BOISE — Shopping appointments, Zoom calls with Santa and high stakes for small businesses — 2020’s holiday shopping season is shaping up to be unique.
As retailers, both large and small, gear up for Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, Cyber Monday and the greater holiday shopping season, they’re hoping the novel coronavirus pandemic won’t deter customers. After an economic downturn caused by COVID-19 restrictions, the holidays offer an opportunity to recoup some financial losses from earlier this year, and less than solid turnout could spell demise for the Treasure Valley’s small businesses still struggling to recover.
Meanwhile, COVID-19 numbers are soaring in Southwest Idaho. Last week, Idaho surpassed 85,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 800 deaths.
That’s why retailers are getting creative with purchasing options, in hopes customers will be safe and comfortable shopping, whether in person or online.
“We’re playing it safe, first and foremost,” said Chad Dryden, marketing and promotions director for the Record Exchange, a downtown Boise record store. “We want to make sure that not only our customers are safe but our staff is safe.”
NEW SHOPPING HABITS
On Black Friday in past years, the Record Exchange attracted a line of 100 to 150 people at 5 a.m. That won’t happen this year.
Like many other retailers, the Record Exchange will limit capacity in its store. It’s also offering an appointment service for shoppers looking for exclusive deals. On the morning of Black Friday, customers with appointments — awarded on a free lottery system — can shop for exclusives in 15-minute time slots, before the store opens to the general public.
Overall retail spending, including e-commerce, among American consumers has rebounded following early pandemic declines, according to the National Retail Federation, a trade group based in Washington, D.C. Retail sales were up 10.6% in October compared to 2019, and a large majority, 70%, of consumers say given COVID-19 precautions retailers are taking, they feel safe shopping in stores, according to market research and polling data.
The data is promising for big chains, but Sean Evans, CEO of the Meridian Chamber of Commerce, said he’s skeptical whether those numbers are translating to small businesses.
“There is a lot of concern amongst the retail outlets and businesses in the community,” Evans said. “The virus, and just this whole year, has trained people to (order) online, and you’re not necessarily supporting a local business when you’re doing that. They’re not able to sell the products at the prices that online does because they’re having to maintain the overhead of a store, employees, things like that.”
This year’s shutdown led small retailers to bulk-up their e-commerce offerings, so many are already prepared to serve digital customers. Since reopening in May, the Record Exchange developed new services to meet the demands of COVID-era shopping habits, such as curbside pickup and a limited delivery option for Ada County customers.
“Some of the positives we’re seeing in this is that it forced us to offer some more shopping alternatives that we hadn’t ever offered before,” Dryden said. “Our e-commerce has definitely grown in this time. When we were closed during the shutdown and shortly thereafter … our online shop was our main outlet to the rest of the world.”
Despite the diverse purchasing options, in-store capacity limits remain a cause for anxiety.
“That’s a big unknown for retail this year, is limiting capacity and hoping to meet sales goals,” Dryden said. “We are cautiously optimistic that we will have the support of our customers, and a lot of people will choose to shop local instead of spend all of their money with certain behemoth online retailers.”
According to the U.S. Small Business Administration, about 62% of small businesses say they need to see consumer spending return to pre-COVID levels by the end of this year.
The holiday season is typically the time when retailers make a final push to reach profitability for the year. Evans said he fears that local retailers won’t reach those numbers this year, and the businesses that were struggling leading into the holidays won’t survive into next year. That’s why he’s encouraging Treasure Valley residents to shop local.
“It’s your friends and your neighbors that are employed by these businesses,” Evans said. “There are ways to buy from our local merchants that doesn’t require you to get out and go into the stores and expose yourself, but when you have to, do it in a very safe manner.”
CREATING SAFE SPACES
Retailers — the ones who follow standard safety protocols, such as mask mandates, social distancing and extra sanitation — hope customers know safety measures are in place and have been for some time.
“The good thing is this not being sprung on us today and we (have) to figure it out tomorrow; retailers have been practicing it since June,” said Hugh Crawford, general manager of CenterCal Properties at The Village at Meridian, an outdoor shopping mall. “Those practices are still in place and they’ve been refining them, they continue to refine them each day.”
