Jerry Brady: Caution makes more sense than showboating

Open a business now and or stay the course? Sacrifice lives or sacrifice jobs? The issue is almost as fraught as the simple choice facing all of us: Do we wear a mask to protect others or go bare-faced in public?

Those willing to take risks that seem reckless to others include Lauren Boebert, the always-armed owner of Shooter’s Grill in Rifle, Colorado, who served patrons despite Gov. Jared Polis’s order, and Doug and Christine Lohman, owners of Hardware Brewery in Kendrick, Idaho, who made a big deal of opening May 1, also against a governor’s order.

Kendrick, population 307, is where Doug and Christine Lohman poured their life’s savings into a pub fashioned out of a former hardware store. The bar depends almost entirely on customers from somewhere else, like the University of Idaho, 30 miles away, or Lewiston, about 60 miles away. Their Hardware Brewery would be recognized in most towns as a pleasant neighborhood Cheers, except it’s not in anybody’s neighborhood.

Under a plan published by Idaho Republican Gov. Brad Little, the pub could have reopened as a restaurant May 16 and as a bar June 13. It likely would also have received $10,000 from a small business relief fund created by Little with federal dollars. Instead, the Lohman’s said they had to open early or go bankrupt. Feeling that they’re “as safe as McDonalds,” the couple invited some Very Important People to their opening.

Janice McGeachin, the Republican lieutenant governor, traveled 500 miles from Idaho Falls to attend. She said she’d been incensed from the start that only establishments providing food, medical care, public protection or construction were deemed “essential.” All businesses are essential, the lieutenant governor said, including pubs — such as the one she also operates — and should be open as a constitutional right of assembly.

With her was Raul Labrador, the chairman of the Idaho Republican Party and a recent member of Congress who lost a close primary election to Little in 2018, plus two state legislators from Lewiston. Labrador wanted the state open in April.

All opposed the governor from the first, as did the speaker of the Idaho House, many other legislators and numerous sheriffs and county commissioners — opponents similar in other Western states.

You have to hand it to Little, who has negotiated the pandemic with patience and skill. New cases are trending downward, crushing the curve at least for now, and testing is expanding rapidly. A recent poll by the Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry found nearly 80 percent of Idahoans support the governor’s four-stage reopening plan, with even higher support among Republicans.

Like other small states, Idaho received $1.2 billion in federal funds, among the highest amounts per-capita nationally, on top of payroll protection and enhanced unemployment insurance. Little is using $300 million for grants of up to $10,000 each to small businesses like Hardware Brewing and most recently, to day care centers.

With the minimum wage an abysmal $7.25 an hour, Idaho wages are so low unemployment payments can be more attractive than working. For few months at least, about half of the 100,000 unemployed Idahoans have caught a rare break in life.

Notably, protestors chose not to stage their rebellion in nearby Nez Perce County, where 20 of its 95 infected county residents have died, or at a meat packing plant south of Boise, where 23 workers have been sent home after testing positive.

The “open now” leaders have championed near-absolute freedom versus what they label as government oppression. Little has cast his decisions in soft language, advising residents to shelter in place “as best you can” or saying of the Kendrick protesters, “they certainly aren’t making this any easier.”

Recently, however, he suggested that those who open bars or hair salons prematurely “could lose their operating licenses.” But the governor took no action as six businesses opened early in Idaho Falls. In Colorado, Shooter’s Grill was handed a cease and desist order — no ambiguity there.

When this all began, we might have assumed it would only last a few months. Instead, it could turn out to be like World War I, an epic slog which ended with vastly more people dying from flu than combat. This pandemic likewise requires wartime-like unity, good will and clear thinking.

Meanwhile, caution makes more sense than showboating and anger.

Jerry Brady

Jerry Brady, Boise, is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversation about the West. He is a former newspaper owner who also served as director of public affairs for the Peace Corps.