There isn’t a business of any size or category that wasn’t impacted by the novel coronavirus pandemic. Whether it was staff shortage prompted by stay-home orders or social distancing restrictions forcing businesses that were deemed non-essential to close, all were affected and all paid a cost.
Movies are supposed to provide an escape. Whether the films of choice are big blockbusters, romantic comedies or dark thrillers, the ability to slip into a dimly-lit room and immerse yourself into someone else’s story is a coping mechanism, a way to avoid reality for two hours. And if ever there was a reality to avoid, it was this last year.
But what if you can’t escape? What if the very delivery system of that escape has been warned against by health experts in the early days of a global pandemic.
Mike Lehosit of Hayden Cinema said he’d acclimated himself to the world of COVID-19 long before the pandemic ever struck.
“I have ten kids,” he said. “My life is always crazy. Really, it’s always been crazy, pre-COVID.”
While Lehosit said his role as a father inoculated him from a certain amount of chaos, the pandemic arriving one year ago sent him and his staff at the movie theater scrambling, particularly after Gov. Brad Little ordered Idaho to all-but-shut down.
“After COVID hit, it’s just a matter of survival with the business,” he said, “trying to be creative, and doing whatever we could do to keep the doors open.”
That creativity bounced from reducing occupancy slightly to reducing occupancy dramatically to only selling movie popcorn as a curbside service for a few weeks. Soon, Lehosit hired painters to paint giant white screens outside the Hayden building, where the theater manager would eventually play drive-in movies outside.
Over time, Lehosit worked demand back into the local market. Drive-in shows of classic films like Grease and Raiders of the Lost Ark soon sold out. But the theater industry would soon face another challenge as a result of COVID-19: supply. Movie studios had to halt production of upcoming projects, fearful the disease would strike their sets. That gap had big-name companies like Warner Bros. and Disney shuffling release dates on upcoming blockbusters, such as the James Bond opus No Time To Die and Marvel’s first theater installment in its Phase 4 strategy, Black Widow.
“Thank God Hollywood put a few movies out,” Lehosit said. “We were able to get something out there for people to enjoy.”
But people would enjoy the movie experience differently. All of Lehosit’s employees wear masks, and he said the company encourages people to wear masks. Occupancy has been cut in half in his theaters, so the days of packed movie theaters are, for the time being, over.
But perhaps the biggest change Lehosit’s theater made happened behind the projector. For the most part, theaters can only run first-run films or films on later runs at a discount, but not both. Lehosit had to choose. After the only first-run theater in the area — Regal Riverstone — closed up in the early onset of COVID-19, Lehosit gauged the market and made his choice. His business walked into the pandemic as Hayden Discount Theater. It emerged over the summer as Hayden Cinema, able to play first-run movies.
While the first blockbuster movies Hollywood shot out landed with varying degrees of success — Chrstopher Nolan’s “Tenet”, for example, banked on bringing cinemas back into the American zeitgeist but brought home modest returns in what was supposed to be the box office hit of the summer — it wasn’t until the Christmas Day release of “Wonder Woman 1984” when people started lining up to buy tickets to what would become the movie event of the year.
Virtually line up, that is.
“We sold out a few showings for Wonder Woman online,” Lehosit said. “Again, we’re only letting 60 people in the auditorium, but still.”
Still, the success of the DC superhero film was a good sign of things to come, the beginning of a trend Lehosit says he expects to continue as the country enters the second year of COVID-19, particularly with No Time To Die, Black Widow and the much-anticipated Top Gun sequel among the slate of films Hollywood will release.
But Hollywood’s reaction to COVID-19 continues to challenge Lehosit and other theater owners. Before the pandemic even arrived, streaming had already cut into his market share, keeping moviegoers at home to enjoy Netflix or Hulu or Amazon Prime. Now, with Disney launching their own streaming service and with Warner Bros. cutting a deal with HBO Max to debut films on television the same day they hit theaters, consumers now have more options … sort of, says Lehosit.
