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How COVID-19 is putting a dent in the eastern Idaho economy

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IDAHO FALLS — The coronavirus or COVID-19 is likely going to have a big effect on the local economy.

Will Jenson is a former economist for the Idaho Department Of Labor. Currently, he’s the director of business research for the Research and Business Development Center in Rexburg. He says COVID-19 will impact the leisure and hospitality industry in Idaho.

“Statewide, there are about 63,000 jobs in the leisure and hospitality industry,” Jenson said. “The total number of jobs in the state is about 653,000.”

Taking a closer look at the numbers, he said in the eastern Idaho region, there are about 85,000 total jobs and around 7,500 jobs are in leisure and hospitality. The entire eastern side of the state tallies about 12,800 leisure and hospitality jobs, which is about 8.7 percent of total jobs, he said.

“Obviously, we’re not going to lose all of those jobs — that’s not going to happen,” Jenson said. “But you would lose some of those travelers that are coming in from foreign countries, which is a significant portion of the Yellowstone traffic.”

Included in leisure and hospitality are food services, lodging and transportation.

“I know that when I’ve looked at reports on the impact of other diseases or pandemics and things that have happened in recent years, the impact on the economy as a whole, it’s been in single digits — it’s pretty small. Two or 3 percent at the most. In some cases, it’s not really measurable,” Jenson said. “But the big difference now is how is this going to impact consumer confidence?”

Jenson said in some instances, consumer confidence is low because of the COVID-19 outbreak, but it may be driving people to purchase more. He said there will be pluses and minuses all over the place for businesses as COVID-19 continues to flourish.

“You see stories about people going and buying out inventory and toilet paper at retail stores,” Jenson said. “But they might hold back on purchases of other items that are probably bigger-ticket items because their confidence has been impacted.”

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Greater Idaho Falls Chamber of Commerce CEO Chip Schwarze said although bigger businesses are selling out of items and staying busy, it’s a difficult time for small businesses.

“They’re going to be struggling right now because people are looking at conserving their resources because they don’t know if they’re going to be sick or home without a paycheck,” Schwarze said. “I think the prudent thing for businesses to be concerned about with right now is not so much their immediate needs, but the long term needs of the community, and by minimizing the opportunity to spread the virus, we’re going to make our economic rebound come back quick.”

Josh Swain co-owns Abracadabras with his brother Jonathan. Abracadabras is a bistro that specializes in breakfast and lunch. Josh said at their Idaho Falls location, he hadn’t noticed a decrease in customers until Sunday. He said there was about a 25 percent drop Sunday compared to last year. Josh said Monday’s attendance was down about 20 percent.

“We’re a little worried (about business), but we’re worried about health first and foremost from out guests and employees,” Josh said.

They’ve put hand sanitizer stations throughout the restaurant. They don’t plan to shut down unless mandated to, or if they don’t have enough healthy bodies to work, he said.

He did mention that last week the Abracadabras in Twin Falls seemed slower than normal.

“We expect it to get worse before it gets better,” Josh said.

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Monty and Andrea Spaulding own Kettle Embroidery in Rexburg. Since their business opened in 2003, Monty said they’ve had a few years where the total yearly sales were down, but nothing like what they’ve seen in the past two to three weeks.

He said they are down 32 percent on orders this month, and their customers are struggling to make payments to pay off bills.

“I’m much more concerned about the economy than I am about the coronavirus, which I know for a lot of people that’s been their worry, and I’m not saying that’s wrong, but I’m more concerned that the economy is going to suffer than I am that people’s health is going to suffer,” Monty told EastIdahoNews.com.

Monty said they are having a company meeting Tuesday to talk about decreasing working hours to save money. He’s also going to talk to his 21 employees about filing for unemployment so they can still pay their individual bills.

“We all depend on each other. My business depends on businesses around me doing well. If businesses around me aren’t doing well, they aren’t going to buy things from me,” Monty said. “If businesses around me aren’t doing well and laying employees off and they have lower income, they aren’t going to buy from anyone.”

Schwarze said it’s important to look out for one another.

“From the chamber’s perspective, we’re just asking people to remember their neighbors. Some people are going to fare better than other people through this,” he said. “Let’s all look out for everybody, try to minimize the spread of this thing so that we can get back to business as normal and as quick as possible.”

Get more COVID-19 news here.

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