Child care providers struggle to stay open as Utah health officials try to slow spread of coronavirus

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Monica Miles, director of The Buddy Bin child care business in North Salt Lake, has seen a dramatic drop in the number of kids coming but is also trying to help families who are first responders and essential workers. Taking many precautions during the coronavirus pandemic, she and her son Brandon, who is co-director of the center, have fun with the kids on Thursday, March 26, 2020.

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On a typical day, Monica Miles sees roughly 50 kids at The Buddy Bin, a child care center in North Salt Lake. But lately, as Utahns grapple with the spread of coronavirus, that number has dwindled down to about a dozen.

“It’s been challenging, very challenging,” said Miles, director at The Buddy Bin. And she isn’t the only child care provider in Utah who’s been affected as more parents work from home and health officials encourage social distancing.

Tabitha Mecham, who runs Caterpillar Clubhouse Childcare and Preschool out of her house in Herriman, has lost three families. Missy Monsivais, owner and director of Imagination Time in Marriott-Slaterville, has the capacity for 93 children, but lately she’s had as few as 30.

“We’ve seen a lot of child care programs close for a variety of reasons, mostly because enrollment is down,” said Tracy Gruber, director of Utah’s Office of Child Care. As of Thursday,though, facilities in the state are allowed to stay open as long as they follow guidelines from the Utah Department of Health and other government agencies.

“The reality is people are still working, and families still need to use child care. And there’s a way to keep child care programs open and operating in a safe manner. That’s where our focus is right now," Gruber said.

More information and guidance can be found at coronavirus.utah.gov and jobs.utah.gov/occ. The Utah Office of Child Care has FAQ pages for parents (jobs.utah.gov/covid19/ccfaqparents.pdf) and providers (jobs.utah.gov/covid19/ccfaqproviders.pdf).

When parents bring their child to the front office at Imagination Time, the staff checks the child’s temperature, Monsivais said. If it’s in the normal range, they wash the child’s hands and take them to the classroom. Parents aren’t allowed further into the center.

“We’re just taking precautions, and we’re trying to keep it open and safe and keep our staff safe,” Monsivais said.

“You are constantly washing the kids’ hands,” Mecham said. If they put something in their mouths, you have to take it out, she said. Most of the children Mecham watches are about 3 years old, so it’s hard to explain social distancing to them, but she does her best.

“Little kids are lovers. They want to sit next to their friends, and they want to share whatever they have with their friends,” she said.

The Department of Health issued temporary emergency conditions Wednesday, including that providers must restrict groups to 10 people or less. There can be more than 10 people in a facility if the groups are kept in separate rooms, according to a letter from the department. Providers should also regularly clean and sanitize surfaces and items that are touched often, such as toys, desks, remote controls, doorknobs and light switches.

“If there is a confirmed case of COVID-19 at the facility, the provider must close the facility and consult with their local health department on next steps and when to re-open,” the letter states.

Normally, Mecham said, she would try to fill her open spots as quickly as she can. But with “the fear of the unknown” as coronavirus cases continue to rise in Utah, she’s nervous to bring in families and children she’s not familiar with, especially since she runs her child care business in her home.

“I’m not willing to risk my family getting sick, or the other day care kids getting sick,” Mecham said.

Monsivais has had to cut her staff back. She usually has about 31 employees, but now she’s down to seven who are working. “A lot of them don’t feel comfortable working right now,” she said.

When Miles couldn’t find the baby wipes and sanitizing wipes she needed, she put a call out on Facebook, and a few parents dropped some off. “We’ve had a huge trouble finding supplies,” Miles said. Monsivais said she’s trying to follow nutrition guidelines for her children, “but a lot of the food we would serve is out of stock.” She has to go to three or four stores to get enough milk for the children.

It’s hard to know whether to stay open or close, Mecham said. If she shuts down, should she do it now, or wait a couple of weeks to see if things improve? Monsivais worries that if things continue to escalate, she could be forced to close down and potentially “lose everything.”

Miles said she plans to stay open as long as she can, particularly to serve parents working in the health care field and other essential positions. If she has to adjust her hours to help people stocking grocery stores overnight, she’s open to that.

“They need to know that when they’re at work, that their kids are being taken care of ... just like they would at home,” Miles said.