Despite success stories illustrating the state economy’s resilience to pandemic-induced losses, COVID-19 has been undoubtedly bad for business in Idaho.
Business closures — permanent and temporary — have fueled layoffs, leaving Idaho’s unemployment rate, 6.1% as of September, at more than double the level it was the same time last year, according to Bureau of Labor stats. But some local companies have fared better than others, pivoting to produce pandemic-related goods to help them ride out a financially turbulent year. Local manufacturers that may never have heard of personal protective equipment in February tapped into a flourishing market as early as March, making “hygiene shields” or sneeze guards for concerned businesses and government agencies as sales of their traditional projects plummeted.
While some businesses looked to cut expenses after the statewide stay-at-home order shut down many companies’ operations to curb the novel coronavirus’ spread, advertising costs often fell under the knife. The effect rippled, hitting businesses such as Meridian-based Advanced Sign, which makes signs for local businesses.
“Things were really scary,” said Casey Space, the company’s vice president of marketing.
The company was already equipped, though, with machines that laser letters out of acrylic sheets for signs. Faced with falling revenue, the company put its idle machines to work and started slicing acrylic (another name for plexiglass) into sneeze guards.
After landing a big order from U.S. Bank, Advanced Sign went on to make clear plastic barriers for the Idaho State Historical Society, the Village at Meridian and eventually, the Idaho Legislature, after some legislators requested extra precautions be taken during the August special session. Thanks to new product sales, the producer has recovered from initial layoffs and now has higher staffing levels than it did before the pandemic.
“We did have to lay off a couple of employees right when the pandemic hit mid-March, but then hired them back a week later when we pivoted to sneeze guards,” Space said.
The sign maker wasn’t the only business to capitalize on skyrocketing demand for protective shields. Interstate Plastics’ Boise location changed course after years as “basically a supplier of mechanical plastic,” sales development manager David Whitehead said. The distributor adapted to cut and bend acrylic and polycarbonate — a more expensive plastic with more strength and stretch — into sneeze guards, table dividers and other partitions. That helped Interstate Plastics retain all of its staff and make up for across-the-board losses on its “bread and butter” products.
Idaho businesses weren’t alone in rushing to pump out more plexiglass products. Subsequently, a wave of orders crashed over suppliers internationally into the summer; high demand, coupled with scarce supply of raw material, made ordering plastic to make dividers a challenge, the Wall Street Journal reported in May and June.
“Everyone was making a run on (acrylic),” Space said.
That added to the challenge of manufacturing an entirely new product for local vendors such as Interstate Plastics.
“Everybody wanted them and it was a little difficult to get material at the start of COVID,” Whitehead said. ”The demand was so high so quick that everyone in the world who makes clear see-through plastic was making it.”
Neither company had to stop taking orders, but Space said it was “difficult” to fill some orders, and Interstate Plastics at times directed customers to thicker shields while thin plastic sheets were out of stock.
Whitehead remembers supply shortages lasting from the start of the pandemic until three or four months ago, just after the Journal reported on the scarcity problem.
Since then, though, both companies have noticed a bounceback in supply.
With plastic supplies replenished, the local manufacturers continue to make and sell sneeze guards to offset lower sales of their staple products. That’s been a big boost as their clients recover.
Advanced Sign saw advertisers surge back relatively quickly in April, Space said, so the company bought another machine to make signs so that one can be dedicated to fabricating sneeze guards.
Interstate Plastics’ clientele, mostly comprised of machine shops, is still rebounding, Whitehead said.
“Business is good because of COVID but … we would just like to see a return to normalcy so we can serve our core customers,” he said. “I have noticed a little bit of a slowdown in sneeze guard (production), but we’re starting to see our core business come alive again, especially among Idaho-based customers.”
For the first time since 2012, District 20A Republican Rep. Joe Palmer faces a Democratic challenger as he runs his sixth consecutive reelection campaign for the seat he’s held since 2009.
Stepping into the ring for Democrats is Pat Soulliere, a self-labeled “Millennial” candidate and Micron executive who champions LGBTQ protections, marijuana legalization and bolstered education funding, but details more conservative views on slashing property taxes and reconfiguring existing tax exemptions to fund his proposals.
Incumbent and Cherry’s Consignment co-owner Joe Palmer says he’s “very conservative on every issue,” aligning himself with state Republicans who don’t think local health districts should be able to mandate mask wearing and those pushing an amendment to Idaho’s constitution to allow the legislature to call itself into session. That idea gained steam as more conservative GOP members criticized Gov. Brad Little’s unilateral spending of federal relief money and issuing of a stay-at-home order during the coronavirus pandemic.
A 2019 Meridian mayoral candidate and chairman of the House Transportation and Defense Committee, Palmer joins Soulliere in making transportation his top priority, though the two differ on how to address increasingly congested roadways in the state. Palmer has coasted to victory in the past, taking around 80% of ballots each of the last three election cycles, statistically dominating the same Constitutionalist all those years — Daniel Weston.
