After months of sluggish negotiations, Democrats and Republicans in Congress Monday agreed to a new $900 billion relief package and passed it.

The question remains if that will be enough, or if it came soon enough, for many small businesses across northeastern Minnesota.

Congressman Pete Stauber, R-Hermantown, hosted a teleconference with small business owners, local chamber officials, and commerce leaders to discuss the current status of small business in the 8th Congressional District. Stauber expressed optimism with the passage of the $900 billion spending bill Monday, as well as another $280 billion for the Paycheck Protection Program, but the tone of the teleconference was bleak, with many small business owners stating their businesses were at the breaking point.

According to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce small business index poll released this quarter, small businesses across the country — of which, there are more than 30 million total — report that half will not be able to sustain themselves for longer than a year at most.

In the same report, the chamber noted 62% fear the worst is still to come from the pandemic’s economic impact and nearly three quarters, or 74%, say they need further government assistance to survive.

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“I remain more committed now than ever to helping your business weather the storm. Small businesses are the backbone of our communities,” Stauber said. “More businesses across the nation will receive a critical lifeline to help keep their doors open and their employees on the payroll.”

Speaking as a small business owner himself, Stauber expressed sympathy for the group, noting they were at a difficult place that any business owner dreads.

“It shows how tough it is as an owner to lay off staff,” Stauber commented at one point during the meeting. “Those aren't good calls. Those aren't great conversations at all. They're tough, and they're emotional, too.”

The predicament of small business owners is of being stuck between a rock and a hard place — particularly for many in northeastern Minnesota, where hospitality and tourism industries dominate and face-to-face services are a vital portion of the local economy.

Small business owners told Stauber that government-mandated business closures and fines on one hand, coupled with little to no help from federal authorities for nine months of flatlining business on the other, meant cutbacks, layoffs and talks of imminent bankruptcy were becoming the norm for many.

Nick Miller, of Three Cheers Hospitality in Baxter, said the situation is untenable, with small businesses being squeezed from multiple sides by the pandemic, local government crackdowns and dwindling aid.

“It's been a long, long journey. Lots of bumps, lots of bangs. I think all of us here on the screen are rolling with the punches and trying to adapt,” Miller said. “It’s tough. … It’s been difficult, for sure.”

Cody Boyer, manager of the Wadena Veterans of Foreign Wars post, joined other business owners when he said support from local governments can vary depending on the community — with some providing robust support, while others leave their commercial partners ot to dry. In particular, Boyer took aim at Gov. Tim Walz’s health mandates — which have been reinstated and extended at multiple points this year — which Boyer said are increasingly unrealistic and destructive to small businesses hanging on for dear life.

“It's just not feasible. It’s just not,” Boyer said. “We aren't gonna make it. These places aren't going to make it. He (Walz) keeps pushing this back and pushing us back.”

Susan Gillson, the owner of CrossFit Beyond Sport in Princeton, said many employees are especially vulnerable during the pandemic. She pointed to ongoing and deepening issues of substance abuse and mental health as people are isolated, the economy continues to experience upheaval, and the pandemic progresses.

In turn, Stauber listened to each business owner and advised them to keep in touch with their lenders and keep themselves informed of any new funding coming down the pipe, as Congress will continue to look for ways to aid small businesses.

“These stories have deeply moved me and solidified my belief that Minnesota's businesses are the best,” Stauber said. “Minnesota needs to get back to an open and working economy. ... I'm going to continue to fight for a full reopening in the days to come. And I really think that it's time for our government to level the playing field for small businesses to operate by the same rules as major corporations.”

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