N95 masks donation

Dr. Brian Bunkers (left) with the Mayo Clinic in Owatonna accepts the donation of 300 N95 masks from Joe Effertz with Black Forest Ltd. Despite the uncertain future of local and small businesses amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, companies like Black Forest are still making an effort to do their part in the local communities. (Annie Granlund/People’s Press)

During his Monday afternoon 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 were relived: the 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, as well as other chambers throughout southern Minnesota, 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.

“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 grounds if shifting under my feet every day,” Jystad continued. “I’m just trying to figure out what I’m supposed to do, and it’s hard to know what’s right.”

According to Jystad, several businesses in the Kenyon area have already closed, while many more are adjusting their hours or moving to curbside pickup and delivery only. Meanwhile, the association has reached out to all its members encouraging them to contact them if they need assistance or are looking for other resources to help during this pressing time.

On Friday, the U.S. 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,” Meier added. “It’s a very broad scope that these loans are under in order to help get businesses through the coronavirus situation.”

“These loans will make a different in whether or not a business will make it through this crisis,” Johnson said.

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. Such initiatives have been seen in New Ulm, in Owatonna through the Vote Yes for OHS committee, and recently now in St. Peter on the chamber’s Facebook page.

“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.

“As long as restaurants are open, please keep supporting them in that way,” Lee said, adding that over the weekend he went out to visit area restaurants and was able to see the faces behind those still trying to serve their communities. “And please keep looking for online gift cards.”

“Don’t forget about us,” Jystad pled.

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 Kenyon, the food truck and Kenyon Bar and Grill have been busy serving meals to students while schools are closed. 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.”

Dr. Brian Bunkers with the Mayo Clinic accepted the donation of the N95 masks from Black Forest on Monday morning, stating that it is almost guaranteed that such donations will save lives.

“It’s important that we all understand that this is a temporary condition,” Johnson said about the importance of sticking together, both as businesses and a community. “It will have some unwelcomed outcomes, and the challenge to rebound and recover will be greater for some individuals and businesses than others. But as we work our way through it, we need to be mindful of shopping local, supporting local, and making good decisions as a group to make sure we have every effort to recover completely.”

Reach Reporter Annie Granlund at 507-444-2378 or follow her on Twitter @OPPAnnie. ©Copyright 2020 APG Media of Southern Minnesota.

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