Weston is again running for Palmer’s statehouse seat. The Constitutionalist’s campaign, one of three in a newly crowded field, has been publicly silent on political newcomer Soullierre’s entrance.
The campaign has continued to criticize Palmer for levying taxes and fees while promising to evade bipartisan gridlock
The candidates split on transportation.
Palmer says “transportation is sorely underfunded,” and more money must be diverted to local transportation districts to upgrade roads, though he thinks mass transit, with the exception of select, frequently-used buses, isn’t “even in the cards” because it requires too much up-front investment to be justified given the Treasure Valley’s population size.
Soulliere contends that ”widening roads is not a complete strategy. It’s one piece … What mass transit offers is the ability to get less cars on the road.” He wants to start with busses and spark long-term discussions on using light rail in the valley.
“That is a more complex discussion, and I wish I had an existing framework to go off of, but the chair of the Transportation Committee, my opponent, is so against it, we’ve never really developed a plan with the exact cost and everything,” Soulliere said.
Palmer said he has multiple drafts of bills to increase transportation funding, but was unwilling to share the details of them.
Property tax relief is also high on both candidates’ lists of priorities. While Soulliere condemns Idaho Republicans for their failure to pass related legislation during this year’s legislative session, Palmer points to bills that passed the House but were shot down by his colleagues in the Senate.
Both candidates said they’d be “open” to using impact fees, which are collected from new construction projects, to fund schools. Still, both were hesitant to commit to raising taxes in interviews this month.
“I’ll never say never,” Palmer said.
Soulliere added that increased state education funding is one of the top three focuses of his campaign, alongside tax relief and transportation upgrades. Investing in education is key to attracting businesses, and allows employers like Micron, where he’s a marketing director, to find qualified employees in-state, he said.
“When they see 51st in education, that tells them they’re going to have to hire an out-of-state workforce,” he said of Idaho’s national rank in per-pupil education funding, a metric conservatives have criticized.
Though his campaign communications don’t explicitly address a number of issues, Weston knocks Palmer’s spending and the legislature’s taxing writ large, arguing he offers a fiscally hyper-conservative alternative to his Republican opponent.
Policy differences between District 20A candidates may be difficult for voters to sift through.
Soulliere was the only respondent of the three to a League of Women Voters candidate survey that questioned candidates’ policy-level priorities. Palmer said he never saw the survey, but confirmed that his absence from a Meridian Chamber of Commerce virtual candidate forum was intentional.
“The Zoom thing is terrible. I chose on the Chamber to just not do it … The only reason I’m not doing it is it’s just so clumsy,” he said in an interview before the forum.
He also said he prefers face-to-face interactions and dislikes the buffering and disconnects involved in video calls.
Soulliere, one of only three attendees of a combined forum for Districts 20 and 21, took a shot at Palmer, saying the forum was an example of Palmer’s “absent leadership.”
The race drew heightened attention when Palmer’s opponent in last spring’s Republican primary, Dawn Maglish, endorsed Soulliere’s candidacy in a since-removed post on her campaign Facebook.
“Dear friends in District 20, when I ran in the Idaho primary I ran against a 12 incumbent Republican Joe Palmer. I believe in term limits,” she wrote. “I personally don’t know Danile S Weston. I do know Patrick Francis Soulliere II. He and I had similar platform and hopes for the seat. The difference is the letter of partisanship. I am voting for Pat Souliere.”
It’s unclear why and when Maglish removed the post, as she could not be reached via contact information on her campaign site. However, a shared post from Soulliere’s campaign promoting his candidacy was still live on Maglish’s social media, as of noon Wednesday.
“She is obviously changing parties, so apparently she wasn’t a Republican to begin with. I don’t know, but it sounds like that,” Palmer said of the endorsement. “The difference was she got 25% of the vote and I got 75% of the vote and maybe that offended her.”
“I think that shows that I’m the only bipartisan candidate in this district,” Soulliere said of the “rare” Republican endorsement in deep-red Idaho.
Palmer added that Maglish never told him why she ran against him.
Citing leftward sliding political demographics in Ada County, Soulliere hopes to capitalize on an untapped bloc of potential blue voters in District 20, one of four legislative districts whose borders converge in Meridian.
Last time a Democrat vied for Palmer’s seat in 2012, candidate Caitlyn Lister netted 33.5% of the vote to Palmer’s 66.5%. Four years later, the last time a Democrat ran in the district, his lack of success didn’t signal any purpling. Incumbent Republican Sen. Chuck Winder beat out Democrat Bill Rutherford, pulling 67.9% of the vote.
Palmer still thinks Meridian is dominated by Republicans, but that District 20’s political geography is shifting.
