With the number of COVID cases skyrocketing, Gov. Tim Walz has announced tough new restrictions, limiting bars and restaurants to take out for at least four weeks and closing fitness centers.

The governor’s new restrictions mirror those announced on St. Patrick’s Day. Walz announced the abrupt closure of bars, restaurants and fitness centers shortly before enacting a Stay at Home order that lasted for several months. Now, the state is dealing with a COVID spike far greater than those seen during the early days of the pandemic. On Wednesday, the state set a new single-day deaths record with 67, and tallied more than 5,000 new or probable cases.

In Steele County, Public Health Director Amy Caron noted that roughly 30 to 35 cases were reported each week during the spring and summer. In October, that total roughly doubled — but it was nothing compared to the latest Steele County spike, which saw 408 new cases in the last week. Rice County saw 401 cases from Friday to Monday.

As of Wednesday, some 15 Steele County residents were hospitalized as of Wednesday and Caron expects that number to continue to rise. She said the biggest issue that keeps her up at night is the potential overload of the health care system.

“I hope it’s not too late for our hospitals at this point,” she said. “A lot of times, people get sick and it takes them a week or so before they need care.”

One thing that could make the trendlines even worse are the upcoming holidays, especially Thanksgiving next week. Caron strongly urged Minnesotans to follow the Minnesota Department of Health’s guidance and avoid gatherings with anyone outside of their household.

“If people decide to get together in groups, I expect we’ll see major fallout from that,” she said.

'A lot at risk'

While the explosion of cases is leaving policymakers and public health experts feeling they have little choice but to take such drastic actions, small, local business owners are sure to bear the brunt of the blow — and many fear they won’t be able to survive it.

Faribault Area Chamber of Commerce and Tourism President Nort Johnson said he expects the economic pain to be “brutal.” With the holidays traditionally a peak time for travel and shopping, many businesses count on increased revenues — but will now have to deal with less.

Johnson praised local business owners for doing their best to keep their customers safe. Unfortunately, he said that the failure of a limited number of patrons to follow social distancing and masking guidelines has hampered efforts to curb the virus’s spread. While expressing hope that Washington might deliver a much needed business assistance package, Johnson said that the biggest thing area residents can do is make sure to shop local and order takeout from their favorite restaurants.

“We will absolutely be promoting shopping local,” he said. “Gift certificates are great Christmas gifts and holiday gifts and could potentially keep a business open in town.”

Janna Viscomi is among those who have been personally and professionally hit by COVID-19. The Faribault city councilor has spent the last few months transforming Bernie's Grill, a traditional sit-down restaurant, into Janna's Market Grill, an innovative concept she designed in part to be COVID-safe. Viscomi hasn't been able to open the business as quickly as she'd like because she's come across plenty of roadblocks. Since her new business will be focused heavily on takeout, she's had trouble getting the state to approve the licenses needed to open her business.

"I anticipated this situation, I wanted to do something safer and they’re not making accommodations," she said with frustration. "The world changed, they told us we had to change, and yet they’re not trying to help us change."

Viscomi believes the shutdown will hit traditional restaurants particularly hard, with many forced to throw out a large amount of spoiled food. She anticipates that many will be forced to shut down altogether by the heavy losses.

"In my industry, everyone’s passionate about what they do, but there's a lot of risk," she said.

While consumed by the challenges of getting her business going again, Viscomi herself was hit by the virus. She said that while the fiscal challenges faced by businesses may be difficult, they shouldn't forget why it's so important to be careful.

"We have to make business decisions, but safety needs to come first," she said. "We have to make that determination that life comes before business."

Alex Lara, the assistant manager at El Tequila Mexican Restaurant in Faribault, said that the restaurant is grateful for its many devoted customers who helped it survive the last shutdown by ordering takeout.

While grateful for the continued support, Lara acknowledged that business overall has fallen dramatically since the pandemic first hit. Lunch has become especially slow, with more area residents working from home.

“Since we opened back up, it’s been really hit or miss,” he said. “We have OK days and slow days.”

Like so many businesses, El Tequila has traditionally been able to count on particularly brisk business during the holidays. In a typical year, large groups come to visit family members and stop for a nice meal at the restaurant - but that’s not likely to happen as much this year.

Basher’s Sports Bar and Grill co-owner Denise Clayton said that for her family owned business, the restrictions are a gut punch. Even though the Governor said the restrictions will only be for four weeks at this point, she’s anticipating a much longer and more damaging shutdown.

“It’s devastating,” she said. “I don’t know that we can survive it.”

Clayton said that Basher’s hadn’t even managed to recover from the damage caused by the first lockdown. To survive, Clayton said that she will have no choice but to lay off some employees — a decision she feels particularly awful about making just before the holidays. With the future of the business on the line, Clayton hopes to grow the catering side of the business and is partnering with the society of St. Vincent de Paul, which was forced to cancel its traditional Thanksgiving Meal, to provide turkey dinners to families in need.

Typically, St. Vincent de Paul’s provides a full turkey dinner for approximately 800 people at the Faribault American Legion. For a $30 donation, Basher’s will provide a full turkey dinner for a family of four, with St. Vincent de Paul’s providing distribution.

“I’m optimistic that we’ll be able to provide quite a few meals,” she said.

Jose Herrera, the owner of Owatonna's Plaza Morena Campestre Grill, said that during the pandemic, his restaurant has gotten strong support from the community but has still struggled to just break even. With the shutdown looming, Herrera said that many restaurant owners will be forced to seek additional credit or government assistance, if it's available. Without that, he anticipated that many will be forced to close.

“I’m just hoping this doesn’t go on for too long,” he said. “A lot of businesses that have shut down won’t reopen.”

Getting political

Assistance isn’t likely to come from the state level because the Minnesota Constitution requires the state to run a balanced budget. As a result, lawmakers will have to focus on making cuts, not providing additional assistance, when they return to regular session in January.

The governor’s additional orders come just a week after he called a sixth special session, giving legislators a chance to reject his one-month extension of the Peacetime Declaration of Emergency as required by law.

Unlike during previous special sessions, the Republican-controlled Senate did not vote to end the Governor’s Declaration. Still, Sen. John Jasinski, R-Faribault, expressed frustration that the governor had not included the legislature more in his decision-making process.

“He talks about One Minnesota and involving everyone, but he does not involve us,” Jasinski said. “I find out about his decisions in the news before I hear about them from him.”

Jasinski said that the threat posed by COVID is clear but that the state should take a more nuanced approach, with respect for regional differences. Had such an approach been taken earlier, he argued the state and its businesses could be in better fiscal shape.

Rep. Todd Lippert, DFL-Northfield, argued that with the number of cases rising exponentially and the largest increases seen in Greater Minnesota, the Governor’s measures are needed to preserve what’s left of the healthcare system’s capacity. Lippert expressed optimism that the federal government will provide some sort of relief package, but barring that, said there’s some measures the state could enact like extending unemployment insurance. He also urged his constituents to do their part to get the virus under control.

“What we’ve been saying all along we need everyone to do the basics,” “Stay home if you’re sick, wear a mask, do social distancing, and as hard as it is, limit social gatherings.”

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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