Lakes area businesses join call for full reopening
The group sent a letter to the governor emphasizing small businesses are “the economic fuel of our state’s future.” It’s a future, business owners say they can see slipping away if they aren’t able to open soon.
For Lois Moon and her brother Alan Rademacher, owners of Paul Bunyan Land, ups and downs are part of business, but this time everything was beyond their control.
“Everything else we could take and run with that, fix it or whatever, but this thing, we couldn't open our business, it was just devastating,” Moon said.
Moon said not giving small businesses the credit for being able to keep their customers and employees safe was unfair. Unlike other businesses, Rademacher said they only have three months.
“So, this first part of the month here now with us not being open, that's going to kick our butt,” Rademacher said. “We don't even know if we're going to be alive next year because of this.” This week, the Brainerd Lakes Chamber of Commerce joined with about 60 chambers across the state, to urge Gov. Tim Walz to fully reopen businesses. Called the Minnesota Ready Coalition, the group is seeking a full reopening for businesses, with appropriate safety measures, no later than Friday, June 19.
The group sent a letter to the governor emphasizing small businesses are “the economic fuel of our state’s future.” It’s a future, business owners say they can see slipping away if they aren’t able to open soon. For the lakes area, they said the stakes are even higher because of a tourism economy dependent on the ability to take in revenue in a few summer months that will help sustain businesses through a long winter.
“These are revenue opportunities we cannot get back in September and October,” said Matt Kilian, Brainerd Lakes chamber president, who organized a local meeting of area business owners at the chamber to talk about the issues. Kilian said closings, if they happen, aren’t going to be evident in the summer, but those decisions on permanent closings will happen this winter. Kilian noted the recent launch of the Lake Country Cares campaign as a significant part of the effort.
“When you talk about reopening, it's about safe reopening,” Kilian said. “And I can tell you that the Brainerd lakes area, through a huge partnership of businesses and organizations … is leading the way in the state of Minnesota, on safety and rebuilding customer confidence and not just recklessly throwing our doors open.”
The state is in phase three of a four-phase Stay Safe Minnesota reopening, with retail and restaurants and bars open at 50% capacity not to exceed 250 people. Gyms, personal fitness, yoga and martial arts have a cap of 25%.
“It’s a good first step, it’s a promising positive step, but it's not enough,” Kilian said during a gathering of business owners at the chamber office. ”It’s not enough for businesses. It just isn’t. And we hear that over and over again.”
The business owners represented retail, restaurants, breweries, small resorts and tourist attractions such as Paul Bunyan Land and Brainerd International Raceway.
Mike Schwieters, resort manager at Boyd Lodge in Crosslake, agreed.
“Matt is dead on correct with the fact that if we don't get this opened up and opened up now, businesses will not be around come this time next year. There will be a loss of some of these smaller businesses, and even bigger ones.”
Patrick Sundberg, owner at Jack Pine Brewery in Baxter, said it was good to have people back inside for a little sense of normalcy.
“We're doing OK right now and OK is not going to get us through winter,” Sundberg said. “We need to be doing well in the summer, to be able to survive winter, so it's a challenge. It's scary. Like this won’t be over shortly, but all the missed revenue that I've seen so far is really tough.”
Sundberg said the lost revenue from Memorial Day weekend and the days since will be something he’ll feel as a small business for three or four years.
The Minnesota Ready Coalition pointed to progress in other states, such as Indiana where retail stores and malls are operating at full capacity, dining rooms at 75% capacity, bowling alleys at 50%, and there is a plan to have personal services, gyms, bars, restaurants all open at full capacity by the Fourth of July. In addition, Indiana was noted for allowing gatherings of 250 people at sporting events, conventions, festivals and a state fair. Other states, such as Kansas, Iowa, North Dakota and Wisconsin, were all noted for earlier openings, most in May.
With Memorial Day weekend gone, the businesses point to lost income with each passing summer day and weekend and the looming critical July Fourth holiday. The business owners also pointed to what they see as a disparity between big box stores that have operated since the pandemic began while they haven’t been allowed to reopen with safety measures in place, even at smaller percentages early on.
“We ask you to recognize these businesses are ready. They are ready to return and have designed plans to safely return their workers and protect their customers,” the Minnesota Ready Coalition stated in the letter to Walz.
Uncertainty about timelines for phased reopening and, what they described as last minute unexpected changes — like limiting Minnesota restaurants to patio seating — made a bad situation worse.
Nick Miller, 3 Cheers Hospitality owner with restaurants in Baxter, Crosby and Lake Shore, said there are 14 weeks to make every little acorn that can be tucked away for winter. Miller noted with the lost catering business as well the restaurants, they are looking at losing three-quarters of a million dollars when it’s all said and done.
Wednesday, Walz said in a briefing it felt as though the state was in a plateau and they were looking at the numbers and hopefully opening more before the Fourth of July. When looking across the country, Walz said Minnesota was in the upper half of states that were reopening.
Biff Ulm, owner of Zaiser’s in Nisswa, has three businesses that dovetail together. Ulm said he’s in an OK place and fortunate to own his own building and have low overhead. He said business is down 20-30%, but he worries about what would happen if neighboring businesses closed because they are all stronger together.
State Rep. Dale Lueck, R-Aitkin, and Sen. Carrie Ruud, R-Breezy Point, both attended the meeting in Brainerd. Lueck said this started with a public health crisis and it was important to stop and provide time for the medical facilities to prepare as they faced real issues with vital equipment and supplies. But, Lueck said, freezing everything has gone on longer than the weeks it took to prepare.
“This is martial law. Let me say that again. This is martial law,” Lueck said. “This is not a public health response anymore.”
The micromanagement has taken away local control, Lueck said, offering as an example the need to get special approval just to allow people to go through Safari North in their vehicles. Ruud said what she sees lacking is a sense of urgency because the Twin Cities will continue to have business after Labor Day.
“I don't think they realize the criticalness of getting open now for Brainerd,” Ruud said. “We have 90 days where we can really concentrate our business and I don't think they understand that urgency so we really have to keep stressing that urgency, we have to be open, we cannot lose any more business than we already have. And so I'm hoping the governor is listening.”