People across the lakes area are stuck between a rock and a hard place as confirmed cases of COVID-19 in central Minnesota mount while small businesses struggle amid strict closure orders and social distancing protocols.

The dire situation for small businesses — of which, many find themselves floundering after the federal government recently announced the $350 billion Paycheck Protection Program was depleted — prompted the Brainerd Lakes Chamber of Commerce to launch an initiative to promote a partial reopening of the local economy with appropriate precautions.

“To save our small businesses from closing their doors forever, we support the immediate development of a plan to reopen Minnesota businesses with state-recommended public health and safety accommodations as soon as possible,” stated the petition sponsored by the chamber, which is intended to be submitted to Gov. Tim Walz and other statewide officials.

So far the petition received over 2,300 signatures with a stated goal of 2,500 signatures. The petition has also garnered a strong response on social media, with hundreds of comments for and against the initiative, both by members of the community and small business owners.

During phone conversations with the Dispatch Monday, April 20, Chamber President Matt Kilian said the decision came to the fore last week, when chamber members came to the conclusion that promoting the usual “buy local” line and assistance with relief programs wasn’t enough and the organization needed to take firm, proactive steps to alleviate economic stressors.

Newsletter signup for email alerts

“Businesses and nonprofit organizations, in the past 30 days, they're considering closing their doors forever. I’m having two or three conversations every day with a business owner who just does not know how he or she will survive. I've had conversations where people who have literally broken down crying on the phone,” said Kilian, who repeatedly noted the decision isn’t grounded in partisan animus, nor does it look to undermine pandemic protocols in place. “They have no opportunities to earn income. They spend days navigating these government relief programs, because even if they're lucky, they're still waiting and hoping to receive funds.”

Kilian said the point is not to roll back social distancing measures or overarching closure orders, but to open up some sectors of the economy — such as golf courses, or bait farms, for example — where there’s little to no social contact between individuals, or to enable non-essential businesses to provide goods and services in a way that’s compliant with pandemic protocols.

“It impacts our economy, impacts our community and impacts our quality of life,” Kilian said. “So, there has to be some balance between the economy, and public health. And we believe that that balance could be struck. I'm working with the state and these businesses to develop reasonable ways, and even tight restrictions on how they can reopen in some capacity. I believe we can make a difference.”

The potential to cause a second wave of COVID-19 in the area — where Crow Wing County now has 20 confirmed cases — is always a consideration, said Kilian, who noted there are no easy answers. At the same time, many small businesses are on their last leg, he said, and this comes amid 5,000 layoffs as of last week in the Brainerd area.

“Close your eyes, take a deep breath and try to imagine what it would be like, as a small business owner, where your entire life, where everything you worked for your lifetime, is being utterly annihilated, and disappearing in front of your eyes,” Kilian said. “We understand that people have different priorities, and different philosophies, but just stop for a minute and think about the small business owner.”

Ian Ulrich, the marketing director for The Teehive, a custom apparel company based in Baxter, which has produced medical masks amid the coronavirus crisis, said the company has been forced to lay off 80% of its workforce to account for flatlining sales. He said he’s strongly in favor of the push to reopen aspects of the local economy and praised Kilian and the chamber for its member advocacy.

“I think it's wonderful that in doing so, they are dedicated to doing it safely and focusing on the well-being of not only the community, but also the employees of these businesses that are open or want to reopen,” Ulrich said. “It's imperative that we find a way to get our local employees and small business owners some revenue coming back in.”

Speaking from the perspective of a small business owner and local lawmaker who’s had to make public health considerations for years, Brainerd City Council member Kelly Bevans said he’s in favor of reopening some segments of the local economy to sustain small businesses. However, speaking as a diabetic with some heart issues — two points of vulnerability to COVID-19 — Bevans also noted that people have to carefully consider the risks and rewards of going through with this, and what role they may play in it.

“I honestly 100% support the chamber's efforts to try and get as much open as possible,” said Bevans, who is not a member of the chamber. “But I think people have to take some personal responsibility in their own safety and the safety of others. I'm still not 100% sure there’s a line in the sand where we say well, if we do this we will not have any more new cases.”

GABRIEL LAGARDE may be reached at gabe.lagarde@brainerddispatch.com or 218-855-5859. Follow at www.twitter.com/glbrddispatch.