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Local community continues to grapple with historic pandemic

The coronavirus continues to make unprecedented impact on the local community, as it seemingly does everywhere else in the world.

Local residents and organizations continue to compare its affect to that of the 1998 tornado that ripped through St. Peter, destroying all kinds of buildings in its path. Striking, though, is that even then the streets weren’t so desolate and the community so quiet.

“… during that time (spring 1998), the community could come together in person and literally pick glass up out of the grass,” said Gustavus Adolphus College Provost Brenda Kelly, as she spoke about the college moving to an online format and sending students home this spring.

Gustavus isn’t the only education provider keeping students off school grounds. Adhering to an executive order from the state, St. Peter Public Schools, along with other local school districts, is preparing for distance learning. The executive order from Gov. Tim Walz closed schools through Friday, March 27, but that was expected to be extended, with classes turning to online formats. In most districts, younger students will likely be provided packets of work to do at home.

It’s a similar story for restaurants, bars, hair salons and other non-essential small businesses, as they were asked to close their doors to the public through March 27, but again, the closures will likely extend. Restaurants and bars are doing their best to offer alternative options, like curbside pickup and delivery, while a few shops are also offering online orders with pickup.

Grocery stores, meanwhile, are, in some cases, overwhelmed with demand. Local stores, including St. Peter Food Co-op and Family Fresh, report difficulties keeping up with pandemic-related supplies, including toilet paper and hand sanitizer.

Confirmed cases of COVID-19, the illness caused by coronavirus, continue to rise across Minnesota. In its latest report, the Minnesota Department of Health said 287 persons have tested positive for the disease, while 35 have been hospitalized and one has died. The MDH reports 122 patients no longer need isolation, indicating they’ve made full recoveries. But still, only 6,365 tests have been conducted in the state, and health leaders believe there are many unconfirmed cases, with test supplies in high demand.

Nicollet County has three reported cases, including the most recent one, a 26-year-old who got the virus from someone else with a confirmed case. It’s not considered community spread, because the person got it from someone who already was confirmed to have the disease, but it is the first confirmed case not directly linked to travel.

Salons offer gift cards and product amid prolonged closures, urge clients to 'Wait for us'

Salon owners and stylists across the region are going into their second week of state-mandated closure, with an extension likely on the horizon. While many note that employee and client health comes first, the small businesses and independent contractors are also trying to figure out ways to make it through the pandemic financially.

Although the March 16 executive order called for a temporary closure of bars, restaurants, movie theaters, fitness centers and more — set to end March 27 — many in the region believe it will be extended beyond the end of the month as the upper respiratory illness continues to spread throughout the state.

In a media briefing Tuesday afternoon, Gov. Tim Walz also noted that the closure would be extended, without providing a new timeline.

With the number of COVID-19 cases confirmed by the Minnesota Department of Health at 262 as of Tuesday afternoon, state officials have said repeatedly that the actual number is likely much higher . Given limited access to testing materials, not all cases are being reported. The novel coronavirus is most commonly spread via respiratory droplets transmitted during close person-to-person contact and the MDH is advising individuals to keep a minimum of six feet away from others during the pandemic.

When reviewing the governor’s executive order last Monday, many salon owners said it wasn’t immediately clear that they were among the businesses being asked to close down. Owner Tracy Grieves of Serendipity Salon in Le Sueur said the initial use of the word “spa” left many unsure.

“We were supposed to have closed at 5 p.m. on March 17, but many of us continued to work until 9 p.m. that night,” said Grieves. “That was when the Minnesota Board of Cosmetology received clarification that we were included in the order.”

At-home removal vs. at-home treatments

The next day, Grieves said she reached out immediately to clients, letting them know she would have to cancel their appointments temporarily until the situation improves. Offering waxing, skin care and nail services, she added that many of her customers come in on a fairly regular basis. For polish, this could be as often as every two weeks as nails grow out and require touch-ups.

“I’ve created some kits with the proper remover, some cotton pads and some foil. I put those on the front porch of the salon to allow [clients] to come pick that up, so at least they can do something at home to safely remove their product,” Grieves noted, adding that she worries many might not come back as soon after breaking their habitual two-week cycle.

She and many other salons have also been posting advice and videos on social media for those now needing to remove polish or care for their treatments at home.

“We’re still advising that people not take anything into their own hands,” said Sarah Chelmo, who manages Sisters Salon & Day Spa in Owatonna. “Just wait for us, if you can. Otherwise, you’re going to end up having to fix something versus just waiting for your stylist.”

