Restaurants finally reopened last month, but COVID-19 is still taking its toll on business.
On June 10, Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz loosened restrictions on restaurants, allowing dining rooms to open at 50% capacity and seat up to 250 people. The change has been welcomed by restaurateurs, but a month in, indoor service has still been slow at many establishments.
“The actual dine-in service hasn’t been that popular of an option,” said Stefan Brekke, general manager of Extra Innings Paninos and Pizza in St. Peter. “I think a lot of people are still weary about going out and being around other people. There are some days that we have several tables in there and some where we don’t have any.”
Brekke said that Extra Innings has seen more customer engagement through the restaurants’ curbside pickup and delivery service.
Amber Talbert, general manager of Crooked Pint Ale House in Faribault, reported a similar experience. Between the bar and grill’s outdoor and indoor seating, customers typically prefer sitting out on the patio.
“A lot of people I think are still hesitant to sit in the building,” said Talbert. “They would rather sit on the patio but we only have limited spacing out there.”
Both Brekke and Talbert said that their restaurants have been following Minnesota Department of Health and Center of Disease Control guidelines for public safety. Even with these precautions, some restaurant owners shared anxieties about the potential spread of COVID-19, including Maria Isabel, owner of Chabelita’s Yummy Foods and Fruits in Le Sueur.
“We’ve been a bit scared too because we don’t know if people out there that are coming in here might be sick,” Isabel said through an interpreter. “So we’ve been trying really hard with cleaning our tables, pens — we are just trying to be as clean as possible. We’re hoping this all goes by and everything comes back to normal. We’re just always hoping that all our customers are staying safe.”
Like other establishments, curbside pickup and delivery has been more profitable for the Le Sueur-based Mexican restaurant.
“Now that restaurants are reopened not as many people come here because they go to bigger businesses,” said Isabel, “But the people that have mainly been coming here since the beginning are still coming in and supporting us … We’re just always hoping that all our customers are staying safe. We’re really hoping that more people start coming in to eat.”
Minnesota guidelines for indoor dining have required restaurants to find different ways to operate. Restaurants must ensure a minimum of six feet between tables, limit service to tables of four or less, (six or less if the customers are family) and require reservations. Employees are to wear masks at all times while encouraging customers to wear masks when not eating or drinking.
For Don Juan Cantina in Owatonna, the restrictions have been manageable. Owner Silvestre Medina said that business has been fair, but it has been a change of pace for the restaurant.
“The only challenge is when we are open for dining, we have customers waiting in the lobby,” said Medina. “We have to tell them to wait outside so that we are promoting social distancing.”
However, for Crooked Pint Ale House, serving customers both indoors and outdoors while wearing face masks has made work harder for staff.
“The masks are an extreme challenge for us,” said Talbert. “It’s hard to hear us; it’s hard to breathe; it’s hot. I had one employee that had to go to the emergency room for having chest pains and air troubles, especially going inside and outside.”
She added, “I know that we’re doing everything we can to make sure everyone is safe. Everything is extremely sanitized and clean. We’re following all CDC guidelines and social distancing regulations. We hope people aren’t as fearful to come out.”
While COVID-19 has forced restaurants to approach service differently, Brekke believed that this experience could lead to better standards and practices in the restaurant industry.
“We’re just being more conscious in taking that extra step or extra bit of effort to go out of our way to make the customer feel more comfortable,” said Brekke. “We make sure to have sanitizer for people’s hands available at the front and back entrances, sanitizing surfaces every hour — things that ordinarily wouldn’t be sanitized like door handles, pens that people use to sign credit card slips. It’s just created a more conscious restaurant environment.”
The Le Center Pool was closed for the foreseeable future just one day after the facility opened for the summer.
The same virus that delayed the pool’s opening until July 6 is also responsible for its closure on July 7. On Tuesday, the Le Center Pool Facebook page announced that the pool “will be closed until further notice due to COVID-19. We will re-evaluate in a few weeks and make a decision.”