Each business at The Village abides by its own protocols — many are corporate-owned and have strict guidelines, such as Lush, a United Kingdom-based cosmetics retailer, which offers pickup orders only while its lobby remains closed. Throughout The Village common areas, masks, social distancing and hand-washing are encouraged, Crawford said.
At Fleet Feet Meridian, a franchise running shoe store at The Village, appointments are encouraged. Micah Estelle, retail experience manager, said part of his responsibility as manager is reminding employees of safe practices, and reminding customers: “It’s going to be a little different than it was before, but we’re all going to get through this together.”
“I think that we are creating safe spaces here that you can come and shop, be COVID-conscious and be safe,” he said. “The goal is that we continue to serve our running community. That’s what we’re here to do.”
The holiday shopping experience isn’t all about buying the latest Fiona Apple album on vinyl or a Theragun — a massage tool that Estelle expects will be a big seller at Fleet Feet this season. Shopping aside, there’s the “magic,” as Crawford refers to the overall experience at The Village. Traditional meet-and-greets with Santa Claus and ice skating are still a go, with new safety protocols.
The Village skating rink has a 10-person capacity and appointments are offered. As for Santa Claus, The Village has taken a uniquely 2020 approach. Three options are available: meet with Santa in person, behind plexiglass; write a letter and get a handwritten response; or chat with the jolly man via Zoom and get a copy of the recording.
“We had to think about how we did everything in the past and how can we continue to deliver the magic that we try to deliver at The Village,” Crawford said. “The families and children can still have that same experience when they come to The Village, we just made it safe.”
Idaho Sen. Jim Risch, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, won accolades from representatives of key European allies this past week when he took a strong stand for restarting collaboration with Europe to combat China’s influence.
It appears to be a major departure from the Trump administration’s “America first” approach for which Risch has been a major booster since he took over as Foreign Relations chairman in January of 2019, though Risch downplayed that in an interview with the Idaho Press.
“I’ve never come off the position that we’ve got strong ties with Europe,” the third-term Republican said Thursday.
David McAllister, a German member of the European Parliament and chairman of its Committee on Foreign Affairs, said, “I see new opportunities for transatlantic cooperation.” In recent years, he noted, relations between the United States and its European allies were “strained.”
“Now it is time to restart a partnership and strengthen our ties,” he said.
McAllister noted, “We need more American engagement in the United Nations, we need American engagement in the reform of the World Trade Organization, and also we would welcome the American return to the World Health Organization, because whenever the United States pull out, whenever you withdraw, China’s there to fill the spaces.”
He said, “If China wants to cooperate with us, fine, but then they have to walk the talk and deliver on their trade practices, human rights and climate change.”
Tom Tugendhat, a conservative and chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the British parliament, said U.S. cooperation with Europe has “allowed people to prosper in peace for decades. … It’s now our watch, and it’s up to us to defend it.”
Risch on Wednesday published a new report through the Foreign Relations Committee titled, “The U.S. and Europe: A Concrete Agenda for Transatlantic Cooperation on China,” laying out the new approach. He invited McAllister and Tugendhat to join him in an online discussion as the report was released on Wednesday, with hundreds watching from around the world.
“China has become a true systemic rival to shared American and European interests,” Risch declared. “Both sides of the Atlantic increasingly recognize this reality. Now we have to turn this agreement into action.”
Risch’s report calls for expanding transatlantic collaboration to address malign influences from China in Africa and the Indo-Pacific region; McAllister said, “I would like to add further regions,” naming the western Balkans and Eastern Europe. He said both are areas where a strengthened U.S.-European alliance can help “limit Chinese and Russian propaganda and further support … democratic values.”
On Thursday, Risch said, “I think that’s an excellent idea. … I think his suggestion is well-taken.”
Steven Feldstein, a senior fellow with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former Boise State University professor and aide to the Foreign Relations Committee under multiple chairmen, said, “It definitely seems like a repudiation of Trump and the ‘America-first’ doctrine in dramatic ways, and a pivot back to the type of internationalist posture that Republicans like Dick Lugar used to advance.”
“Trump’s approach, frankly, was to alienate allies, to go it alone, and to confront the Chinese threat single-handedly. This is a very different approach,” Feldstein said. “This is, ‘Let’s leverage alliances, let’s work with the Europeans,’ the very partners Trump has disparaged over the last few years.”