In St. Peter, a sign outside Fréy Salon & Spa explains that the business is closed temporarily due to an executive order shutting down restaurants, movie theaters and a number of other sectors in order to limit the spread of COVID-19. (Photo courtesy of Fréy Salon & Spa)

In St. Peter, Fréy Salon & Spa posted a similar sentiment on its Facebook page, noting that stylists will likely be especially busy when salons are allowed to reopen and that it can take a fair amount of time and money to fix a botched dye.

“We’re going to end up working 12-hour days,” co-owner Emily Schoper said, of what life will likely look like after the pandemic. “In our heads, we’re probably not going to be back to work on Saturday.”

Independent contractors hit hardest

While closed down, Schoper said the six stylists, two massage therapists and four guest service workers have been able to apply for unemployment as official employees of the salon. She added that the shop has kept its general manager on on an hourly basis to field phone calls, sell gift certificates and provide products via curbside pick-up and delivery.

“Nobody is an independent contractor, which in this case has been great because all the girls can ask for unemployment insurance with no questions asked. [My co-owner] and I were also paying premiums ourselves, so we can get unemployment, too,” Schoper explained, noting that she’s still waiting on final confirmation from the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development.

Under most circumstances, wages paid to an employee are also used to establish an unemployment insurance benefit account if a worker is laid off or gets their hours reduced through no fault of their own. According to DEED’s website, this is done through payments on taxable wages made by the employer to the state to reimburse benefits collected by former employees.

However, in some cases — often for small business owners or independent contractors — an employer is not required to pay unemployment insurance tax on wages.

In these cases, unless they’ve previously opted in, they may not qualify for unemployment insurance. Grieves noted that many self-employed individuals, like herself, now are unable to apply for benefits in the wake of the pandemic.

In a press conference Monday afternoon, DEED Commissioner Steve Grove acknowledged that small business owners and independent contractors will be among the hardest hit by the economic toll of COVID-19.

“We’ve been evaluating every option at our disposal to help,” he said.

Earlier this week, the agency also introduced an emergency loan program for small business owners intended to help those impacted by last Monday’s executive order. The initiative will make $30 million available from special revenue funds and the agency’s lender network will be able to offer between $2,500 and $35,000 for qualifying operations. Loans will be 50% forgivable and issued at a 0% interest rate.

Still, half of the money will need to be paid back at some point and for Grieves, she said she’s hesitant to commit herself to another payment down the line — especially while still paying off the mortgage on her home and business. “It’s still something you have to worry about paying back, on top of the fact that you’re worried about paying your monthly bills.”

‘We’re all brainstorming’

Something Grieves has done in the meantime to try to keep the business afloat has been to create gift certificates that clients can purchase online to use for services at a later date. In talking with other area salon owners via social media, she said she’s trying to come up with additional ways to keep at least some revenue coming in while the physical business is closed.

As the sole proprietor of Serendipity Salon in Le Sueur, Tracy Grieves said she currently does not qualify for unemployment insurance despite not being able to take in clients. With many small business owners and independent contractors having to have previously opted-in to paying unemployment insurance tax, a large number are now ineligible for benefits in the wake of the virus and stand to be hit hardest by its economic toll. (Photo courtesy of Serendipity Salon)

“We’re all brainstorming. We’re all in the same boat,” she noted, adding she may start trying to arrange curbside product pick-up or delivery.

Cole Johnson, who owns Haute Skin Spa & Tanning in Faribault and Owatonna, seconded Grieves, adding that many of the events that clients would use his services for have also been postponed due to the virus’ spread.

“There’s really not a ton that we can do. Right now, my big markets are spring break, prom season and wedding season, which are all kind of cancelled,” said Johnson. “Even if we could figure out a way to sell a self-tanner, no one has any use for it right now because there’s nothing to do.”

He added that he’s been working with a banker to apply for federal and state loans, and Schoper said she is doing the same thing — noting that qualifying for unemployment insurance has provided a welcome cushion to be able to talk options out with the business’ financial advisor.

“The silver lining to me is after this is all done, people are going to need self-care even more than they did before,” said Schoper. “We’re just trying to stay positive and look forward. The safety of our team and our guests is what comes first and foremost.”