That same day, the Le Center Pool Facebook page said that the reason for the pool’s closing was because an individual with a confirmed case of COVID-19 was at the pool before it opened.
“The individual that tested positive for COVID-19 was there and had left before the pool had opened,” the post said. “We continued with our cleaning protocols after she had left. We are taking every possible precaution. Please contact City Hall if you have further questions or information.”
Le Center City Administrator Chris Collins was unable to confirm if a person infected with the coronavirus was at the pool. Collins said that he did not know who posted the message, but that it did not come from City Hall.
When asked why the pool closed, Collins said that the city was forced to shut down the pool due to its policy. The city’s policy outlines only one reason for the pool to be shut down, if a staff member becomes affected by COVID-19. If that occurs, the pool is to be shut down for a minimum of two weeks, but may be shut down for the rest of the season.
Under guidance from City Attorney Jason Moran, Collins said that he could not confirm or deny if a staff member had tested positive for COVID-19.
“Our official stance is we were forced to close because of our rules that we came up with to open it,” said Collins. “One of those rules came into play and we were forced to close it. “
While the municipal pool was open, multiple safety restrictions were in place to prevent the spread. Operating hours were broken up so that pool staff would have an hour to sanitize. The baby pool was closed off, personal items and were toys were not allowed in the water and showers were not made available. Incoming patrons were required to take hand sanitizer before entering. Customers were also expected to social distance and dots were placed around the pool to remind visitors to stay six feet apart.
Collins said that the pool’s closure will be addressed at the next city council meeting, slated July 14 at 7 p.m.
Jim Rogers is ending his time on the Cleveland School Board, but he’s not going to stop helping the district anytime soon.
Rogers resigned from his School Board membership on June 15 after district rules required him to choose between being a board member and his position as a part-time custodian at the school. District employees that serve on the board are not allowed to make more than $8,000 from the school so Rogers, who planned to leave at the end of his term in January, decided to step down early.
“We were short on custodial help and it was hard to find employment for that position, so I volunteered to do some custodial work in the district,” said Rogers. “Since my term is ending in November, I decided to resign and continue serving the district doing custodial work.”
Rogers served two terms on the School Board, where he helped oversee the district’s $19.5 million bond referendum used to fund the construction of classrooms, a cafeteria, a STEM lab, Ag/Tech lab, a gymnasium, locker rooms, mechanical room and a weight room as well as maintenance needs like a roof replacement, HVAC and code improvements and safety and security improvements.
After resigning from the School Board, Rogers said that he will miss the relationships between board members, administration and teachers the most.
“I served two terms and enjoyed every bit of it,” said Rogers. “They’re good people to work with, a good board. We have very good administration and teachers that work with us.”
Filling the seat
With Rogers resigning the Cleveland School Board has been tasked with finding a candidate to serve the rest of his term until January 1, 2021. Board members have already been reaching out to potential candidates and the district hopes to be ready to conduct interviews during the July 15 work session.
It’s hard to find people who want to be on the board,” said Cleveland Superintendent Brian Phillips. “But we’ll get some information and do some interviews.”
If the district finds a suitable candidate, the board plans to hold a vote to appoint them at the July 20 meeting. Whoever is appointed would have to wait at least 30 days before being seated, so the position will not be filled until late August or early September at the earliest.
The appointed candidate would also have the option to run for election. If the appointee chooses to run and is successful, they would fill out Rogers’ term and begin their first term in January.
So far, one person has expressed interest to the district in being appointed to Rogers’ seat, though Phillips wasn’t sure if they also wanted to run for election.
Three seats on the Cleveland School Board will be open for election this year including Rogers’, Chris Baker’s and Scott Miller’s. Miller will be running for reelection, but Baker will step down at the end of his term. Candidates for these positions may file between July 28 and August 11.
Those interested in being appointed to Rogers’ seat may contact Phillips at 507-484-1300 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“It’s a critical job in our district,” said Phillips. “It’s not always easy. There’s a lot of meanings, and sometimes you have to make tough decisions. If you have the best interest of the kids in mind then you’re going to do great.”