ROSEAU, Minn. – Like many hardware store owners, Tim Erickson says he's having his best year ever during the COVID-19 pandemic.
With time on their hands, people dived into home improvement projects and stocked up on everything from paint to garden tillers when the pandemic descended, said Erickson, owner of Coast TrueValue for the past 14 years and a partner in the store for three years before that.
“Tillers sold out in Minnesota and all over the country,” said Erickson, 63, who began his career at the hardware store 45 years ago.
Bicycles, firearms and ammunition also flew off the shelves, he said.
“I'm as low on pistols as I ever have been in the last 15 to 20 years because availability is tough, and ammunition is tough to get,” Erickson said. “So, people are buying, and if you’re staying home, you figure you have more expendable income because you’re not going on vacation.”
Among the small business owners in this northwest Minnesota community of 2,660, Erickson has been one of the lucky ones throughout the pandemic. That’'s because hardware stores were deemed “essential” by Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz and have been allowed to remain open throughout the pandemic.
Other businesses, such as clothing stores, salons and restaurants, were closed for more than two months, and that was a source of frustration among business and community leaders, Roseau Mayor Jeff Pelowski said.
That was especially true during the initial stages of the pandemic, when Roseau County had only one confirmed case of COVID-19 but still had to abide by Walz’s one-size-fits-all guidelines.
“I think the first mistake the state made was not to have a correlation between the numbers of cases versus the regulations that went with it,” said Pelowski, a 22-year mayor who recently announced he won't seek re-election this fall. “When they just did a one-size-fits-all, it alienated a lot of people, and they still haven’t gotten past that.”
While he understands the need to limit potential exposure to the coronavirus as a risk management tool, Pelowski said the governor’s policy was rife with inconsistencies.
Hypothetically, the mayor wondered if a clothing store that was forced to close could have stayed open if it had started selling hammers or other essential merchandise.
“It put local units of government in a tough spot because we’re bound to follow the orders, and yet some of it was so inconsistent,” Pelowski said.
The Roseau City Council and the Roseau County Board of Commissioners both unanimously passed resolutions asking Walz to ease the restrictions but never got a reply from the governor’s office. Local legislators didn't fare any better, Pelowski said.
“The tone was set early that it was a metro-driven decision by problems they saw there,” said Todd Peterson, Roseau community development coordinator.
No one from the governor’s office reached out asking how the guidelines would impact Roseau, situated 10 miles from the Canadian border and more than 350 miles from St. Paul, Peterson said. Now that there’s an uptick in confirmed COVID-19 cases in Roseau County, people may be less apt to follow the guidelines.
That was apparent during a recent Thursday on Main Avenue, the city’s retail core; some people wore masks but many didn’t.
“The tone was set right off the bat that it’s unfair, and so that’s what’s in the back of everyone’s minds,” Pelowski said. “So, no matter what changes are made since that point, it’s still unacceptable. There was no correlation, very little understanding of what was going on (up here).”
Cheri Losse, owner of the Transfers Unlimited clothing and custom screen printing and embroidery store, said she was closed for nearly three months.
“I sat for three months hoping the governor would say, ‘OK, you can open,’” Losse said. “And when you sit and think, that’s when you start getting depressed and worried. My business is my life.
“Just because the income stops, the bills sure don’t.”
Losse passed the time by cleaning, organizing and revamping the store, bringing her dog for company. She also made a few back-door deliveries for clothing orders before finally getting the go-ahead to reopen May 18.
The federal Paycheck Protection Plan allowed her to bring back store manager Paula Baumgartner, but the first week was “completely dead,” Losse said.
“People were not going out,” she said. “I think they were scared. I did better with my doors locked and doing back-door delivery than I did with the doors open. The next week, it got a little better, and I’ve had two really good weeks since May 18.
“That’s not good,” she added with a laugh.
Health care impact
As in other communities, the pandemic affected health care in Roseau. The first, and perhaps most difficult, move was restricting visitors to the hospital and nursing home, said Deb Haugen, director of communications at LifeCare Medical Center.
Elective procedures were on hold for about two months from late March until May 18, but even when they resumed, people were reluctant to return, Haugen said.
LifeCare offered virtual care for behavioral health patients, Haugen said, and physicians conducted virtual visits with hospitalized COVID-19 patients as a safety precaution.
The temporary shutdown of elective procedures had a “huge impact” on LifeCare's bottom line, but the facility never furloughed any employees, according to Haugen, who said staff with lighter workloads worked in other areas, such as the nursing home, where demand for help was greater.
“Financially, it was very difficult during that time,” Haugen said. “Our revenue was much lower because of the fact we weren't doing some of those things.”
Grants helped mitigate some of the loss, she said, adding “everything is starting to roll again and getting back to the same speed it was before.”
As the pandemic enters its sixth month with no end in sight, Roseau hasn’t lost any businesses, but some definitely are struggling, said Peterson, the community development coordinator.
“I wouldn't be surprised if we lose one or two on Main Street just because they were struggling before this,” Peterson said. “This is one of those things I don't think you recover from if you're not doing well going in.”
Main Avenue looked fairly normal on a recent Thursday morning. Vehicles were parked in front of stores on both sides of the street, and Nelson’s Cafe, a Roseau fixture, was serving cabbage rolls for its noontime special, just as it does the third Thursday of every month.
Like other restaurants, Nelson’s has had to limit seating capacity, and business is down, but the community, overall, seems to be doing OK, said Donna Rose, who owns the cafe with her husband, Larry, and started working there 50 years ago.
Industries such as Polaris, Marvin Windows in nearby Warroad and Central Boiler in Greenbush help keep unemployment in check, she said.
“I think we do pretty good economy-wise, but I just think this virus is a whole different thing,” Rose said, adding the cafe’s wait staff is required to wear masks. “It just depends on how people think about it. I think a lot of young people just think it’s really no big deal. And the older people are more at risk so, of course, they take it a little more seriously.”
Pelowski and Peterson, who both helped steer Roseau through a major flood in 2002, said there was plenty of frustration after that disaster, but there also was a clear path forward.
Now, it’s a matter of waiting for the governor’s next directive and scrambling to implement it fairly with minimal hardship, they say; everything’s reactionary.
“With this, it’s like we're just sitting here going we can’t do anything about it,” Peterson said. “You just feel like everybody’s looking at you to do something and your hands are tied, and you can’t do anything.
“Everything’s out of our control.”