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Govt-and-politics
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Idaho governor issues statewide stay-home order to combat coronavirus

BOISE — In an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19, Gov. Brad Little ordered all Idahoans to stay home for at least 21 days, and not just if they’re sick.

Little announced the decision Wednesday afternoon. He also issued an extreme emergency declaration, which allows the state to expand healthcare capacity more quickly and take decisive steps in responding to the virus.

The “strong measures” are to ensure healthcare facilities are not overburdened, Little said.

“Our healthcare and public safety workers are putting themselves in harm’s way to respond to the coronavirus emergency,” he said. “We owe it to them to do our part by following this statewide stay-home order.”

People can leave their homes to access essential services, such as grocery stores, medical facilities and other select businesses. Going outdoors to exercise is also allowed, but officials stressed people should remain at least six feet apart. Those who are older or otherwise at risk are encouraged to avoid leaving home.

The order emphasizes that there is no reason to rush to stores or hoard supplies.

The decision follows the discovery of community spread in Ada County, Idaho’s most populous area. Idaho Department of Health and Welfare reports 123 cases of the virus as of Wednesday evening.

On Monday, Twin Falls city and county each issued declarations of emergency to provide more flexibility in their response to the pandemic. County Commissioner Don Hall said the new restrictions will encourage social distancing and slow the progress of the virus.

“I believe the governor is doing the prudent thing,” Hall said. “He’s doing this to keep us all safe and to slow the spread of the virus so it’s manageable.”

PAT SUTPHIN TIMES-NEWS 

Downtown sits relatively empty as businesses fight to stay open Tuesday on Main Avenue in Twin Falls. Wednesday, Gov. Brad Little ordered all "non-essential" businesses to close their physical locations.

Twin Falls Mayor Suzanne Hawkins encouraged people to follow the governor’s direction and check-in on those who might need extra help.

“If we all work together,” she said, “we can get through it quicker and get back to life as we know it.”

Grocers and more still open

Businesses that can stay open include grocery stores, health care facilities, utilities, gas stations, banks, laundromats, veterinary services, and other select businesses essential to safety. Restaurant dining rooms must shut down, but drive-thru, pick up, and delivery is still allowed.

Government agencies and non-essential businesses — such as bars, gyms, and hair salons — must stop operating at a physical location and allow employees to work remotely. Non-essential travel must stop as well.

Little acknowledged the virus has hurt local economies and said the state has seen a spike in unemployment filings this week.

“We’re just trying to minimize it all we can,” he said.

Twin Falls Chamber of Commerce President Shawn Barigar released a statement to members following the announcement.

“We are adapting and innovating to keep our network together, even in a time of social distancing and under the guidelines of the Governor’s new stay-home order,” said Barigar, who is also a Twin Falls city councilman. “We’ll come through the other end of this stronger, better connected, and resilient.”

The order is similar to the one Little implemented last week in Blaine County, which was enforced by the possibility of a misdemeanor.

Little said the intent isn’t to arrest people but to have high compliance.

“Peer pressure from the communities is always our first preference,” he said. “We will look at each instance case by case.”

Stay-home order
Statewide Stay-Home Order
Extreme Emergency Declaration
Complete coverage: What Idahoans need to know about the coronavirus

International
AP
Senate passes rescue package

WASHINGTON — The Senate late Wednesday passed an unparalleled $2.2 trillion economic rescue package steering aid to businesses, workers and health care systems engulfed by the coronavirus pandemic.

The unanimous vote came despite misgivings on both sides about whether it goes too far or not far enough and capped days of difficult negotiations as Washington confronted a national challenge unlike it has ever faced.

The 880-page measure is the largest economic relief bill in U.S. history. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., appeared somber and exhausted as he announced the vote — and he released senators from Washington until April 20, though he promised to recall them if needed.

“The legislation now before us now is historic because it is meant to match a historic crisis,”said Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. “Our health care system is not prepared to care for the sick. Our workers are without work. Our businesses cannot do business. Our factories lie idle. The gears of the American economy have ground to a halt.”

The package is intended as relief for an economy spiraling into recession or worse and a nation facing a grim toll from an infection that’s killed nearly 20,000 people worldwide. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, asked how long the aid would keep the economy afloat, said: “We’ve anticipated three months. Hopefully, we won’t need this for three months.”

Underscoring the effort’s sheer magnitude, the bill finances a response with a price tag that equals half the size of the entire $4 trillion annual federal budget.