“It’s still the small screen versus the big screen,” he said. “Television’s just not the same experience as you’d get in the theaters. I watched Soul [on Disney+], and I gotta tell you: It should have been on a big screen. It was a big-screen movie. It was just not the same experience. I kinda compared it to going to a jazz concert versus listening to jazz in an elevator. Some movies, you just have to see in the theater. I can’t ever imagine watching Raiders of the Lost Ark on a TV and being so enthralled with it like when I was a kid.”
Looking back where Hayden Discount was in the early months of the pandemic — relegated to selling popcorn curbside — it seems like science fiction to consider the possibility management would expand during this first year of COVID-19. But that’s exactly what happened: Lehosit went into partnership to purchase its new sister theater in Sandpoint along with Sandpoint resident Eric Plummer.
“We took over the Sandpoint theater,” he said. “I’ve always been looking at the Sandpoint theater, and their owner was ready to wash his hands of it. He was done.”
Lehosit said he has confidence in growing both Sandpoint and Hayden theaters, in part because he remains confident the theater experience is already primed for a return.
“I think we’re going to see another year or two of less-movies-more-streaming,” he predicted. “But with these big movies coming out this next year, I think people will come back.”
Whether or not Hayden Cinema remains a first-run service or reverts back to discount showings depends on concession sales: How many people will come into the theater and buy popcorn? It’s not a decision Lehosit said he has to make right away. One of the many lessons he learned this past year is to stay creative.
“And stay appreciative,” he added. “I’m lucky that I’ve had a really supportive community come out and stay with us during all of this. The community stayed with us, so we’ve got to stay with it. Don’t give up.”
Giving up was a luxury Jessica Kaminski of Rathdrum said she could never afford.
“I’ve got kids,” the mother of three from Rathdrum said. “We just have to keep going.”
“Keep going” is easier said than done when you’re a nail technician, one of the professions in an industry hit hardest by the coronavirus. Along with hairdressers, masseuses and other beauticians, Kaminski’s profession requires physical contact with her clients, a necessity that was shut down in March by Gov. Brad Little’s shutdown orders. As the state’s economy gradually opened up to retailers and other providers, the beautician industry had to wait. Kaminski would be laid off for two months.
Except, according to the state, she wasn’t laid off.
“Unemployment was a nightmare,” she recalled. “It isn’t necessarily offered when you’re self-employed. I was never a W-2 employee. I was an independent contractor, so I was just paying rent for my spot.”
With no source of revenue, Kaminski relied on her tax refund to support her family through that first month, eventually getting by with a stimulus check in the second. Waiting for that revenue, she said, took a toll.
“It was a lot of stress those first few months,” Kaminski said, “which caused a lot of anxiety. And there was a lot of depression that came with it, too, because we were stuck at home. We couldn’t go anywhere or do anything, so yeah, it was a really stressful time for us.”
As the industry eventually opened back up, the pandemic still kept her constantly thinking on her toes. One of the ways she said she’s changed this past year involves staying flexible and understanding, particularly with her clients.
“I’m not as busy as I’ve been, probably, in the last couple of years,” she said, “and I definitely get a lot more last-minute cancellations, just from people waking up not feeling well…For me, personally, I think my clients know my stance and know what I have at stake when it comes to potentially exposing my family to COVID. They have enough respect for me that, if they wake up with a headache or a cold, they’re going to wait a few days, just to be sure.”
The pandemic and all that came with it tightened the vice on her friendships, as well. She said the politicization of the pandemic and the ensuing summer’s civil unrest over social injustice eventually reached a tipping point with some of her friends — and the owner of the nail salon where she rented her space.
“In the midst of everything,” she said, “with the pandemic, politics, human rights issues, things like that, we just had vast differences and different views, and it got to the point where I didn’t feel comfortable working for her anymore.”
