WILLMAR — The lack of a robust government response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has often manifested itself in piecemeal restrictions coupled with partial financial help, has left restaurant owners with an uncertain feeling of what the future holds.
Gov. Tim Walz this week ordered a four-week restriction, starting at 11:59 p.m. Friday, Nov. 20, on multiple businesses in the state, which includes closing restaurants and bars for indoor and outdoor services but allowing takeout or delivery.
“Of course, we’re not happy about it, but there’s really nothing we can do about it,” Ron Guetter, owner of McMillan’s Family Restaurant in Willmar, said.
Guetter fears the recent restrictions are going to last past the proposed Dec. 18 end date, which would cause even more of a financial strain on restaurants, especially if no more aid comes their way.
“It’s going to be a very long winter,” Guetter said.
While Congress did pass the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act in March, which allowed for $2.2 trillion in economic stimulus money in response to economic uncertainty related to COVID-19, there has been no movement on another bill to help provide relief to residents and businesses.
The lack of additional funding means that local and state government restrictions are often implemented without a firm plan in place to help mitigate the financial fallout.
Walz called on Congress to provide COVID-19 relief in a letter sent to the leadership a day before the new four-week restrictions took place.
“The current situation is simply untenable,” Walz said in a news release announcing his plea to Congress. “As the virus surges and demands pauses on our economy, we need federal support to ensure Minnesotans can make ends meet. We need Congress to act immediately to help keep our businesses afloat, our workers paid, and our families with food on the table. I will continue to fight with every fiber of my being for that support that you need and deserve.”
Minnesota Rep. Dave Baker, a former restaurant owner from Willmar who still owns a hotel, said the Legislature should take up proposals to help businesses negatively affected by COVID-19 restrictions.
In a news release, Baker proposed transferring unspent state or federal COVID response funding into a targeted relief program, allowing bars and restaurants to sell to-go alcohol, waiving or delaying sales tax payments and delaying loan repayment dates for businesses who received state-based or state-administered loan programs.
Baker, a Republican, said the latest restrictions are “severe” but are a reaction to the dramatic increase in COVID-19 cases that are straining hospitals and health care workers.
“Anything extra would help,” Samantha Schultz, manager at The Handle Bar in Atwater, said. “We’re just going to keep plugging away and hopefully we stay above water.”
Both Schultz and Guetter said they’ve been able to build their businesses back up since the partial June 1 reopening following the last restriction from Walz, but these recent restrictions could cause even more heartache.
“It sucks, you know. It’s kinda like a punch in the gut a little bit, but it is what it is,” Schultz said.
Jesse Gislason, owner of Alley on Ash, a restaurant, bar and bowling alley in New London, said he hates to see restrictions put on anyone but they need to be applied fairly, citing places like Walmart and Menards that won’t face the same effects his business will.
Walz and state health officials have said they are trying to target locations where the virus is easily spread, and people linger for longer periods in bars and restaurants and are unmasked while eating and drinking. Restrictions also apply to gyms and theaters, and the new guidance prohibits social gatherings of individuals who live outside a person's household.
Gislason said that Kandiyohi County government officials were pretty good about making sure that everyone at least put in an application for CARES Act money, $11,000 of which his business received, but said he would rather see lower tax rates as opposed to grants or loans.
He said Baker, his state representative, told him the Legislature is doing what they can to get businesses financial help.
“I was like, ‘Dave, I don’t want money that we’re going to either have to pay back or that our grandchildren are going to have to pay back,’” Gislason said.
“We’re still spending money and we’re going to keep the economy going the best we can,” Gislason said. “But the way things are being taxed and then just to keep printing money to hand out to everybody seems senseless.”
Gislason, Schultz and Guetter all said the community has been supportive and people continue to frequent their businesses.
"It's very much appreciated," Guetter said. "It's not only hard on the business owners, but we've got a bunch of employees in the restaurant business."