s “scared as hell” to return to work, especially when he thinks about the possibility of a second wave of the virus. At the same time, he doesn’t know what the alternative might look like financially.

“I’m 60 years old in a pandemic and I’m supposed to go out into the streets?” he told the Idaho Mountain Express. “It’s like I’m offered no choice.”

The man acknowledged that he has been “one of the lucky ones,” as he was able to sign up for unemployment insurance immediately after losing his job in March. But he said he wished the state offered more room for discussion “in terms of our rights as people on the lower end of the totem pole” when it came to reopening the economy.

“We’re just pawns in this whole thing, it seems,” he said.

Little told reporters at Thursday’s press conference that safety and COVID-19 prevention are the state’s “highest priority” as Idaho businesses reopen.

“A strong economic comeback starts with one thing—consumer and employee confidence,” Little said. “People want to feel safe returning to work. They want to know everything possible is being done to make sure they will not contract coronavirus when they leave their homes.”

Restaurants, which will be allowed to open their dining areas when the second stage begins May 16, have been asked by the state to come up with their own plans for reopening while meeting social distancing and sanitation guidelines. On Thursday morning, Blaine County commissioners Chairman Jacob Greenberg announced that local officials had created a universal safety plan for restaurants in the South Central Public Health District.

The plan includes a number of recommendations for restaurants, including that employees wear cloth face masks and gloves, and that restaurants limit occupancy to 50 percent of their seating capacity, arrange tables to be at least 10 feet apart, use disposable menus and keep any bar areas of the restaurant closed. The full plan can be viewed on the South Central Public Health District’s website.

Email the writer: gkauffman@mtexpress.com

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