Matt Hunter spent much of Thursday working on a homework assignment he received earlier that morning, during a meeting of officials charged with orchestrating the region’s coronavirus response.
Hunter, president and CEO of the Pocatello-Chubbuck Chamber of Commerce, represents Southeast Idaho businesses in the recently deployed Emergency Operations Center, which has started daily meetings at the Southeastern Idaho Public Health office.
Hunter’s current task is finding contacts who will relay his frequent messages from the command center to businesses in Butte, Power, Bannock, Bingham, Oneida, Franklin, Caribou and Bear Lake counties, as well as within the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes.
The response team also includes county emergency managers, fire and police chiefs, state school safety officials, Idaho State University representatives, long-term care providers, tribal officials, members from the health department and personnel from Health West and Portneuf Medical Center, among others. The team was last deployed to aid in the response to the Aug. 21, 2017 solar eclipse. Some members of the team also participated in Thursday’s meeting via teleconference.
“We come up with a plan and the players give us the feedback and what they’re going to work on, and we brief them on what is taking place for the next day,” said Devin Hughes, program manager for public health preparedness with Southeastern Idaho Public Health.
The Emergency Operations Center has identified six objectives: Keep the public informed with a coordinated message and employ their effort; coordinate a community-wide response; protect the healthcare infrastructure from the impact of COVID-19; guide community prevention strategies with the most relevant information; develop and guide community resilience; and maintain continuity of government.
The stakes are high. Several local entities, the state and the federal government have already signed emergency declarations, intended to help them tap resources and avoid red tape. Idaho had reported at least 65 cases as of Monday afternoon, including two in Bannock County and one in Bingham County. More businesses are temporarily closing their doors with each passing day, and community events have been canceled.
The first numbers on state claims for unemployment insurance benefits since Idaho reported its first case of coronavirus earlier this month won’t be released until Thursday. However, Idaho Department of Labor Deputy Director Georgia Smith said it’s clear the data will reflect a significant increase in claims.
“We can certainly say that our workload has increased and the number of people filing for unemployment claims is up,” Smith said.
She said sectors that have been hardest hit include art, entertainment, recreation, tourism, food service, retail trade, transportation and educational services.
For his part, Hunter will be sending regional businesses information on federal legislation being passed to aid struggling workers and businesses. On Thursday, he also emailed businesses a letter sent to Congress by the National Restaurant Association, making requests for aid packages to help offset an anticipated $225 billion in declining sales during the next three months, expected to lead to the loss of between 5 million and 7 million jobs.
More than half of states, including Utah, have already ordered statewide dine-in closures at their restaurants and bars. Idaho restaurants have not yet received such an order, though their business has dropped significantly.
“The restaurant industry is one of low margins, tight cash flow, and a workforce that depends on us for their livelihood,” the letter reads. “Without aggressive and immediate action from the federal government, many restaurants that are a staple of local communities will simply never resume service.”
Hunter has also given businesses reminders about best practices, such as keeping businesses clean and sending sick employees home.
Bannock County Emergency Manager Wes Jones said the diverse team is still “on a fact-finding mission to find out exactly where we are and what immediate needs are.”
Southeastern Idaho Public Health Director Maggie Mann advised the public to follow simple practices that should go a long way toward helping the state flatten the curve of coronavirus incidences, such as refraining from greeting people by shaking their hands.
“Actions every person can take to help themselves and our community weather this storm are to stay at home if you’re sick, wash your hands with soap and water, to practice social distancing of 3 to 6 feet and to limit interaction — no gatherings of more than 10 if at all possible,” Mann said.