Small business owners gave Minnesota House members feedback at a virtual town hall Monday night about how to help them do one thing: survive as the COVID-19 pandemic rages on.
Most businesses have run through the loans and grant funding they’ve received, and the pandemic stretches on, said Rep. Mohamud Noor, vice chair of the House Jobs and Economic Development Finance Division.
The Legislature is working though proposals for an economic relief package intended to move quickly and serve as a short-term patch as states and businesses await possible federal assistance, DFL House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler said.
Business owners joining the call, which had about 70 participants and was hosted by Rep. Dan Wolgamott, spoke to the importance of speed in potential future financial help.
A more blanket approach to funding — for instance one that doled out the same amount to the approximately 14,000 Minnesota businesses affected by COVID-19-related restrictions — could be quicker, Winkler said. A targeted approach could take into account a business’s size and disperse funds more according to individual need.
Jules’ Bistro owner Donella Westphal said her business was lucky to receive a $10,000 earlier in the year, but waited more than three months before she had the money in-hand.
“Three and a half months from now isn’t going to be helpful for me,” Westphal said.
Beaver Island Brewing co-founder Nick Barth said he considered time more important than targeting. He said abating state fees would also help, as well as moves made at the city level to help with water and energy bills.
“Down and dirty, we need to pay nothing and we need some cash,” Barth said. “… We’re out of money and we want to keep people employed, and we need cash.”
But coordination with local government is another place where time and precision have to be balanced, Wolgamott said. The more different governments are incorporated, “the longer it takes.”
Greater St. Cloud Development Corporation President Patti Gartland also said time is of the essence, and she urged legislators on the call to maximize as much as possible funding appropriations for small business assistance.
But Westphal also said for all businesses to receive the same amount of assistance regardless of size doesn’t seem right, either.
According to Westphal, she is staying open now to support Jules’ workers who can’t pay their bills on unemployment.
“We’re all working hard to lose money,” Westphal said. “If I knew that they were cared for, I would close my business tomorrow and just wait it out.”
Executive Express owner Larry Logeman said he wanted to remind legislators that while restaurants and bars are being hit hard, other businesses need to be considered for relief funding. When health experts and Gov. Tim Walz recommended people refrain from traveling for Thanksgiving, Logeman saw that reflected in cancellations from his airport shuttle customers. The money for those reservations had already been put to use in payroll, and cancellations meant giving it back.
He asked the state to communicate changes as quickly as possible.
“Don’t hint,” he said. “Just say it so that we can start planning. I need all of you … to know how important it is for us to plan. And it’s very difficult to plan when you don’t know really what’s going to happen.”
Great River Bowl and Partners Pub owner Jason Mathiasen also said faster communication could help businesses save money. From the time it was rumored Walz would be implementing more restrictions to the time those were announced the next week, Mathiasen said his business made liquor and beer orders worth thousands of dollars that he could have held off on if he had known.
Great River Bowl has been a family-owned business for 41 years, he told representatives on the call Monday night. It took them that time to build up reserves.
“In eight months, we’ve lost everything that we built up,” Mathiasen said. “I never thought that we would ever be in this situation. It’s really something that is unfathomable.”
Hybrid Farm Fitness owner Ryan Avery and Pantown Brewing head brewer Nick Flies both asked legislators to consider modifying restrictions on their respective business arenas.
Flies asked for loosening restrictions on vessel sizes for off-sale brews, while Avery asked for more targeted restrictions that still allowed gyms and fitness centers to open their doors.
“While the intentions were good, it’s really counterproductive to be limiting opportunities for our society to get stronger and healthier and fitter at a time when we know that that can help, at least, in the fight against COVID.”
Winkler said he also hopes there can be a more targeted approach for gyms and fitness centers, but that the decision to close these places was based on data that showed they’re one of the places transmission of COVID-19 was occurring.
Central Minnesota Community Empowerment Foundation Executive Director Shirwa Adan asked legislators to consider how to prevent the application process for small business relief from burdening members of the immigrant community as well as members of the greater community. He said small businesses run by immigrants have been able to secure funding from the state but have had trouble accessing them.
St. Cloud Area Chamber of Commerce President Teresa Bohnen said the sentiments shared at Monday’s town hall were reflective of frequent conversations in the business community.
“Of all the messages you’ve heard tonight, we’re hearing this tenfold, twentyfold at the Chamber,” Bohnen said.
She’s heard business owners tell her that if they can’t open again soon, they can’t make their businesses work, and they’ll look to make the move from employer to employee.
“Those statements are very telling to me as to where many of these business owners are,” Bohnen said. “I’ve never in 20-plus years of being at the Chamber seen the level of despair that is out there now.”
The Legislature has to meet in December to consider Walz’s emergency powers. Winkler said he doesn’t see any way how the Legislature can gather then and not pass some kind of emergency response bill.
“I don’t see any major obstacle to us getting to an agreement,” Winkler said. “I don’t think the differences (between proposed plans) are huge. I think they’re manageable.”
Wolgamott said small businesses are making sacrafices to keep the community safe. That sacrifice is something Mathiasen and other business owners are acutely aware of.
“We’re not all in this together,” Miathiasen said. “Some of us are in this way deeper than other people are.”
Now, Wolgamott said, is the time for the state and federal governments to make sure they’re keeping these businesses afloat.
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