About 100 Idaho restaurants have signed an open letter calling for Idaho Gov. Brad Little to follow the lead of his colleagues in other states to further protect employees and customers, and provide a safety net for thousands of employees who may lose work because of the coronavirus outbreak.
The effort, which includes restaurants from Boise to Sandpoint, comes as Idaho’s response has differed from neighboring Washington, which this week ordered all restaurants and bars to close to help prevent the spread of the virus. Under the restrictions, Washington eateries may still fill orders for takeout and delivery.
George Skandalos, owner of Sangria Grille, Maialina Pizzeria Napoletana and the Garden Lounge, said Thursday his Moscow-area restaurants were packed over the weekend even though other states had cautioned residents to avoid crowds and keep a social distance.
“The governor came out two days ago and said we want to encourage social distancing, no groups of 10 or more and to order takeout from restaurants,” Skandalos said. “Somebody asked if if he was saying we should close down restaurants. He said, ‘No, everyone has to make that decision for yourself.’
“Where is the leadership? If all the restaurants in Moscow voluntarily require social distancing, but the restaurants in Troy, Lewiston and Potlatch don’t, what’s the point? It’s all for naught. We are not slowing down the transmission rate.”
At a news conference later Thursday, Little did not say whether he has received the letter from the restaurant owners. But a reporter asked whether he would follow the Boise mayor’s decision to close all dine-in eating in that city’s restaurants.
“To close down everything all over the state, given what’s taken place in an isolated case, would be no different from when things started in the Seattle for the president to close down the entire country,” Little said. “Idaho is a very diverse and expansive state.”
The isolated case Little referred to was 16 confirmed coronavirus cases in Blaine County, which includes Sun Valley in the south-central portion of the state. Little said nothing about the confirmed case in North Idaho’s Kootenai County.
Little said he spoke Thursday with President Donald Trump and that Idaho was “taking the best practices that exist of every state and implementing here.” He noted that while most Idaho schools have closed, all of those decisions were made locally and did not come from him.
“Science and common sense tell us that planning the response effort in one part of the state may not be the best approach in another part of the state,” he said.
But the restaurant owners don’t agree. Skandalos said he was the 36th restaurant owner to sign the letter that by Thursday afternoon had 95 who endorsed it. Skandalos said the effort began on Tuesday.
“While we greatly appreciate your desire to protect our freedom to decide what to do, your policy of social distancing doesn’t work unless we all do it,” the letter states. “We think the policy should prioritize essential needs, food policy in this regard should allow us to offer take out, but the social nature of our hospitality businesses work against social distancing policy.”
The letter states and asks Little to do the following:
“Executive Action to require all nonessential social gathering places to cease operations immediately. Essential services should be prioritized, and for “our industry we would hope that includes take-out or drive through service only, people need food.”
“Small rural economies are often forgotten in times like these, they are the most vulnerable, and extra consideration should be made for their unique needs, but social distancing can’t work unless we all work together.”
“Implement increased emergency state unemployment benefits for the duration of the closures of these establishments. Suspend the associated waiting week and requirement to look for work. Any worker previously ill with COVID-19, quarantined due to exposure or being immune compromised will also be covered for income lost.”
“Provide employers with a 90-day extension to file their state payroll reports and/or deposit state payroll taxes without penalty or interest.”
“Deferment of State Sales tax for 90 days, with arrangement to repay over 3 years – specifically to help cover immediate and startup payroll expenses.”
“Our shared hope is to weather this storm as quickly as we can, with the least amount of human suffering, and the greatest chance to restart our economy so all of us can get back to what we all do helping make Idaho the great place it is,” the letter reads, in part.
Little gave a news conference at 4 p.m. Thursday Mountain Time.
Criag Denney, who is part of the executive team that manages Honey Eatery and Social Club, at 317 E. Sherman Ave. in Coeur d’Alene, said they are electing to close their restaurant to inside dining after Thursday night.
The business has “dropped dramatically,’ Denney said. He and his cohorts signed the letter along with Skandalos “just so we can get some support through all this.”
Closing the restaurant, which specializes in what it calls modern comfort food, would put about 26 people out of work, he said.
Skandalos noted Idaho has a minimum wage of only $3.35 for restaurant employees because they are able to make tips that would allow them to make up the difference for the standard minimum wage of $7.25. Washington’s minimum wage currently is $13.50 an hour.
“I’ve spoken with over 50 restaurant owners,” Skandalos said. “Our number one concern is what is happening to the people working for us. What is crazy to me is if big business went to the governor, he would give them relief. Here, we are asking him to help one of the most vulnerable populations.”
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