In November, Kaminski made her move, starting a winter-long transition that culminated with the opening of Nail Boss on the corner of Dakota Avenue and Government Way in Hayden. She said, looking back a year, she never thought she would have opened her own shop in the midst of a pandemic. But she said she has no regrets, and that COVID-19 has taught her some valuable lessons, both in her work and in her personal life.
“Obviously, I need to have an income, but I need to make time for my family, and not just be at work all the time,” Kaminski said. “I’ve learned that their mental health is more important than their education. I need to prioritize my mental health, as well. I can say that, but I don’t always put that into practice.
“This really put into perspective what’s important.”
It wasn’t only businesses that felt the changes brought about by the pandemic. It was local county and city governments as well. All had to adjust, send employees to work from home where possible, add in safety measures and limit occupancy or how business was done — all in response to COVID-19.
In Boundary County, like the rest of North Idaho, the pandemic brought many and varied changes — masks, thick plastic shields to protect employees, and staff working from home to minimize risk of getting COVID-19 or spreading it.
Since all of the county’s offices are located in the courthouse, masks are required to be in the building per order of the Idaho Supreme Court. An employee helps guide those needing help from county employees to the correct offices, masks are on hand for those who need them, and employees are available to meet county residents outside who cannot or are unwilling to wear a mask.
“We’re as accommodating as we can be,” Boundary County Commissioner Dan Dinning said.
One challenge unique to Boundary County is its operation of its own assisted living facility, The Restorium. The pandemic, and resultant additional safety precautions, have been expensive. Supply chain disruptions in March made food and supplies unavailable for the county-owned facility.
“Had it not been for the help of local people, local businesses and our Kootenai Tribe, we would have been in some real difficulty,” the commission chairman said. “[The community support] was an amazing thing that I never thought I would see in life. Of course, that’s now all gotten ironed out pretty well now.”
While that generosity of spirit and people uniting together is not unique to Boundary County, Dinning said the community has stepped up even more than it typically does to ensure those who need help, get it.
“I can think of lots of instances where older people now are a little fearful to go out so people go do their grocery shopping for them. It’s just an amazing thing to watch. I’m sure it happens in all communities, it just might not be as visible because we’re so small in our communities,” he said.
Technology has helped the county government operate during the pandemic, allowing the public to still attend virtually if space is unavailable in the board’s small meeting room. While Stage 2 restrictions allow for up to 10 people to gather, the board’s room allows for only five or six people. In the past, department heads would give their reports in person; they now call in whenever possible. A conference call number is added to the agenda, and is available to all who want to listen in and attend the meeting virtually.
While items like the plastic shields are likely to stay, Dinning said he’s looking forward to the days when the county can again meet in person, with the public coming in to share their views and thoughts. Not only can he see his friends and neighbors, they can see him. Questions and conversations come easier; interaction is more natural.
“Government should be open,” Dinning said. “It’s the people’s government and I believe that to the best we can, we should come in.”
In area schools, educators were left scrambling to help their students learn following emergency closures in the spring. Teachers, who were already working full-time under normal conditions, had to learn to teach remotely all at once.
“I think at the beginning of the pandemic there was so much fear,” said Jeralyn Mire, a post-secondary transition counselor at Sandpoint High School. “Fear of the unknown, fear of how bad this virus was.”
Much has changed since then, she said. Although many educators have reported continued anxiety among students, staff and parents alike, schools reopened at the beginning of the fall semester with added safety measures including more rigorous sanitization and social distancing.
Early in the pandemic, the district spent a significant amount of its money from COVID-19 relief and other funding on increased sanitization, hiring more maintenance staff and personal protective equipment, said Lake Pend Oreille School District superintendent Tom Albertson. Some money was also spent on hiring classified and certified staff to decrease class sizes.
As the school year progressed, Bonner County saw another increase in COVID-19 cases.
