Payette County Courthouse

PAYETTE COUNTY — The response to the novel coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic by state and local governments has seen some business owners become tense about being allowed to reopen, one example being local business owner Jim Smith.

During an online debate for the May 19 Primary Election, Smith, who is vying for the District 9A legislative seat expressed frustration with Gov. Brad Little’s Stages of Reopening order, opting not to wait and instead reopen his Body Shop Fitness Center locations in Fruitland and Payette, albeit with sanitation and social distancing measures in place.

With this in mind, the Argus reached out to the Payette County Sheriff’s office to find out how they are responding to businesses whose owners decide to jump the gun and reopen earlier than Little’s order permits.

Sheriff Chad Huff said his office sympathizes with business owners when it comes to the stay home order and how it affects businesses.

“I understand the very difficult financial problems that are occurring as a result of Gov. Little’s order. Frankly, I have made it clear that we will not issue citations or make physical arrests for violating the order,” said Huff.

If Huff were making arrests or issuing penalties, owners in violation could face jail time and fines associated with a Class B misdemeanor. But Huff said his department understands that owners have reported difficulty just accessing funds to stay afloat.

“Many small business owners that I have spoken with personally have not received any financial assistance. No SBA loan/grant, no unemployment or stimulus checks from the federal government, nothing! Thirty days could mean financial ruin for many of these small business owners and their families. I can’t in good conscience, cite or arrest someone for simply opening up their business to survive.”

Having said that, Huff adds his approach is not “one size fits all.”

“The City of New Plymouth contracts with our office for law enforcement services. If the Mayor and City Council request we enforce the order or their ordinances, we will take enforcement action by investigating, educating, and informing the business owner, and if need be, route a report to the Prosecuting Attorney for his/her review.”

As for Smith’s gyms, Huff adds that the Fruitland and Payette Police Departments have jurisdiction there.

Payette Police Chief John Plaza said his department will investigate a business suspected to be in violation, upon receiving a complaint. Plaza said his department will work to educate owners first before putting a report through to their prosecuting attorney.

“I sympathize with anyone affected by this order, but it is in place for a public health concern,” said Plaza.

Law enforcement recommends taking a phased approach

According to an article from Boise State Public Radio on May 8, Gov. Little called such moves by owners “incredibly disrespectful” to those owners who are following prescribed protocols and that the state would consider taking away licenses of those owners who jump the gun.

“If it’s a cosmetologist or somebody that has a liquor license, they are putting their license at risk,” said Little.

Scott Graf, public information officer for the Idaho Attorney General’s Office did not comment on Smith’s gyms, but pointed to their Frequently Asked Questions about the Stay Home order. In it, the Office says, that city police, county sheriffs and Idaho State Police have the authority to enforce the order, while the governor, the Department of Health and Welfare and the Office of the Attorney General do not have that authority, under the statutes authorizing the order or under the order itself.

However, even state police are taking a hands-off approach to enforcement. In a frequently-asked-questions portion on their website, regarding enforcement, state police say Little’s executive order is “not even close” to martial law, adding that there are no curfews and most movements as defined in Little’s order are not restricted. As for those not following the rules, Idaho State Police, too are taking a stance of education over enforcement.

“All Idaho law enforcement are united on the premise that police action is extremely undesirable and we hope to educate Idahoans if congregating in violation of the Governor’s order. Citation or arrest would be an extreme last resort if a person failed to comply with the lawful direction of a police officer.”

Furthermore, people who see businesses opening or people congregating are reminded by state police that this level of violation is not for reporting to emergency numbers. Citizens can report large gatherings by calling the non-emergency number of their respective law enforcement agency.

For now, Huff said his department is turning to educating owners before considering enforcement.

“We would recommend that business owners follow the phased stage approach, but should they choose to open earlier, we recommend following strict CDC guidelines on social distancing, cleaning and sanitizing, PPE’s, etc. Let’s be clear, gyms and other businesses are scheduled to open in phase 2, which starts May 16.”

Smith reaches out to city leaders

In an email sent to the Argus on Wednesday, Smith included a letter he sent to city officials in Payette to further explain why he chose to open his business, which is also a 24/7 U-Haul dealer. In the letter addressed to Payette Mayor Jeff Williams, Smith states that he is reaching out over “some major concerns” reported to him by his general manager at the Fruitland fitness center. Smith alleges “numerous members” have complained that they have received calls from the police department after being in the gym or to rent a U-Haul and that staff has seen Payette Police cars in the parking lot taking plate numbers.

“This needs to stop immediately,” he said.

Plaza did say that after hearing the fitness center was opening on May 1, he did have an officer drive through and check over the weekend to just see if it was open. As it appeared some people were not just utilizing the U-Haul services, but also the gym, Plaza decided to forward it on to the Payette County Prosecutor.

“There hasn’t been any more contact, it’s a done deal,” Plaza said, adding the department would do the same for anyone else, an initial investigation then decide what to do.

Smith’s letter to the mayor further stated that opening the fitness centers on May 1 was done “out of financial urgency,” indicating not doing so “would bankrupt the company.”

Smith says his business is “exempt and considered essential” because of the U-Haul program.

“We are no different than a Walmart selling clothes, TV’s and toys when their essential status is based on the food, pharmacy and auto parts or Big-5 selling everything in the store because they also sell ammo and guns,” wrote Smith. “Both are businesses that operate in Idaho under the governor’s orders without restrictions.”

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