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BOISE — Gov. Brad Little wasn’t ready to commit Tuesday on whether Idaho can enter Stage 3 of its economic reopening on Saturday.

“We don’t know about Stage 3 because we’ve still got the bulk of this week to get through,” Little said on his weekly, statewide COVID-19 call-in with AARP Idaho. He noted that Idaho moved into Stage 2 on May 16, and it’s not yet been two weeks since that move, which included reopening dine-in restaurants, hair and nail salons and indoor gyms. COVID-19 has an incubation period of up to 14 days.

“Those cases are just going to start showing up here in the next few days,” the governor said. “I think we’re OK, but I don’t want to make any commitment till we see what the numbers and statistics are.”

If all reopening criteria are met, Stage 3 is scheduled to begin Saturday and permit bars to reopen; allow gatherings of 10-50 people where physical distancing can be maintained; and allow out-of-state arrivals to forego a 14-day quarantine if they’re not coming from a location where there’s community spread of the virus.

During the call, Little fielded questions on, among other topics:

  • Idaho Rebound cash grants for small businesses, which will open for applications to sole proprietors and the self-employed Wednesday at noon;
  • Delays receiving unemployment;
  • Masking and social distancing, including in rural Idaho communities;
  • A reported spike in coronavirus cases in the Magic Valley on Friday; and
  • State finances and the impact of the pandemic.

Little was joined for the live call-in by his budget director, Alex Adams, who also chairs the Coronavirus Financial Advisory Committee. Adams reported that more than 4,400 Idaho businesses with 1-50 employees have applied for $10,000 Idaho Rebounds grants so far, about 3,400 have been approved, and direct deposits have been going out to those businesses as soon as 48 hours after they submit their applications.

“That means we’ve gotten approximately $30 million into the hands of Idaho small businesses,” he said. “That’s everything from restaurants to farms to barbershops and medical clinics. … I believe we’ve had awards to 43 Idaho counties, so it’s pretty well distributed across the state.”

The program will open to applications from sole proprietorships or self-employed Idahoans this week; they can apply for $7,500 grants between May 27 and July 17.

Adams said the turnaround should be just as quick, but cautioned that all who apply must have a Taxpayer Access Account set up with the state Tax Commission, which can take several days because it requires a fraud-detection step in which a hard-copy letter is mailed to the taxpayer’s home with a personal identification number to finish creating the account. Also, to be eligible, applicants must have filed their 2019 Idaho income tax returns, which otherwise aren’t due until June 15. “So folks should wait until they have filed their return,” he said.

Two callers asked about unemployment, both saying they’ve been waiting for long weeks on end with no payment and no communication.

“I filed for unemployment March 22 and I have yet to receive any money — no calls, no contact, no information of substance, and it’s dire,” said Claudia in Boise. “I just filed my ninth week of certification. And every day I call the Idaho Department of Labor, and I’m on hold for over an hour, and then they disconnect my call. And then I call the governor’s office and leave a message. I don’t know what else to do. … I just feel desperate.”

Christine in Boise said, “I’m 67 and a half, I’m a sole provider, and … I’m still waiting on unemployment. I just think that there is a whole demographic out here that people are unaware of us, and that is that some of us don’t have the technical skills to figure out how to navigate unemployment.”

“There are a lot of us who have spent a lifetime with building up great credit, great work histories, blah blah blah, and now we’re waiting for six weeks for money from unemployment,” she said. “There’s got to be somebody that will call … to walk us through it. … It just can’t go on, governor.”

Little apologized profusely to both callers, and said, “Believe me, we are working on that. … I’m terribly sorry about anyone that’s in your situation.”

Among the latest efforts to fix the system are new consultants who will open a call center next week, he said. He also said he has a call in to the U.S. secretary of labor “to talk about what we can possibly do to speed up this process.”

Several callers inquired about mask-wearing and social distancing.

“I live in a rural area,” said a caller named Karen, “and I would say the majority of people do not wear face masks. When I go into places of business, I’m like the one, and then the clerks that work there, they’re wearing face masks. But other people coming in there, they do not, and they do not social distance — they’ll get right up to you. I’m just wondering what kind of a message are we sending out there, and what are your expectations?”

Little responded, “Good for you for doing that. The face mask is to protect the people around you more than it is to protect yourself. And you’re being respectful of the people around you.”

People who work in retail stores are at risk, he said, because they’re exposed to lots of people. “One person could expose them to the coronavirus, and the next day they could be shedding virus for the next three to four days before they even have it, and expose a lot more people. And that’s what we’re worried about. This is going to continue for a while.”

Little urged Idahoans to continue “good hygiene, mask wearing and social distancing,” saying, “Those are all practices we need to do to most importantly protect everybody else, but also to protect the shared sacrifices that we’ve all made: The fact we haven’t been able to go to our children’s and grandchildren’s graduations. The fact that the kids are out of school. The fact that we’ve had these incredible economic losses. The behavior that people have in social distancing and mask-wearing are to protect all those sacrifices, and to make sure we don’t have more going forward."

Several callers inquired about the spike in coronavirus cases in the Magic Valley that was reported on Friday; the state reported 61 new cases that day, but the health district in the region reported more than 90.

Little asked his health care policy adviser, Sara Stover, to weigh in. “We did have a bit of a cluster, due to one employer in particular that had some testing,” she said. “We had just that small cluster there, that we … feel was pretty well contained.”

“They were trying to reconcile the accuracy of the reporting and making sure we weren’t duplicating our counts,” Stover said.

Little said, “Some of those could have been reported earlier and then they aggregated all of them at a certain point in time. That’s part of the issue. Believe me, nobody’s playing hanky-panky with these numbers; we have to ’em accurate.”

Stover said reconciliation of those Magic Valley numbers still is underway.

Little also said a one-day spike in cases wouldn’t necessarily keep the state from moving ahead to its next reopening stage.

“It’s based on long-term trends. … We don’t want any spikes, we don’t want people getting sick, and heaven forbid, we still don’t want people to die,” he said. “But a one- or two-day change, it still doesn’t have a significant … effect on the trend line.”

When a caller expressed concerns about possible state budget cuts impacting Medicaid or other health care services, Adams said that should be offset because the federal government, as part of coronavirus relief, has increased its matching percentage for most Medicaid programs from around 70% to 76%. “That’s going to take some of the pressure off the state’s general fund,” he said.

The state is also exploring possibly setting aside a chunk of its $1.25 billion in federal coronavirus aid for payments to health care providers “for those that have been stretched to their limits,” Adams said, “so that we don’t reduce access, especially in Idaho’s rural communities.”

Betsy Z. Russell is the Boise bureau chief and state capitol reporter for the Idaho Press and Adams Publishing Group. Follow her on Twitter at @BetsyZRussell.

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