Idaho Businesses React And Adapt To Coronavirus Shutdowns

Mar 20, 2020

Restaurants, museums and libraries are closing all over Idaho to help contain the spread of the coronavirus. Some are shuttering voluntarily, while others are doing so by order of local officials.

Thursday Boise Mayor Lauren McLean ordered a shutdown of dine-in eateries in the city and just hours later, Governor Brad Little issued an isolation order for Blaine County, which among things, restricts restaurants to take-out-only service.

On Monday morning, Ketchum resident Jacob Frehling was shoveling snow at a local skatepark. Sun Valley Resort had just closed the evening before, and Frehling thought local kids could use a space to get exercise outdoors, while social distancing. 

Most days at that time, though, he’d be behind the counter at Maude’s Coffee and Clothes, a part-coffee shop, part-vintage clothing shop that he owns with his wife in Ketchum. Last weekend, they decided to close down, after the first case of coronavirus was identified in Blaine County. 

 

“We’re hoping we don’t have to be closed for more than a week," Frehling said. "And we’re really, really hoping we don’t have to be closed for more than two weeks.”

On Monday, Ketchum mayor Neil Bradshaw encouraged nonessential businesses to close and restaurants to go take-out only. He also told tourists not to come to town. 

 

“For a town that is used to welcoming visitors, this is hard to do. But we must reduce the number of people visiting our area," Bradshaw said. "The message is clear: This is not the place for a virus vacation."

 

The new shelter-in-place order means even more restrictions. All restaurants in the county will have to close their dining rooms. The valley is bracing for the economic effects.

 

“It’s been really difficult," Frehling said. "The virus combined with the bad snow year has made March pretty painful, especially compared to last year when we had so much snow.”

 

He compared the eerily empty feeling in town now to 2013, when some people had to evacuate because of the Beaver Creek Fire.

 

“When that fire was happening, you kind of felt it coming for a week or two, and you kind of knew it was going to get bad. And then it was like 'click' and everyone had to shut down and kind of figure it out," he said.

 

Even before the isolation order, restaurants in the Wood River Valley were sorting out how to serve customers without inviting them inside. 

 

“We have our front door barricaded, basically, so it’s set up like a pickup window of sorts," Liza Green, the owner of Cafe Della in Hailey, said in an interview on Monday. 

 

The cafe decided to close its dining room last weeked. This week, it started offering curbside pick-up and a special dinner delivery service, so people could order specials like Chicken Orzo Soup for their family. Just last week, the cafe wasn't even open at dinntertime. 

“We are willing to do anything we need to do to keep our doors open," Green said.

 

The first week with this system went well, Green said, with a steady flow of orders some days. But the isolation order is forcing the eatery to regroup. It'll be closed for a few days, when Green said her team will figure out if they can transition to, essentially, a food delivery business. 

 

During the rapidly changing week, businesses say the community's support is what has helped them get through. For Frehling, shutting down Maude’s was one of the toughest decisions he’s had to make since he opened a few years ago. 

“It made me a little emotional because I was so scared to do it," he said.

 

But community members told him they were proud of his decision, and that’s stuck with him this week.

 

Any other day at 5 p.m., Downtown Boise’s Spacebar would be a dull roar of beep and bells from vintage arcade games.

 

Wednesday afternoon, it felt eerie. Only Galaga (1991) was still turned on, and owner Will Hay was getting ready to print a sign for the locked front door.

 

“I’ve been squirreling away money as best I can," Hay said. He managed the arcade several years before buying it with a business partner two years ago. "Hopefully it's going to get us through this time. Whether or not it's going to sustain us I’m not sure.”

 

Since the weekend, customers vanished— and so did cash flow. Combined with a dwindling supply of cleaning products — business owners can't find them just like the rest of us — Hay said remaining open just didn't work.

 

"Being in the downtown area, places like ours are closing. You don’t want to be those people who are staying open just for a couple of bucks," he said.

 

There are improvement projects he wants to try and accomplish while shuttered, and offered his employees some of that work with the caveate there won't be funds to pay them until he's open again.

 

Hay figures he can maintain for a couple weeks before reaching other critical decisions.

 

A hand-written sign on Pengilly's Bar in downtown Boise. March 18, 2020.
Credit Troy Oppie / Boise State Public Radio

Mayor McLean ordered dine-in eateries to shut down Thursday, but many restaurants and bars in Boise had already closed or changed to take-out only. Earlier this week, food-service business owners from around the state co-signed a letter to Governor Brad Little asking for a shutdown and relief for workers and businesses. Owners of more than 100 establishments have added their names. 

 

Some feel frustrated by a lack of response from the Governor’s office, which did not respond to questions Thursday about any plan to support service industry workers. The Idaho Statesman reported Wednesday that a spokesperson for Governor Brad Little said he had not seen the letter.

 

Owners' concerns are generally two-fold: current cash to make sure employees are taken care of, and maintaining enough assets to be able to re-open as society returns to normal. 

 

Some suppliers are caught in the middle. Angela Grasmick Reed is the fourth-generation owner of Grasmick Produce, which delivers food to restuarants, schools, hospitals and state entities like prisons across Idaho and Montana.

 

"Normally when you walk out here," she said, guiding me through the 35,000 sq ft warehouse in Boise, "it would be crazy. Humming. People everywhere, pallet jacks everywhere. Right now, because we're not doing those same-day runs, it's just," she said, briefly pausing, "quiet."

 

Those same-day runs are primarily tied to serving local restuarant kitchens, and pausing that service was one of the first steps Reed took as business slowed. Between Monday and Wednesday this week, she said the restaurant service side of her business had fallen 55%.

 

"I'm not sure what that floor looks like, at this point," she said. Delivery frequencies have been reduced and some staffing changes have already been made. 

 

Grasmick's contract for prisons and hospitals, along with the ability to sell to grocery stores will help stem the slowdown, Reed says. Some prepped produce like shredded lettuce, which would normally be sold to local schools, may be donated to local food banks. 

 

Of the half-dozen business owners I spoke to this week, most are shocked by the speed at which everything has changed. Decisions made in the morning meeting are meaningless by lunch, one quipped. The only thing they all know is that nobody knows what's going to happen next.

 

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