On March 14, the South Central Public Health District announced the first confirmed case of coronavirus in Blaine County. The county and its cities went from preparation to triage. Two weeks later, Blaine County was “the coronavirus capital of Idaho,” to quote Hailey City Councilwoman Heidi Husbands. Sun Valley Resort shut down. Isolation orders took effect.

Within a month, about one in 50 Blaine County residents had tested positive for the virus. The true number was likely much higher—as many as one in four, according to a targeted antibody study led by the city of Ketchum following the initial surge.

Under shelter-in-place orders, the economic motion that typifies Blaine County’s economy stalled. Demand at The Hunger Coalition’s food pantry tripled. In April alone, it served more people than it had in all of 2019, according to Hunger Coalition Spokeswoman Kristin McMahon.

More than six months on—through a summer of booming traffic and rampant real estate sales—food pantry demand is still more than double last year, McMahon said.

Whether the coronavirus fundamentally transforms Blaine County’s economy or not remains to be seen. For one, it’s too hard to imagine the end from here: On Oct. 10, the county had its highest single-day increase in confirmed COVID-19 cases since April 3. Only now, Blaine is no longer the coronavirus capital of Idaho. The virus is everywhere. Hounded by troubling metrics, Idaho never cleared Gov. Brad Little’s coronavirus rebound plan, but that hardly matters.

“Idaho is open for business,” Little tweeted on Oct. 1, “and there are no restrictions on businesses and other activities.” Below it, a message from the governor’s office read that “Idaho’s economy has been open for months, longer than any state.”

“Idaho is leading the country in economic rebound,” it went on to say.

For months, too, Idaho has been near the top of the country in per capita coronavirus cases. As of Monday, Oct. 19, about one in 33 Idahoans currently had or had been diagnosed with COVID-19.

The tradeoff, though, is clear: Later that day, the Idaho Department of Labor announced that the number of Idahoans who filed a continued claim for unemployment insurance benefits fell for the 23rd consecutive week. The statewide unemployment rate in August stood at exactly half of the national rate, according to the Idaho Department of Labor’s September Workforce Trends report: 4.2 percent versus 8.4 percent. Blaine County’s was slightly higher, at 5.4 percent, though that’s about a quarter of what it was in March, when Blaine’s jobless rate paced the state (see COVID-19 Figs. A&B).

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In general, “resort areas experienced sharper unemployment shocks but have recovered faster than the national economy,” according to Sun Valley Economic Development Executive Director Harry Griffith. Now, though, they’ve rebounded faster—and the rest of the country is holding them back.

“The national employment situation represents a considerable headwind for a continuing recovery in resort areas,” Griffith said.

Over the summer, it was often hard to tell there was a recession at all. Though commercial enplanements into Friedman Memorial Airport were down 46 percent through August this year over last year, non-commuter traffic heading through Ketchum has set three-year highs from March onward, according to the Idaho Department of Transportation. Some $69 million in forgivable Payroll Protection Program loans flowed into 1,280 Blaine County businesses, according to Small Business Administration data parsed by SVED. Buoyed by that money—and open to steady road traffic—about 75 percent of businesses had “strong” summers, said Mike McKenna, executive director of The Chamber of Hailey and the Wood River Valley, a business advocacy group.

“We have what everybody wanted—open space and fresh air,” he said. “Some businesses had a terrific summer, so good they made up for what they lost closing down.”

Retail rebounded. Hardware stores rode a building boom. Takeout restaurants fed surprising crowds. “Anything in recreation” thrived, McKenna said, and fishing guides had “legendary years.”

“Most people are telling me, it’s new faces” driving business, McKenna said. “They don’t know whether it’s visitors or new residents—but they’re new faces.”

That, though, did little to mend the cracks already shot through the county’s economy. Lower wage jobs—anything in the $15 per hour range—remain hard to fill, McKenna said. The seasonality of the economy still strains those living paycheck-to-paycheck—which, according to a recent United Way study, was about half of the county’s population even prior to the pandemic. The influx that has bolstered business—particularly real estate—now threatens to further pressure a fragile housing stock.

“I think the pandemic has done the unfortunate job of exposing a large part of our already living-on-the-financial-edge work force to an unknown level of stability,” said Mary Fauth, co-founder of the Blaine County Charitable Fund, which was established in March to offer aid in the fallout of the COVID-19 shutdown.

The main issue the Fund addresses has been rent, particularly in the valley’s Latino community. Eighty-five percent of the applications to the Fund have been from Latino families, Fauth said, some of whom were ineligible for or unable to access federal aid. The housekeeping, landscaping and food service industries were particularly hard hit, she said.

Meanwhile, at The Hunger Coalition, 64 percent of visitors to the food pantry work or worked in the leisure and hospitality industry, according to McMahon.

“The pandemic broke the thin ice beneath our working class,” she said.

While summer brought some reprieve, many people still haven’t seen hours reinstated.

“Now in September we saw a 300 percent jump from the previous month in new and returning applicants,” Fauth said. “The applications were steadily trickling in at the very end of the month, and after the 1st when rent was due, as they found they just couldn’t come up with enough.  

“Long term, with parts of our economy like real estate booming and so many relocating to our valley I feel like so many of our already seemingly large issues will be even further exacerbated.  The income gap between economic levels will only increase, as will the need for affordable housing.”

Email the writer: mdee@mtexpress.com

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