Two Owatonna restaurant owners shared their stories of struggles in the pandemic and restrictions during a news conference organized by Senate Republican leaders earlier this month.
After a four-week shutdown for dining options beginning just before Thanksgiving, Gov. Tim Walz loosened restrictions enough to allow for outdoor dining to resume as it had in the spring. Even in southern Minnesota, however, the winter climate doesn’t give many restaurants viable options for much beyond takeout and delivery.
The owners expressed concerns that the current restrictions will continue to impact their operations.
“I would say it’s been difficult to really adapt to this new normal — it really is,” said Oscar Mazariego, owner of Lava Burgers and Wings in Owatonna. “The first time around was difficult and we made some adjustments so that was a good thing, but when we knew this was going to happen again and to not have resources available proactively, to me, is unacceptable.”
Mazariego said he was disappointed that the state did not appear to take as much proactive action as he saw on the federal level when people were scrambling to avoid a potential shutdown. He also said that as a part of the same ecosystem as the state government, Mazariego feels they all share a responsibility to the communities they serve and the various employees impacted by the restrictions.
“It’s difficult to talk to employees about why you can’t give them hours or give them shifts so they can take care of their families and their holiday needs,” Mazariego said.
Olivia Hughes, owner of Olivia’s Family Restaurant, echoed Mazariego’s comments about the concerns she shares for her employees.
“I am here to speak on behalf of ourselves and everyone else who could not be here today to state how this is affecting us,” Hughes said. “This is supposed to be America — the land of dreams. Our dreams in the restaurant industry — this is our lives and our dreams that we put everything into. That’s been taken away and shut down.”
Hughes said the reality is the restaurant and hospitality industry just wants a fighting chance to survive, even if that meant allowing only 25% occupancy for indoor dining. She said there is no reason that retail stores can be safe to operate and restaurants are not if they are following all the guidelines put in place earlier this year.
“We want to stick together and get together and unite to say give us a chance to live our dreams,” Hughes said.
Mazariego said if elected officials adapted the same way restaurant owners have had to over the last year, that finding a way to provide the resources needed to allow restaurants to survive and thrive through this pandemic shouldn’t be a problem.
“We hope that the same level of expectations that all business owners and restaurant owners and bar owners of being nimble and creative and resourceful is the same expectation at the state level so that we have proactive resources to help take care of communities and our customers and our employees,” he said.