In some cases students in either of the county’s two school districts went back to online-only or blended learning models as cases increased before the school boards ultimately voted, on several occasions, to modify reopening plans and allow students to attend in-person, and in some cases full-time, with additional safety requirements.
Those decisions were often based on challenges teachers had in effectively helping their students learn, the burden on parents who were unable to stay home with young children and families who lacked internet access.
A major challenge for teachers, said Sandpoint Middle School Principal Casey Mclaughlin, has been a lack of time face-to-face with their students. Teachers also have less time with students, and have in some cases had to alter their teaching methods due to social distancing and mask requirements.
At-home learning also means it can be harder for teachers to assess student needs, Mclaughlin said.
“We’ve got a lot of people who have chosen to stay home and do the online version of our school, which we offer, and which is great,” he said. “But it also is really difficult for the students. And so teachers are really struggling with that as well. And some of the students just have a tough time with the self motivation piece if they’re staying at home.”
Because of the need to provide for students learning in-person and those at home, teachers are fitting more of students’ core curriculum into a shorter time frame while also providing online lesson plans.
“I think that it was more time-consuming than people thought, in order to keep a digital platform and keep grading the work that was coming in,” said Jennifer Anselmo, business manager and board clerk for the West Bonner County School District.
To combat that problem, their district hired a specialized teacher to help in K-6 grade with online work, checking in with distance learning students and helping with other digital schooling.
The district also recently assigned one of its secondary teachers a stipend to help with online learning during their off hours.
The WBCSD, in particular, has struggled with online learning because of many of its students’ rural locations. The district has been working to buy more laptops — many of which are on backorder — for students so computers can be used in the classrooms and also sent home with students who need to quarantine.
A bigger problem for the district in distance learning, though, is that roughly 40% of the district’s students do not have internet access at home, Anselmo said. Even when the school supplies hotspots, they can only be used if that location has a cell phone connection.
Paul Lamb, Principal at Priest River Lamanna High School, said in some ways the pandemic highlighted areas that need improvement if online learning is going to become more common in school systems after the pandemic is over.
“A lot of educators were saying online learning is the way of the future,” Lamb said. “If that is going to be the future, we need a lot of improvements made. In-person is proving to be far superior.”
As a whole, Anselmo said, students have been grateful to be learning in-person again, and compliant with whatever safety measures are required to stay in school.
“They come to school happy to be here,” she said. “They’re excited to be participating in in-person learning.”
One silver lining to the challenges of the pandemic, said Farmin-Stidwell Elementary Principal Erik Olson, is that teachers have been able to improve professional development as they work to find the best ways to teach during a pandemic.
Another benefit, said Sandpoint High School Principal David Miles, is that the schools are learning about new methods of teaching and scheduling that may be implemented post-pandemic.
For example, he said, the schools can continue to broadcast sporting events, and the need for different schedules revealed that many students at the high school say they are less stressed by their current four-class schedule instead of having to balance eight.
“[We were] not really challenged at the end of the day why we do certain things,” he said. “Now that I see flash changes, spur of the moment emergency decisions … maybe explore things that haven’t been explored from an education standpoint.”
As schools carry on teaching, school district representatives said they’re hopeful vaccinations will allow them to keep providing in-person classes and eventually return to pre-pandemic schooling models.
At LPOSD, around 400 employees have expressed an interest in getting a vaccination, and a few already did as of two weeks ago.
“We’re now talking about assessments, learning gaps, what impact this has had on student achievement,” Albertson said. “We’re talking about what learning loss occurred.”
At WBCSD, around 105 out of roughly 200 educators have expressed interest in the vaccine, including part-time staff and substitute teachers.
The district is working with Bonner General Health and Panhandle Health District to get teachers vaccinated, and working to set up a vaccination clinic at one of the schools in the future, she said.
“It’ll be nice when the majority of our population is vaccinated and we can go back to school [as normal],” Anselmo said.
Caroline Lobsinger, Keith Kinnaird and Victor Corral Martinez contributed to this story.