Pat Beck / By PAT BECK pbeck@stpeterherald.com 

The Veterans Field baseball dugouts, stands and diamond are empty with the postponement of St. Peter High School sports. (Pat Beck/St. Peter Herald)

Toilet paper isn’t the only thing being scooped up by grocery store patrons. Grocery stores are finding everything from soup to nuts being sold in huge quantities as customers stock up for possible quarantines. (Suzanne Rook/Faribault Daily News)

Gustavus Adolphus College will be uncommonly empty at this time of the year, as leaders decided to extend online learning through the spring semester, sending kids off campus in the process. (Herald file photo)

Small businesses seek and provide help during difficult times

During his March 24 news brief, Gov. Tim Walz still wasn’t ready to implement a shelter-in-place order for Minnesota. While some people feel it is overdue, there is a specific demographic of people who may have been relieved: small business owners.

Small businesses are the lifeblood of their communities, and the past few weeks have been nothing short of stressful as businesses have slowly been limited or completely shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic. While many people believe it is simply a matter of when, not if, the governor issues a shelter-in-place order across the state, effectively shutting done all businesses that aren’t considered essential, small business owners and the organizations that support them are doing everything they can to be prepared.

“People are just making the best of maybe the most challenging situation an economy and a local business scene has ever faced,” said Ed Lee, the director of the St. Peter Area Chamber of Commerce, as he discussed the efforts being made in his community by local business owners. “They’re just remarkable in how they are adapting, looking for options and how they’re acting with patience and not panic.”

In the last two weeks, the St. Peter Chamber has begun compiling resources for businesses and the public. These resources — all online — provide a location for businesses to update any changes to their hours or services so that customers can continue to support them.

Other chambers around southern Minnesota have taken similar action.

“We are trying to encourage that any shopping trips that can be done safely will utilize local resources,” explained Nort Johnson, the president of the Faribault Area Chamber of Commerce and Tourism. “These are unprecedented times in our generation.”

“So far we have seen a lot of positivity in our community,” added Brad Meier, the president and CEO of the Owatonna Area Chamber of Commerce and Tourism. “I think people just realize that this is going to be a difficult situation and are bracing for that as far as business is really slowing down.”

Because it is such uncharted territory, there is still much left to the unknown for chambers and businesses alike. Sarah Jystad, owner of D & S Banner Sign and Print in Kenyon and president of the Kenyon Area Business Association, stated that everyone is still processing how their new normal is going to look.

“It’s sort of a changing-as-we-go thing,” she explained. “We’re all just busy trying to figure out the ground rules. I feel like the ground is shifting under my feet every day. I’m just trying to figure out what I’m supposed to do, and it’s hard to know what’s right.”

In St. Peter, the Economic Development Authority and City Council will be considering a new proposed policy to make 0% interest loans available to businesses impacted by current circumstances. The council is likely to vote on the policy at its next regular meeting. In Le Sueur County cities, no such programs have yet been announced, but businesses are encouraged to seek out state and federal programs that may offer similar options.

On March 20, the United States Small Business Association, a federal program, announced that disaster loans are now available at a 3.75% interest rate for a period of up to 30 years. Meier explained that these loans will help assist in business owners paying ongoing debt, loans, payroll, payables, and other bills.

“We are encouraging businesses, even if they are just thinking about it, to get on there and apply,” Owatonna’s Meier said. “It’s a very broad scope that these loans are under in order to help get businesses through the coronavirus situation.”

On Monday, Walz also signed an additional executive order that established peacetime emergency loans for small businesses. This will see a forgivable loan program developed to award grants to nonprofit corporations that in turn will fund forgivable loans to small businesses.

The minimum loan is $2,500, with a maximum of $35,000, and under the terms of the program can be roughly 50% forgiven if the DEED commissioner approves and the business remains operating in the community “at substantially the same levels for two years following loan disbursement.”

While loans for the small businesses are crucial, now more than ever is when the chambers are urging the community to shop local. Over the weekend, several initiatives throughout southern Minnesota began popping up on social media, asking shoppers to take photos of them supporting a local business and entering them into a contest for a gift card to their small business of choice.

The St. Peter Chamber led one such initiative, and similar ones have popped up in New Ulm, Owatonna and other southern Minnesota communities.

“It’s a great idea and a nice way to get some energy around shopping local,” Meier said about the social media initiatives and contests.

Despite the hard times that small businesses are currently facing, it is without surprise that many are still going out of their way to support their communities. In Owatonna, two manufacturing companies donated N95 masks to the Owatonna Hospital and Mayo Clinic.

“It’s just what our business community here does,” Meier said about the donation of 200 N95 masks from Cybex and 300 N95 masks from Black Forest. “I have a feeling that we’re going to hear a lot more of these stories.”