Insistently optimistic, President Donald Trump said of the greatest public-health emergency in anyone’s lifetime, “I don’t think its going to end up being such a rough patch” and anticipated the economy soaring “like a rocket ship” when it’s over.

The drive by leaders to speed the bill through the Senate was slowed as four conservative Republican senators from states whose economies are dominated by low-wage jobs who demanded changes, saying the legislation as written might give workers like store clerks incentives to stay on unemployment instead of returning to their jobs since they may earn more money if they’re laid off than if they’re working. They settled for a failed vote to modify the provision.

Other objections floated in from New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who has become a prominent Democrat on the national scene as the country battles the pandemic. Cuomo, whose state has seen more deaths from the pandemic than any other, said, “I’m telling you, these numbers don’t work.”

Cuomo said the Senate package would send less than $4 billion to New York, far short of his estimate that the crisis will cost his state up to $15 billion over the next year. More than 280 New Yorkers have died from the virus, a death toll more than double that of any other state.

Still, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said the need for more money for New York is “no reason to stop the step we are taking.”

Meanwhile, New York authorities mobilized to head off a potential public health disaster in the city Wednesday as U.S. deaths from the pandemic topped 1,000.

A makeshift morgue was set up outside Bellevue Hospital, and the city’s police, their ranks dwindling as more fall ill, were told to patrol nearly empty streets to enforce social distancing. Public health officials hunted down beds and medical equipment and put out a call for more doctors and nurses for fear the number of sick will explode in a matter of weeks.

Ardent liberals were restless about the bill, but top Washington Democrats assured them that additional coronavirus legislation will follow this spring and signaled that delaying the pending measure would be foolish.

The sprawling measure is the third coronavirus response bill produced by Congress and by far the largest. It builds on efforts focused on vaccines and emergency response, sick and family medical leave for workers, and food aid.

Pelosi swung behind the bipartisan agreement, saying it “takes us a long way down the road in meeting the needs of the American people.”

Senate passage delivered the legislation to the Democratic-controlled House, which will most likely pass it Friday. House members are scattered around the country and the timetable for votes in that chamber was unclear.

House Democratic and Republican leaders have hoped to clear the measure for Trump’s signature by a voice vote without having to call lawmakers back to Washington.

The package would give direct payments to most Americans, expand unemployment benefits and provide a $367 billion program for small businesses to keep making payroll while workers are forced to stay home.

It includes a controversial, heavily negotiated $500 billion program for guaranteed, subsidized loans to larger industries, including airlines. Hospitals would get significant help as well.

The bill would provide one-time direct payments to Americans of $1,200 per adult making up to $75,000 a year, and $2,400 to a married couple making up to $150,000, with $500 payments per child.

A huge cash infusion for hospitals expecting a flood of COVID-19 patients grew during the talks to an estimated $130 billion. Another $45 billion would fund additional relief through the Federal Emergency Management Agency for local response efforts and community services.


Local
alert top story
Utility companies and city managers rethink disconnection policies during pandemic

TWIN FALLS — Municipalities and utility companies are rethinking shut-off policies as the impact of COVID-19 continues to grow.

The city of Twin Falls has sent shut-off notices to water users who are delinquent on their bills. City Manager Travis Rothweiler told the Times-News on Tuesday that 21 accounts are at risk of losing their ability to wash their hands, bathe and flush toilets.

But these are not accounts that have been affected by the shelter-in-place orders set in place as the new coronavirus entered the Magic Valley, Rothweiler said. These are residences that are 60 to 90 days delinquent.

“We struggle with understanding how an event that has really only consumed our efforts over the last two weeks... would cause someone to fall that deep into arrears on their water bill,” he said. “Seventy-five days ago, Twin Falls was not having a conversation about COVID-19.”

Twelve of the accounts have been on the city’s shut-off list at least twice in the past 12 months, city spokesman Joshua Palmer said.

Suspension of water services comes after the accounts are 90 days past due, Palmer said.

City leaders have heard residents’ concerns and are making payment arrangements with those who call in, he said, but the 12 most-delinquent account owners have been unresponsive.

“I don’t know the specific situation with customers,” Palmer said, “but none are elderly or have health issues.

“The challenge is we’ve been trying to work with them. It puts the city in a difficult bind. We don’t want anyone to fall behind.”

The city has decided, however, to suspend reconnect fees at this time, he said.