The shift comes as the Trump administration gives way to that of President-elect Joe Biden, who takes office Jan. 20. Yet since Risch took over as Foreign Relations chairman, he’s been a staunch Trump ally.
“Risch has done more than just stay silent,” Feldstein noted. “He’s actually gone on TV numerous times in support of disastrous policies put forth by Trump on the international side. He’s not just been an innocent bystander, he’s actually been a strong proponent of Trump’s ‘America-first’ vision.”
Feldstein pointed to Risch’s defense of Trump’s summit meeting with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, which resulted in concessions to that nation that failed to yield the goal of denuclearization; and his support of Trump as he cozied up to Russian President Vladimir Putin, with Trump proclaiming that he trusted Putin’s declarations of innocence with regard to meddling in U.S. elections even as U.S. intelligence findings showed otherwise.
Risch said he was “very, very supportive of that meeting” between Trump and the North Korean leader, and remains convinced that it was helpful. He declined to comment on Putin.
When it comes to America’s relationship with its allies in Europe, Risch said, “We have differences. I think the president presents those differences differently than I do. But look, this issue that we have with China really demands that we put the two groups together, the United States and our European friends. … It’s going to take that, and I’ve always thought that.”
Feldstein said, “With Biden the winner, European leaders from the very top on down have come back in and have breathed a sigh of relief.”
Risch’s move on Europe and China, he said, is “either an evolution for Risch or ideas he has believed in for a while and didn’t discuss them. … He’s been somewhat of a cipher on foreign policy. This is at least telling us a little bit more about where his priorities may lie.”
Risch emphasized that the new report on cooperation with European allies to combat China’s influence was developed “broadly with both political parties, all viewpoints, conservative, liberal, etc.”
Tugendhat said China’s approach is “not just simple business competition,” in terms of “who’s making the better kit and who’s pricing it better for the market.”
Instead, he said, that nation has sought to use techniques include technology dumping, under-cost sales, and using state assets to subsidize international sales, among others. “How do we make sure that those companies that do obey the rules, don’t steal technology … are able to compete against each other, and those that don’t (obey the rules) aren’t allowed to seek to achieve monopolistic positions against our interests?” he asked.
Risch said he was receptive to McAllister’s “gentle nudge” to bring back the United States’ role in international organizations. “I can tell you that will not be a suggestion that is widely rejected as we go forward,” he responded.
“There’s no one here trying to keep China down. China is going to continue to grow,” Risch said. “It’s going to continue to mature, its quality of life for its people is going to increase. But they have got to develop a rule of law and … embrace the international norms if they’re going to trade on the international stage.”
Risch also praised NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, as “the most successful cultural and military alliance in the history of the world.”
“I’ve had friends of mine from Europe suggest that somehow the U.S. was considering pulling out of NATO,” Risch said. “That is not the case, that has never been the case. That is never going to happen.”
Asked about the U.S. returning to its former strong role in international organizations, Risch told the Idaho Press, “The organizations obviously perform a valuable function. I think part of where our issues have come off the rails is where, there’s no question we’ve been taken advantage of over the years. That’s what used to drive President Trump crazy. If you want to understand how he thinks, if he sees anywhere we’re getting the short end of the stick, he is not happy about that, internationally. … As a result of that, he spoke about it and from time to time took action.”
“When he did his withdrawal from the World Health Organization, I never thought that to be permanent,” Risch said. “I doubt that he believed it to be permanent. He’s in the same frame of mind that I am, and that is that before we go back in, there’s got to be some major reform in the WHO. The WHO itself believes that they need some reform.”
Risch declined to say if he’d consulted with the incoming Biden administration on the report. “I’m going to put that question off for another day,” he said.
Risch said, “This report was not drawn with the current administration in mind. It was drawn to be a … road map, hopefully, for this administration, the next administration, the administration after that, the administration after that. This is going to be a long haul. China is not going to change its ways easily, and it’s going to take a long-term effort to do it.”
BOISE — A crucial tool in controlling the COVID-19 pandemic will be efficient and widespread vaccinations. Companies are getting closer to that benchmark, but that’s only part of the challenge. Questions remain about how to distribute those vaccinations in Idaho.
