Federal support props up Greater Grand Forks businesses, but owners wonder what happens next

East Grand Forks mayor Dr. Steve Gander, center, takes a break with his optometrist partners, Dr. Destin Coles, left and Dr. Bruce Storhaug, at their Opticare business in East Grand Forks. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

Coronavirus has adversely affected everyday life in the upper Midwest, but a stream of government aid has kept workers and businesses propped up — for now, at least.

Steve Gander, an East Grand Forks optometrist — and the city’s mayor — is a case in point. His two partners and their staff of nearly two dozen are waiting out the pandemic with the help of the federal “Paycheck Protection Program,” which offers forgivable loans to help pay rent, payroll and the like.

It’s been critical for the practice, which, although mostly shuttered, has tended to emergency cases for weeks on a drastically reduced revenue model. Patients, either afraid of a close-quarters health care visit or bound by government delays on nonessential care, have avoided checkups and appointments since mid-March.

"We're just hugely grateful,” Gander said, though he declined to reveal how much the practice received. “We say we thank God and we thank the federal government. It's nice to live in the greatest country on earth when something like this hits."

But there is one caveat: if this goes on for much longer, Gander is worried about what will happen to the business.


"I feel like it's going to work, the timing of when we come back to work," Gander said. “But if it does drag out too much longer, then it becomes very difficult once again."

Gander isn’t alone. Many business owners in Greater Grand Forks who spoke with the Herald this week said they are pleased to see their business supported by government spending measures. But many also wondered what happens next — and new polling from The Washington Post and the University of Maryland shows overwhelming reluctance to return to normal, shoulder-to-shoulder public life, with majorities of Americans still uncomfortable with the thought of retail shopping or dining out. That, combined with grim projections of increasing cases of the virus, could leave those business owners facing a long, difficult summer, with reduced revenues dragging on and on.

And, just like with big manufacturers, turning a business back on is never so simple as flipping a switch. Multiple business owners reported a lack of employees interested in returning to work. In some cases, that’s because the college students who comprise their labor force have left Greater Grand Forks. In others, it’s because employees are afraid to contract the virus. At Bonzer’s Sandwich Pub, the downtown Grand Forks restaurant, owner Matt Bonzer said his staff has been reduced from about 20 to about half a dozen.

“If workers don't feel comfortable going to work, the business owner is limited in what they can do,” he said. “If (Gov. Doug) Burgum said open up fully, no restrictions, I couldn't do that right now, because I don't have the help to do it."

Sarah Horak, co-owner of O’Really’s, Level 10 and Brick and Barley, points out that despite existing federal aid programs, more needs to be addressed. She and her husband, for instance, are staring down loans that Horak said she’d prefer to refinance into something more manageable.

"We're just kind of trying to take everything a day at a time. Luckily we've had a lot of people that we owe money to work with us to defer payments,” she said. “But sooner or later all of that money is going to come due."

There’s been mounting pain for workers, too, with record unemployment claims from around the country. Statistics from Job Service North Dakota show more than 5,500 initial unemployment claims in Grand Forks County since mid-March.

Jennifer Soper, a self-employed travel agent from Grand Forks, has struggled to find unemployment relief, though. She said she applied for a specific kind of unemployment relief, “pandemic unemployment assistance,” through Job Service North Dakota, a program created by recent congressional relief efforts that help the self-employed find benefits.


But she’s still waiting on that support.

Sarah Arntson, a spokesperson with Job Service North Dakota, said delays are happening for a variety of reasons, traceable to the high volume of requests that unemployment officials are seeing in North Dakota as well as the complex verification process that goes along with the PUA program.

“It is frustrating on our end as well. We would love to be able to flip a switch and relieve people suffering and in pain. Unfortunately, it's a lot more complex than that,” she said, adding that North Dakota has moved more quickly than some other states to make PUA funds available.

“That doesn't make anybody feel better and we understand that. But we want people to know we're working extremely hard,” she said. “We've brought in vendors to assist us, we've brought in staff from other departments, we've extended the hours in our call center, we've added a chat bot to our site, and we're trying to keep people updated on social media as well."

The political plan, for the moment, is unclear, with congressional leaders still debating the broadest contours of new coronavirus relief. Meanwhile, Soper will keep waiting on unemployment aid.

“My sleep is really disturbed,” Soper said. “I’m stressed … and I’m operating on the kindness of my bank allowing me to skip a mortgage payment, my credit union allowing me to skip a car payment. The phone company … isn’t charging me a late fee. I’m robbing Peter to pay Paul to juggle this around right now.”

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