Takeout delivery

A $216 million aid package for businesses impacted by Gov. Tim Walz’s latest shutdown may not be enough to remain viable, say some area business owners. (Metro Creative Images)

The limited assistance approved by the state Legislature this week won't cover the massive losses Karina Garcia's restaurant has incurred due to the pandemic.

"Our sales are down 60%," said Garcia, owner of Owatonna's El Tequila Family Mexican Restaurant. "We're going through some really rough times right now… it's rent, it's electricity bills, every penny counts."

As they struggle to stay afloat during a normally prosperous time of the year, area businesses are grateful for the $216 million assistance bill, though many would have preferred an opportunity to reopen. Gov. Tim Walz on Wednesday announced that restrictions on bars, restaurants and other businesses will be extended through the new year.

The aid package was passed by the legislature late Monday evening during its latest special session called to extend his Peacetime State of Emergency Declaration. Walz signed the aid bill Wednesday, while also extending a ban on in-person dining through Jan. 11. Outdoor dining will be allowed to resume and gyms and fitness centers, currently closed, will be allowed to reopen at 25% capacity on Saturday.

Back in business

Mike Swanson of Faribault's Fitness in Motion said that he's excited to reopen his business. Because of the fitness center's size, Swanson said that the 25% capacity limit isn't as burdensome as it might seem. Swanson is also looking forward to Jan. 4, when team sports and group classes are slated to be allowed to resume. For many of the fitness center's members, Swanson said that being able to workout will provide a crucial boost to their mental well-being, not just their physical fitness.

Fitness in Motion has done well enough during the pandemic that it isn't even eligible for the state aid money, because it hasn't seen the 30% drop in traffic required under the law. Swanson said the money's even more crucial for businesses that haven't done as well to be able to open.

"(Gym owners) feel that we should be one of the last places to close," Swanson added. "With a gym, you can really trace back to who was there… so you can contact trace very easily."

Pam Winjum at Winjum’s Shady Acres Restaurant and Resort west of Faribault is among those business owners who have decided to turn the lights off rather than switch again to take-out or delivery, though she has no intentions of closing permanently. Winjum’s offered takeout and delivery in the spring, successfully tapping into its supportive customer base to keep things going. For now, the colder weather combined with Winjum’s rural location and the continued crisis convinced Winjum to take a different approach.

Even though the restaurant is closed, there are still plenty of costs from heating to insurance  — and she's glad to get some help from the state government, saying it could go a long way toward paying those costs.

Frustrated

Extremely frustrated with the state’s response, Jeff LeBeau at Faribault's Depot Bar and Grill criticized the governor’s approach as generally allowing larger businesses to continue operating while putting a burden on smaller businesses.

“People right now are hurting,” he said. “I wish the governor would put a plan together for everyone to be open or not because right now it’s picking and choosing.”

Still, the longtime restaurateur has no doubts about the seriousness of the disease and says the Depot has always done everything possible to mitigate it. He also expressed gratitude for any assistance his restaurant can get and said he’s committed to giving back to the community at this difficult time.

El Tequila's Garcia said that while she believes the governor is trying to protect Minnesotans, he erred in using his powers to close down small family restaurants like hers, rather than taking a more limited approach and focusing on establishments which present the greatest risk.

"I think the bars are the problem, with people getting together and drinking and not respecting boundaries," she said. "He should have just made sure that the big bars and clubs shut down."

Faribault Area Chamber of Commerce and Tourism President Nort Johnson praised the bill as “agile,” arguing it was structured to provide the kind of short-term relief that could prevent a business from having to close its doors altogether.

“We think this bill is a good size and targeted appropriately toward businesses and workers who have had losses due to the shutdown,” he said.

Johnson suggested that the legislation was so well designed because it was largely the product of painstaking negotiations that involved not only the leadership of both parties, but the voices of legislators across the state.

Included in the business aid bill was $216 million in relief designed to get out to businesses quickly, as well as an extension of unemployment benefits. Slated to run out the day after Christmas, those benefits will now be extended for an additional 13 weeks.

On the business assistance side of the equation, the largest portion of the assistance will go directly to Minnesota’s 87 counties to spend on grant programs. Dollars will be allocated on a per-capita basis, with a minimum amount of $256,250 for each county. Those dollars can be spent by each county to assist businesses or nonprofits in need, but all funds must be spent by March 15. Eligible entities must be located within the county they are requesting assistance from and be up to date on their taxes.

Steele County Administrator Scott Golberg looks forward to getting the money out as soon as possible, and suggested that application forms could be made available to businesses as soon as the end of this year, or early January at the latest.

First though, the county will have to develop a formal application and guidelines and work to make sure local businesses know funds are available. Golberg said the application process is likely to be similar to those of other business assistance programs the county has offered.

The rest of the dollars were allocated in a more direct format. $88 million will go to help bars, restaurants and other service industry businesses that can show they’ve seen at least a 30% drop in traffic since last year. Finally, $14 million is devoted specifically to helping movie theaters and convention centers. Both state administered pots of money won’t have a formal application process, but money will instead simply be allocated using a formula.

For bars and restaurants, funding is based on the size of the workforce. Businesses with 0 employees will receive $10,000, one to 20 will receive $15,000, 21 to 100 $25,000, 101 to 300 $35,000, and more than 300 $45,000.

The legislators

Sen. John Jasinski, R-Faribault, voted for the aid package, but says what area business owners tell him they really need is to reopen. Jasinski pointed the finger at Walz, saying he bears the primary blame for putting businesses on the brink of collapse with a “one size fits all” approach.

“Our belief is this situation was caused by the governor,” he said. “I’ve received several calls from business owners who say I wouldn't take the grant if I could open.”

Even as the number of cases remain high and hospitals remain close to capacity, Jasinski isn’t particularly concerned that reopening could lead to a further spike.

“Wisconsin has had ups and downs and they have not done (business lockdowns),” he said. The biggest issue is that the governor’s approach has been a moving target — he does not give a finish line for what businesses have to do to open back up.”

Rep. Todd Lippert, DFL-Northfield, also voted for the assistance package, and said it was particularly important to act now with businesses struggling to make it through the holidays and families at risk of losing the funds they need to survive. Lippert said he'd liked to have seen a larger bill, with more support for businesses as well as support for low-income families. However, he believes reopening businesses abruptly isn’t the right answer.

“Gov. Walz isn’t responsible for COVID-19, it’s a global pandemic,” he said. “If we open things up more we will overwhelm our hospital system and more people will die.”

Reach Reporter Andrew Deziel at 507-333-3129 or follow him on Twitter @FDNandrew. © Copyright 2020 APG Media of Southern Minnesota. All rights reserved.

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