The Idaho Department of Health and Welfare is working on a distribution plan with the state’s seven health districts. The health districts expect the first wave of vaccines to come soon; Central District Health spokesman Brandon Atkins said the unconfirmed target date is early to mid-December for the vaccines to make it to Idaho.
When the time comes to distribute the vaccine, Central District Health will work with health care partners across its four counties, including Ada, Atkins said.
Anita Kissee, spokeswoman for St. Luke’s Health System, said the health system anticipates working with health districts.
“When a vaccine is approved, it will be distributed by the federal government to the states,” Kissee wrote to the Idaho Press. “We do not know how many doses the State or St. Luke’s will receive, or which vaccine or vaccines we will obtain first. Idaho plans to distribute vaccines through health districts to providers. St. Luke’s will then provide vaccinations per the guidance of the health districts.”
Pfizer and Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccines require refrigeration, with Pfizer’s vaccine needing ultra-cold temperatures — minus 94 degrees Fahrenheit — to stay stable. According to recent reporting by NPR, Moderna’s vaccine needs to be kept at minus 4 degrees Fahrenheit, which will not require ultra-cold freezers.
In response to the vaccines’ requirements, the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare is providing one ultra-cold freezer for each of the seven health districts in the state, spokeswoman Niki Forbing-Orr said.
Dr. Patrice Burgess, executive medical director of Saint Alphonsus Health System and chairwoman for the Idaho COVID-19 Vaccine Advisory Committee, said it’s likely health officials will be able to store the vaccine at normal refrigerator temperatures for six days. Anything longer than that would require an ultra-cold freezer, but she said it’s possible health care workers might be able to travel into communities around the state and vaccinate people there.
“We certainly want to make sure that the vaccine is equitably distributed to all the appropriate people, right?” she said. “So we don’t want to — because we have ultra-cold storage in Boise — we don’t want that to limit the availability of vaccine to Salmon, Idaho. We’re all looking at that, and all the different ways that we can make sure it’s equitably distributed.”
Because there will be limited numbers of vaccinations available at first, Idaho’s health districts will be following the Center for Disease Control’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices guidelines, which will allow the groups who need the vaccine most to receive it first.
n Phase 1 – Health care personnel, long-term care facility staff and residents, first responders
n Phase 2 – K-12 teachers and school staff, older adults, adults with high risk conditions, other works in essential industries, and persons living in congregate settings and staff (corrections, group homes, homeless shelters)
n Phase 3 – Broad immunization of other workers, young adults and children (if vaccines tested in children)
n Phase 4 – Other persons interested in vaccination for their personal protection
The vaccine will be free for Idahoans, Forbing-Orr said, but the state will not be involved in its distribution after a single early distribution.
“For early distribution of the Pfizer vaccine, the state will take the lead. After that, vaccine will be sent directly to vaccine providers,” Forbing-Orr wrote.
Burgess wasn’t sure how much vaccine the state will get from the government initially, or which vaccine the state will receive.
According to the Vaccine Advisory Committee’s Initial COVID-19 Vaccination Plan, federally qualified health centers, hospitals and local public health districts will be the first programs to provide vaccinations. Later on, local pharmacies will be recruited and enrolled as vaccine providers, along with other health care providers.
Burgess said it will likely be health care workers actually administering the vaccine on the ground. She said the advisory committee hasn’t finalized its rollout plan.
“The success of the COVID-19 vaccination program in Idaho will be based heavily on COVID-19 vaccinators. Vaccinators must be accessible, well trained, and technically capable,” the plan says.
Atkins said that CDH was working to find way to get the vaccine to the communities it services.
“We anticipate the utilization of community partnerships in healthcare organizations as well as our Medical Reserve Corp to help with this task but, again, do not have finalized details as the plan is still unfolding,” Atkins said.
Southwest District Health, which has Canyon County in its six-county region, did not provide comment before deadline about its vaccination plan.
Burgess said her biggest concern was a lack of trust in the vaccine and the process the companies used to develop it.
“People’s willingness to take the vaccine is of concern,” she said. “… I know there are people concerned about the rapid process, but these are very reputable companies.”