WILLMAR — As the nation hits about a 25% unemployment rate, restaurants in Minnesota are preparing to reopen Monday after months of serving only take-out or curbside pickup.
“(We) can’t wait to see people again. It’ll be nice,” Samantha Schultz, manager at The Handle Bar in Atwater, said.
Following Gov. Tim Walz's executive order to shut down dine-in services at restaurants, The Handle Bar had to let go about 13 employees but starting about two weeks ago, all of them have been called back to prepare for reopening the restaurant.
The bar took advantage of the shutdown by closing to do some remodeling as well.
“We actually expanded our kitchen and updated our bathrooms and everything, so it kind of worked out in a nice time,” Schultz said. “But nobody wants to close for that long.”
Restaurants, bars and many other businesses that fall under the category of "places of public accommodation" have been shuttered by executive order since March 17 to mitigate the potential spread of COVID-19. Curbside, delivery or take-out was allowed to continue.
When The Handle Bar reopened for take-out May 16, they did 91 take-out orders that night and hit a record 136 orders for take-out from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. the night after. The previous record was 110 orders.
Schultz said the bar has been providing free meals for people who cannot or should not leave their homes. They prepare and deliver anywhere between nine and 22 meals a day, Monday through Friday.
“We plan on continuing (delivering meals) at this time. We don’t have a set date as far as when we won’t be doing it anymore,” Schultz said. “But as happy as it makes the people, it’s worth it.”
The new order from Walz, effective June 1, keeps restaurants at a maximum of 50 customers and requires all employees to wear face masks and gloves, while only allowing outside dining.
The outside dining requirement has forced restaurants to adapt, with some having no or minimal outside dining pre-pandemic.
“We had to go buy picnic tables,” Brady Lee, manager at McKinney’s on Southside in Benson, said.
In order to be able to serve 50 people and to follow social distancing guidelines, those tables will be spread out on their lawn in front of their patio. Customers will have to call beforehand to make a reservation.
In New London, Alley on Ash will be using its parking lot space and part of the street in front of the business the city has blocked off for customers to dine outside, according to owner Jesse Gislason. For now, they will only be able to serve alcoholic beverages up to the curb.
Gislason said they’ve been trying to work with city and state officials on how the reopening will be implemented.
“I don’t understand why they’re handcuffing us,” Gislason said. “It feels like every time we jump through a hoop, the hoop gets smaller and we stay the same size.”
This frustration with the government’s pandemic response was echoed by multiple businesses, including Ron Guetter, owner of McMillan’s Family Restaurant in Willmar.
Guetter said he sees different sides of the issue, with the government shutting down businesses, the financial burden on businesses and the customer being allowed to make their own decision.
“My feeling is it’s gonna be tough on a lot of businesses, whether they might open back up when they’re able to, but it still might not be enough,” Guetter said. “It’s gonna be a very trying time.”
Lee said partially opening up will help McKinney’s a little bit, but it won’t be enough to make up for their losses.
McKinney’s is attached to a hotel that has also had to cut back on the amount of rooms they can sell. These reduced rooms at the hotel are also hurting McKinney because the hotel feeds them a lot of business.
Lee said they’ll be bringing back about three staff, out of a total of about 20 people who were previously let go, for the partial opening.
“We’ll hopefully be doing more food but without doing business as usual, to pay that extra staff to get maybe 50% of our usual business, you kind of got to balance the scales there on labor versus sales,” Lee said.
Customers should get used to seeing restaurant staff in masks, a requirement of being open and something all the businesses the West Central Tribune talked to said they would enforce.
Customers are not required to wear a mask but are encouraged to do so.
Schultz said The Handle Bar and other restaurants are required to hang signs encouraging mask wearing.
“(Customers will) not be turned away because they don’t have a mask on,” Schultz said.
The financial impact and whether the partial reopen will help businesses is currently unknown, but Guetter said he’s hopeful his family restaurant will weather the storm.
“It’s the new normal and who knows what’s going to happen,” Guetter said. “We can’t predict if the tables are going to be full or if they’re just going to be sitting there empty.”