The St. Peter Area Chamber of Commerce wants equity in business and, while understanding the protective measures in place over the last few months, it doesn't believe all measures have been equitable.
Specifically, the Chamber, which operates independently from the city, believes it's time for all businesses to be opened up, while putting the responsibility on the consumer to protect themselves and others. Along with 10 other local chambers, including in New Ulm and Le Sueur, the St. Peter Chamber signed onto a letter from the Southwest Minnesota Chamber of Commerce Executives to call for a "prompt turn of the dial from 'business closure' to 'business open' with personal/consumer responsibility.
"We ask that you turn the dial from the short-term strategy of business closures to a long-term strategy of opening businesses safely paired with personal and consumer responsibility," the letter, addressed to Gov. Tim Walz, stated. "Businesses have their plans in place, now it is time to equip our citizens with preparedness templates and expectations, including social distancing and face masks, and empower them with guidance to manage their activities and maintain their health throughout the pandemic. Please establish a more concrete, rapid timeline for opening now while reminding consumers of their personal responsibility to keep Minnesota safe."
St. Peter Chamber Executive Director Ed Lee said it was a motion of advocacy.
"Businesses have adopted carefully crafted protocols encouraging safety of employees and customers," he said. "Striking the right balance between slowing the spread and saving our economy is the challenge. Building consumer confidence is a key piece. Please look over the letter, drafted by Southwest Minnesota Chamber of Commerce Executives, and feel free to reply with your thoughts."
While most retail stores are now allowed to be open, many are still restricted, including restaurants and bars, hair salons and barbershops, tattoo parlors and more. Entertainment venues, like bowling alleys and movie theaters, are still not able to open. And in earlier months, while small businesses were asked to close as non-essential, big box stores remained open, which became a point of contention for many.
"Again, understanding the reasoning that rules are what they are for very good reasons," Lee said. "It’s just the thought that the same rules should apply to all stores and big box. Then, businesses could decide whether or not to be open and under what conditions, and consumers could choose to shop where they feel safe."
Many St. Peter small business owners expressed their willingness to comply with the stay-at-home orders without complaint. But as restrictions loosen, some businesses remain more impacted, creating a sense of inequity. Statewide polls have indicated general approval of the governor's executive orders, but there is unquestionably an increasing push for businesses to have more autonomy after a prolonged period of restrictions.
Lee and the other chamber executives are calling for the return to normalcy to now be swift, allowing businesses and consumers to take the lead.
"Every business has a right to require face masks and other protections, just as every consumer has a right to choose whether to shop at any given business, based on its rules," Lee said. "Consumers should be strongly encouraged to follow a business’s rules, and if the consumer is not comfortable with that, the consumer can shop elsewhere for the time being. Mutual respect is key. There is no reason for argument, because both sides are right. It’s true that we all need to reduce the spread of germs. It’s true also that sheltering in place forever isn’t practical or even reasonable."
In a separate effort, the Chamber reached out to the St. Peter Economic Development Authority to provide $10,000 in funding, in order to kickstart an effort to advertise local businesses as they return to regular hours and services. EDA members, though, questioned whether it was smart to campaign for a rush back to normal retail traffic, instead thinking a moderated and gradual return may be safer.
The EDA will consider the funding request again at its next meeting, near the end of June.