The city will continue to watch the situation, Rothweiler said. There’s a possibility of linking delinquent bills to unemployment caused by COVID-19 and the city would adjust its policy accordingly.

Meanwhile, “we think it sends the wrong message to stop collecting water payments for water that has already been consumed,” he said.

Intermountain Gas Co. has re-evaluated its shut-off policy to allow customers to heat their homes, heat water and cook during this unprecedented time.

“We... know some of our business and residential customers might have trouble paying their bills because of coronavirus related hardships,” the natural gas company’s website says. “In that regard, Intermountain Gas has taken measurable actions to help our customers...”

The company has vowed not to disconnect customers for nonpayment during this time and will work with customers to make payment arrangements.

“We have filed requests with our regulatory commissions for a waiver that allows the company to waive late fees,” its website says.

Idaho Power Co. is also suspending disconnections for homes and small businesses facing hardship because of the pandemic and will waive late fees.

“We encourage customers to pay what they can so balances don’t become overwhelming down the road,” the power company’s website says. “We can help customers set up a realistic path forward as they navigate these uncertain times.”


HONS 

In this photo taken from video provided by the New York Stock Exchange, Director of Facilities & Building Operations James Katsarelis rings the opening bell at the NYSE, on Wednesday, March 25, 2020. Stocks are wobbling in tentative trading Wednesday as a historic, worldwide rally downshifts dramatically after just a day. (New York Stock Exchange via AP)


Business
breaking
Old Twin Falls clinic building to become charter school with apartments next door

TWIN FALLS — The old clinic and hospital on Shoshone Street has a new owner who plans on gutting the building and turning it into a charter school. The project will also include two apartment complexes, built next door where there are currently parking lots. Those apartment buildings will cost $21 million to design and build.

“I’m really excited about it,” Twin Falls Economic Development Director Nathan Murray said. “I think it’s a really good use for that area.”

The Galena Opportunity Fund, a Boise-based group that specializes in developing housing in opportunity zones (economically blighted areas that offer investors federal tax incentives for new development) purchased the building and adjacent parking lots in December.

This isn’t the investment group’s first time taking on a massive, expensive project in downtown Twin Falls. Galena is also the owner of the Youth Ranch building on Main Avenue South that will soon be knocked down and replaced with retail space, offices, a $4 million parking garage and roughly 100 apartments.

Galena Opportunity Fund CEO Bill Truax said there will be 112 housing units on what is currently parking lot space near the clinic building. The new coronavirus could affect the project’s timeline, but Truax said ideally construction could begin in July or August.

“Our intent is to create a multi-family community in there, along with a charter school,” Truax said, also noting that the clinic building is so big that it will likely be more than just a charter school. For example, there could be a daycare as well.

There’s a big demand for apartments in downtown Twin Falls, Truax said, even though historically the downtown area hasn’t had many apartments, and recent apartment construction has mainly been along the canyon rim.

“We think, if given the option, people would like to live (downtown),” he said. “There’s just no one building those units in the market right now.”

Murray noted that this is the third opportunity zone project in downtown Twin Falls, and he isn’t aware of any other community in Idaho that’s had more than one.

Seeing major investment in this particular building is welcome, Murray said, because no one has managed to do anything with it for years.

The building has had a somewhat troubled ownership past and changed hands several times since the clinic closed in the early 2000s.

In 2013, the county sold it to Eric Watte and New Leaf Properties for more than $2 million, then had to repossess it when Watte failed to make payments. It was in the running as a potential site for the new city hall a few years ago. Multiple past owners have appeared to be more intent on flipping the property than developing it.

The building has gone unoccupied for years, and the interior isn’t in great shape. Because of that, Truax said the inside will likely be stripped, with some selective demolition.

Truax mentioned several goals for the project. He hopes this will bring more people downtown, and also noted that this housing could be convenient for people who work on Kimberly Road for businesses such as Chobani, Clif Bar and Jayco.

PAT SUTPHIN, TIMES-NEWS 

A sold sign sits in front of the old clinic building Wednesday on Shoshone Street East in Twin Falls.

It’s good for the community to have these massive investments in the downtown area, Murray said, especially when those investments are being made by a group that has a vision for the future. He hopes the Galena Opportunity Fund continues to invest here.

“I think they have a level of comfort working in Twin Falls with the team we have here,” Murray said. “I’m glad they trust us.”