Southeastern Idaho Public Health is apparently making good on its assurance to uphold Gov. Brad Little’s stay-home order by contacting and requesting the closure of all “non-essential” local businesses that are still operating.
Public health officials on Friday requested that Pocatello resident Jeff Huckstep close his Chubbuck business, Dip N’ Clip Dog Grooming, after they received complaints that he was still providing pet care services in violation of the statewide stay-home order that Little enacted on March 25 to slow the spread of the deadly coronavirus.
Though he obliged the request instead of facing a misdemeanor criminal charge, Huckstep said he did so reluctantly considering his belief that dog grooming establishments are just as “essential” as those Idaho businesses that can legally stay open right now, such as liquor stores, tobacco shops and even pet supply stores that provide dog grooming services, such as PetSmart in Pocatello.
“This directive kind of favors the big guys,” Huckstep said about Little’s stay-home order. “There are many more small dog grooming businesses in town than there are corporate stores, yet we’re the only ones being asked to close. That seems a little unfair to me.”
Southeastern Idaho Public Health Director Maggie Mann says Huckstep is not alone in voicing resistance to the statewide stay-home order.
She said health officials have received many complaints from people about “non-essential” local businesses still in operation. Further, Mann says that shortly after the stay-home order went into effect, local health officials encountered a few scenarios where it was necessary to request the presence of police during visits to Southeast Idaho businesses to ensure education points were being taken seriously by the business owners.
“Typically, if we get involved it’s because we have a concern expressed to us from a member of the public that a business is operating that shouldn’t be,” Mann said. “We try to provide education to the business owner on how important it is to limit the spread of this virus so as to not overwhelm our health care system.”
Dissent to Little’s stay-home order is not isolated to Southeast Idaho, as evidenced by a Tuesday article in The New York Times that includes several comments from Idaho officials challenging the governor’s guidelines.
In addition to reports that Ammon Bundy — the man who led the armed takeover of an Oregon wildlife refuge in 2016 — held a gathering last week of a few dozen people near Boise to pursue support for an Easter service somewhere in Idaho with a “potential crowd of 1,000 people,” the Times says opposition to Little’s stay-home order has also come from at least one state lawmaker and a county sheriff.
Among those with antipathy toward the order include far right Rep. Heather Scott, R-Blanchard, who “is encouraging her constituents to push back on the statewide stay-at-home order, saying people have a ‘God-given constitutionally protected right to peacefully assemble,’” the Times wrote.
Further, Bonner County Sheriff Daryl Wheeler wrote a letter to Gov. Little on April 2 claiming the public had been misled by the dire predictions of health officials regarding the lethality of the coronavirus.
“In the spirit of liberty and the Constitution, you can request those that are sick to stay home,” Wheeler wrote to Little. “But, at the same time, you must release the rest of us to go on with our normal business.”
Locally, Huckstep was apprehensive to adhere to the stay-home order because of what he believes to be a very nuanced enforcement approach by Idaho health officials.
The day after local health officials asked Huckstep to close down his East Linden Avenue dog grooming business, PetSmart announced via a news release posted to its website that it was re-opening its grooming salons in select locations, including Pocatello, partly “because regular grooming is vital to the health of so many dogs and cats,” or in other words, is an essential service as it relates to Little’s stay-home order.
Petsmart’s announcement came just two weeks after the company had “made the difficult decision to temporarily close our grooming salons out of concern for the safety and well-being of both our associates and customers.”
It was during this two-week temporary closure that PetSmart “redesigned how we operate our salons to deliver the best possible care and experience for everyone.” The changes to PetSmart’s grooming process include: Cleaning and disinfecting all grooming tables, kennels, water and food bowls, toys and grooming tools between every pet service; sanitizing and cleaning all surfaces and playrooms every night; and changing air filters every week to maintain clean, healthy air in the grooming salons.
A large disparity between Dip N’ Clip and the national PetSmart chain does not exist, says Huckstep, adding that the only major difference as it relates to the stay-home order’s “essential” designation is the fact his dog grooming service does not stock and supply pet food while PetSmart does.
“With all the COVID-19 stuff going on we scaled back operations significantly,” Huckstep said. “We stopped allowing all walk-in appointments and only allowed one person inside the shop at a time, and it’s just my wife and I that are normally inside working. We wear protective equipment while we’re there like masks and gloves, and sanitize the grooming station after every use. We are just trying to provide what we believe is an essential service for our canine companions during this shutdown.”
Huckstep says it was never his intention to be a proverbial thorn in the side of local health officials, nor to express any notion that he was above the law, but he does feel somewhat slighted about being ordered to close down while other similar local businesses remain open.
“The biggest thing for us is understanding why we can’t remain open so long as we are following the social distancing guidelines — 6 feet of separation, no large groups and very limited direct interactions with people,” Huckstep said.
Mann said Southeastern Idaho Public Health has been in communication with PetSmart but the chain’s corporate officials have been apathetic to her agency’s requests that the company halt its pet grooming operations.
“We have tried working with PetSmart and explaining that the pet supply store aspect does fall under essential services but their grooming service does not and they are completely disregarding us,” Mann said. “We are really trying to take an educational approach and do not want to get into a legal battle. We just want people to do the right thing.”
While the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases has remained low in Southeast Idaho and there have been no deaths locally, Idaho’s 1,232 confirmed cases as of 5 p.m. Wednesday mean the Gem State has “far more cases per capita than California,” according to data from The New York Times.
With its over 420 confirmed coronavirus cases and a population of approximately 22,000 people, Blaine County, the home to the resort towns of Sun Valley and Hailey, now has the largest per capita concentration of coronavirus cases in the nation, the Times wrote.
Mann says Idaho business owners who believe they should receive the essential designation can complete a digital form on the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare’s website, https://healthandwelfare.idaho.gov, indicating why it’s in the best interest of the state to allow their businesses to remain open during the COVID-19 emergency.
Additionally, she highlighted the availability of many resources available to help small businesses during this pandemic such as loans and grants. Ultimately, Mann says the governor’s directives are not intended to cause tension between businesses and the government, but rather to avert a large-scale spread of COVID-19 that could overwhelm Idaho’s hospitals.
“The bottom line is we all need to do everything we can in order to shorten the amount of time we are under this stay-home order,” Mann said. “The guidance is in place to try and keep people from getting sick. For some people this virus may be mild, but for others it is very serious and people are dying.”