KETCHUM — Virus-blighted Blaine County just might be Idaho’s canary in a coal mine.
Stronger legal measures than the Governor’s stay-home order are now in force in Blaine, shutting down all residential and commercial construction projects, related trades and services such as landscaping.
Blaine County’s stronger measures may be what the rest of the state has to look forward to if current efforts prove insufficient to slow down COVID-19’s spread.
How much worse could it get? According to Idaho Department of Labor data, the state’s $4.4 billion construction industry and related businesses employ around 50,000, close to 6% of Idaho’s employed workers, who would be directly affected by a Blaine County-like expansion of the stay-home order.
The professional trades associated with the development, permitting, financing, insuring and management of property employ close to 9%. These businesses would also incur damage from a construction shutdown beyond what they have already incurred from the shuttering of Idaho’s courthouses and government offices.
Taken together, an extension of stay-home orders to construction and related sectors would affect close to 15%, roughly 125,000, of Idaho’s workers, either directly by layoffs or indirectly by pay cuts, reduced hours and furloughs. Considering that workers in the construction trades earn $1.9 billion annually, that’s not trivial.
“Blaine County is the epicenter of the worst of what’s been going on in Idaho,” said Wayne Hammon, CEO of the Idaho Associated General Contractors. “We understand what the folks in Blaine are going through there, and we will work with contractors to get through this time like we have at other (rough) times in the past.”
Gov. Brad Little has been emphatic that he prefers an area-by-area approach to further restrictions, rather than imposing statewide restrictions. The stricter orders in Blaine County may be avoided elsewhere if current measures succeed at slowing down the spread of COVID-19 in the state.
Because of the Governor’s approach and because of recent trends in Utah, Hammon is encouraged that the rest of Idaho may escape Blaine County’s fate.
“Fortunately for all of us, the rest of the state is not experiencing the levels we’ve seen so far in Blaine; so we believe at this time, it is safe to continue with work activities like construction,” he said. “Utah has exempted all construction as essential. Their stay-home orders have reduced the rate of infection significantly. Yes, their infections have increased, but their rate has dropped. They were doubling the number every two days and now they are only doubling that every four days, so they really slowed it down. The same could happen here, and I am hoping it does. So stay at home if you can and stay healthy.”
As Little announced a stay-home order on March 25, Blaine County authorities announced at the same time an intent to put even stronger measures into place. Before March 27 was over, the Blaine County Commissioners and the Cities of Bellevue, Hailey, Ketchum and Sun Valley put those stricter rules in force to run through April 12.
The new measures build on the state’s emergency order with these additions:
• Construction of housing and commercial projects must cease operations. This is a major departure from all construction that is still permitted throughout Idaho.
• Plumbers, electricians and other trades can only perform work that is immediate and essential. Routine maintenance is not considered essential and must cease immediately. This is the second major addition that shuts down work that can currently take place elsewhere in the state.
• Landscaping and other residential service providers must cease operations. This is the third job-stopping measure that’s different outside of Blaine.
• Hotels and short-term rentals may not offer lodging to non-residents of Blaine County, except lodging may be provided to health care workers, those performing essential government functions or non-residents under self-isolation.
• Blaine County residents returning home from out-of-state travel must self-isolate at home for 14 days upon their return. Visitors from out of state coming to Blaine County must also self-isolate for 14 days.
• Travel outside of Blaine County to obtain items otherwise available in the County is prohibited.
• Gatherings of non-related individuals inside homes are prohibited.
All the provisions of the state’s stay-home order remain in effect. If there is a conflict between the local ordinances and the state order, the stricter requirements of county and the city ordinances apply. They apply to anyone living, working or visiting Blaine County.
The county commissioners passed the county restrictions at an emergency meeting on March 27 where all but two people attended virtually over the internet or by teleconference. The start of the meeting was bumpy as the county staff tussled with the online-meeting software, with at least one county commissioner failing to connect initially and then the audio dropping out for many meeting attendees. After a half hour, the bugs in the software were mostly squashed and the rest of the meeting ran with no further troubles.
The debate to enact the stricter measures was emotional.
“The economic impacts also affect health and mental health,” said Commissioner Angenie McCleary.
She voted against the measures, expressing concern over the economic impacts to county residents and whether the measures might be overkill unjustified by “existing data.”
Commissioners also expressed deep concern about the potential for an overwhelmed health care system if everything is not done to reduce infection rates.
In response to one comment on whether the virus should just be allowed to run its course, Commissioner Jacob Greenberg expressed concern over the consequences.
“What do you want to do?” Greenberg asked. “Collect the 22,000 residents of Blaine County in the middle of town here so the coronavius can spread to all, and then at a conservative fatality rate of 1%, let 220 people die?”
“This is invisible,” Commissioner Dick Fosbury remarked. “It’s not a flood where you can see the river rise.”