“I think it’s fairly similar, but we are getting to have a big downtown. Whenever you have that, you start bringing in more people that will be more liberal-leaning,” he said. “I have a feeling (Democrats) are going to have a jump this time. I don’t think it’s going to be huge.”
All of downtown Meridian is contained in District 20.
Soulliere continues to project confidence, claiming a survey conducted by his campaign shows that district residents are split around 50/50 in self-labeling as “conservative” or “liberal” but that a majority of potential voters still flag themselves as Republicans, illuminating a gap between party and ideology. He was unwilling to share survey results with the Idaho Press until after the election.
“When you look at Meridian and West Boise, it’s a changing demographic. It’s not all hard-core conservatives,” Soulliere said. “It’s a broad spectrum.”
With Weston dinging the incumbent for not being a “true conservative,” and Soulliere likely to pull Meridian’s progressive vote, Palmer acknowledges his progressive opponent could swing the needle a bit.
“It’s a challenge that I have two instead of one. If there was one person, just a Democrat, then the numbers just don’t line up. There’s far more Republicans in Meridian. The Constitutionalist, he’s going to take some away. That’s just my guess,” he said.
Maglish’s endorsement of the race Democrat complicates the equation, Palmer said.
“That starts getting the numbers up there so that between (Maglish and Weston), they could make the Democrat win. I’m getting pulled from both sides,” he said.
Starting Nov. 10, the West Ada School District will bring K-5 students back to in-person daily learning, though grades 6-12 will remain on an alternating day schedule with all-remote learning on Mondays; K-5 students will be released early Mondays.
The district board altered its reopening plan Tuesday night after seeking advice from medical experts and before Vice Chairman Steve Smylie formally announced his anticipated resignation from the board.
Additionally, Superintendent Mary Ann Ranells will now have authority to send schools with coronavirus clusters and outbreaks back to remote learning based on newly published school-specific case data published on the district website, westada.org. As part of the new plan administrators must work on options for parents to choose remote or in-person learning during the spring to address dissatisfaction with the multiple changes the board has made to its plan this school year.
The new plan is similar to one proposed by administrators and a team of five physicians who evaluated the district’s health and safety protocols. Headlined by doctor and former St. Luke’s Health System President and CEO David Pate, the original proposal would have kept fourth and fifth graders on a hybrid, alternating day schedule with an early release on Mondays since kids aged 10-12 appear to be more efficient at spreading the coronavirus. The board chose to treat elementary schools as one block after Pate said there’s no hard line for when kids become more efficient spreaders of the virus. Instead, children become more efficient spreaders gradually as they get older, he said.
That’s backed by West Ada’s first set of case data, which shows from Oct. 11–24, cases were highest in high schools — 11.81 high school students per 100,000 have tested positive for the virus. That’s more than double the 4.2 per 100,000 in middle schools and over triple the 2.8 per 100,000 in elementary schools.
Still, Pate acknowledged that teachers at younger grade levels struggle to get their kids to social distance when classrooms are full. That issue came up again in public testimony, which saw over a dozen teachers and parents voice competing concerns Tuesday night.
When Trustee Amy Johnson asked, “Can we legitimately get all kids back in school safely in your opinion?”
Pate quickly responded: “Today? No.”
Pate recommends closures on a school-by-school basis rather than districtwide.
“While this approach doesn’t provide the beauty of a single objective number that can be measured, reported and followed, it avoids … another deterioration of the trust that is so important with our teachers if we establish a number and then change the guidelines again when that number is reached,” Pate said.
Others have echoed the refrain “red means remote" and have urged the district to determine a preset threshold of case spread at which the whole district would automatically go remote. The Idaho State Board of Education recommended that approach until last week, when it added a new "orange" category below "red" and lifted its recommendation that all classes be remote in counties in the "red" zone, Idaho Education News reported.
Smylie abstained from a series of votes on the school’s reopening plan before formally announcing his resignation, which Idaho Ed News reported on Friday.
“When adults fight, children lose,” he told the board. “I am proud of this district and I always will be, but no one was prepared for a pandemic, and it has turned into division …”
That division has surfaced in recent weeks: Trustee Ed Klopfenstein resigned his role as chairman. Teachers called in sick en masse to protest holding of in-person classes. Parents launched a lawsuit backed by the Idaho Freedom Foundation against the district union for organizing the sickout. An effort began to recall all five trustees.
When Klopfenstein stepped down as board leader, he said, “I’ve risked my business. I’ve risked my family,” and said he’d been experiencing “internal conflicts that I’ve had.”
Smylie projected the pressure on the board in his announcement, too.
“Every choice it seems now that I have as a trustee is inadequate … I know that (with) the stress on our household, my wife said she doesn’t even recognize me,” he said.
Smylie spent his career teaching in West Ada, the Boise School District and at Boise State University. He was a four-term Republican state legislator and is the son of late Gov. Robert Smylie. Steve Smylie ran unsuccessfully for superintendent of public instruction against Tom Luna in 2006.