OSLO, Minn. – Oslo residents are not amateurs when it comes to facing adversity. Yearly floods often cut the entire town from the rest of the world. Returning National Guard members are welcomed -- not with open arms because there is a pandemic -- with a smile and maybe even a salute.
This spring, the residents' isolation was extended as quarantining became a primary activity after COVID-19 settled into Minnesota.
"We were isolated – from the flood – when the pandemic hit," said Erika Martens, Oslo mayor. "It just carried over."
During the earlier days of the coronavirus pandemic, when Oslo residents didn't gather at business places or church, adults took walks and children played outside, according to Martens, noting that the people most affected were the elderly, who were used to gathering to play cards and visit.
As a result, younger members of the community made it a point to check on senior citizens, Martens said.
"The community really stepped up. Oslo is really a fantastic place," she said.
Oslo is the business center -- with some push and pull from Grand Forks -- for a farm-focused citizenry. Though Kitty’s Cafe and Jamieson’s on Main sit side by side, they are miles apart in how each was affected by the coronavirus pandemic.
Cafe owner Kitty Stromberg made and served food during the crisis, while Corey Jamieson, who owns the town’s only bar, essentially had no business from 5 p.m. March 17, when Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz ordered closings across the state, to about two and a half months later.
The shutdown had been expected to last 10 days. Instead, the order was extended for another 65 days.
"I had just got a whole pile of inventory. Then the flood came, and things got even worse," said Jamieson, noting the closure was hard on the small-town bar.
Jamieson's sold a few pizzas to customers who bought takeout, but food sales were incidental to beer and liquor sales.
“Two or three pizzas a night isn’t going to keep a bar open,” Jamieson said.
On June 1, Jamieson opened the doors of his business to on-sale alcohol and put tables on the sidewalk in front and in the parking lot in back. Customers began trickling in, but sales fell far short of dealings in the past.
Several days later, when Walz lifted the closure order, more customers returned to Jamieson’s, and in mid-July, business inched closer to reaching its ordinary measures, Jamieson said.
“Business is not 100% back to normal but probably 70, 80%," he said.
Next door, at Kitty’s Cafe, it was a much different story.
Though the order prohibited customers from coming inside the cafe to eat, they were allowed to pick up meals, so Stromberg immediately got word out to her customers she still was cooking.
“I was so lucky that way,” Stromberg said. "I feel bad for the businesses that couldn’t be open.”
Customer traffic during the closure order wasn’t great, but it was enough to keep Kitty’s going, according to Stromberg, who said she is accustomed to operating during a crisis due to the many Oslo floods.
She didn’t immediately open the doors to the cafe when Walz lifted the order June 1, but gradually ramped up the hours.
“On June 10, we opened again," said Stromberg, who resumed the cafe's usual hours with her Thursday night specials, which vary from fried chicken dinners to tacos and burger nights.
And burger nights did quite well.
“We did 500 burgers that night,” Stromberg said. “Those $3 burger nights, they’re a lifesaver.”
Two cafe supporters supplement the $3 burger baskets, which are made up of a hamburger or cheeseburger and a side of fries, onion rings or potato salad, by kicking in $6 for each meal Stromberg sells. The first Thursday burger night, held in June, drew people from across the area to Oslo.
The burger nights and other specials Stromberg serves on Thursday nights also helps Jamieson, who encourages people to bring the food into the bar.
“People don’t always eat pizza,” Jamieson said. “It’s beneficial, for sure."
Across the street, Kosmatka’s Market has suffered a decline in sales since the state’s businesses reopened, according to Scott Kosmatka, the grocery store’s owner.
“We did curbside during the pandemic,” he said. “The slowdown is now."
During the earlier days of the coronavirus pandemic, Oslo residents didn’t want to drive to Grand Forks or other larger cities to buy groceries, but, when North Dakota businesses began opening, there was a “mass exodus” from his store, Kosmatka said.
Another contributing factor to the decline in sales at Kosmatka Market is that some stocked up on groceries when Minnesota and North Dakota businesses were shut down, and now they are using what they have in their cupboards and freezers, Kosmatka speculated.
Meanwhile, Kosmatka said he believes people have been hard hit financially and don’t have money to spend.
“They maxed out their credit cards,” Kosmatka said.
Many grocery store customers also started buying directly from farmers during the pandemic.
“Everybody went out to their farmers, ranchers and bought whole cows, whole pigs,” said Kosmatka, who has been mulling ways to increase customer traffic in his store. “I’ve been thinking of what I can do. I advertise on Facebook."
However, even during the July Fourth weekend, when the grocery store typically has good business, it was slow this year, he said.
“Numbers were way down that week,” Kosmatka said.
Reducing the amount of products he keeps on hand is one way Kosmatka, the grocery store’s owner for 15 years, is responding to the decrease in sales.
“You know what sells and doesn’t sell, so you limit inventory," he said.
The pandemic, while hurting business, hasn’t given Kosmatka’s Market a knockout punch.
“I’ll be OK,” Kosmatka said. "There’s good support from certain businesses around town. I’m not going to let it get me down.
“But we still need the support of everybody local. Heck, I’ll take it from anywhere," he said.
Now that North Dakota is in the midst of summer, the "snowbird" contingent of the city's population has returned from southern habitats. These active senior citizens typically return home at the end of April or in early May, but waited longer this year because of the coronavirus pandemic, according to Martens.
"We have a few who came in May and then throughout the month of June," said Martens, noting that by mid-July, Oslo's population had returned to its true U.S. Census estimate.
As the population reconciles itself to face masks and social distancing, Jamieson said he hopes any spikes in coronavirus cases won’t result in another closure order by Walz.
“It scares me with everything going on. I hope he doesn’t pull the plug again," Jamieson said. “Keep our fingers crossed."