By Zach Hagadone
The Sandpoint City Council unanimously approved Mayor Shelby Rognstad’s declaration of local emergency March 18 — the last day the body will meet in person for the foreseeable future amid a cascade of public restrictions intended to manage and mitigate the global spread of the novel coronavirus COVID-19.
“This is to enable us more flexibility and access to greater funding to address the situation,” Rognstad said, going on to refer to a $1 trillion stimulus package being considered by Congress that would make available direct payments to U.S. citizens affected by the mass closure of businesses, cancelation of events and limitations on public gatherings nationwide.
City Administrator Jennifer Stapleton outlined the strategy for City Hall to maintain critical functions while limiting the amount of face-to-face interactions — a policy of “social distancing” recommended by the World Health Organization and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention meant to lessen potential exposure to the virus.
Going forward, the City Council, Planning and Zoning Commission, and various city commissions and committees will only meet electronically. Citizens are invited to watch proceedings remotely via the city’s website, sandpointidaho.gov, and can call in to provide testimony at 208-946-2092, extension #1738.
Starting Thursday, March 19, permits will be processed online and the city will host a special web page devoted to COVID-19 updates as well as information on resources for businesses, citizens and community members at sandpointidaho.gov/your-government/covid-19.
“This has obviously been a challenge for us to keep up with as a city,” Stapleton said, noting that guidance and events have been in a constant state of flux in recent days, shifting hourly in some cases.
Idaho Gov. Brad Little hosted a teleconference March 17 with mayors and city administrators across the state, emphasizing that business closures and the enforced curtailment of public gatherings are a matter for local governments to determine. As such, Rognstad’s declaration of local emergency strongly urges local bars and restaurants to cancel in-house seating and limit service to curbside pick-up — that includes sealed alcoholic beverages as well as food, though “a paper cup with plastic lid doesn’t count,” he said in a rare moment of levity at the otherwise somber meeting.
Travis Thompson, owner of First Avenue bar and grill A&P’s, testified about his concern over his employees’ financial security — “it’s paycheck to paycheck,” he said.
“How long is [the state of emergency] going to last? How are we going to plan for it?” he added. “There’s a lot of questions we have and none of the time to plan.”
While the declaration will last at least until the next regularly scheduled City Council meeting April 1 — at which time the body would have to vote to either lift or extend the emergency measure — Rognstad emphasized that the recommendation to close in favor of curbside pick-up is not a mandate.
“It’s your business, it’s your call,” he told Thompson, though reiterated the latest guidance that closure is the best policy to limit potential spread of the novel coronavirus. “That is going to be your call to make.”
That said, Rognstad cautioned that conditions could change: “I can’t sit here and promise you there won’t be a mandate tomorrow or next week. … If we see a community outbreak here in Sandpoint, things are going to change. It’s going to get more intense.”
Currently there are nine confirmed cases of the virus in Idaho — all in southern Idaho — and no reported infections in Bonner County. That’s exactly why Rognstad said it’s important to follow the kinds of restrictions and recommendations contained in the emergency declaration.
“I think all the precautions we’re taking now are very proactive,” he said.
Resident Brent Heiser testified to the Council that being cautious is one thing, but asked the Council to “keep sober decision making in this and not go over the edge.”
“I think we’re well ahead of the curve, being very proactive,” he said. “What concerns me is businesses in Sandpoint potentially being shuttered due to a hypothetical issue. If there is a necessary time to come to that point, I would applaud that decision to be made, but to go ahead and close restaurants, gathering spots … I don’t think we’re there yet.”
Councilwoman Deb Ruehle spoke through mounting tears when talking about the likely effect on local businesses from COVID-19.
“I became overwhelmed,” she said, relating a walk she took around downtown the morning of March 18, thinking “it is imminent at some point that I will have to tell them they can’t have their business anymore.”
Regardless, “I would rather be chastised for overreacting than underreacting,” she said. “It’s not about economics when it’s about life and death.”
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