‘Fingers crossed’: East Grand Forks businesses prepare for monthlong COVID closure
The customer base at the American Legion Post #157 in East Grand Forks is generally older and heads there to socialize, which is why a new gubernatorial order in Minnesota means the post is set to close completely for the next month-plus.
Gov. Tim Walz’s sweeping new restrictions on businesses across the state mean bars and restaurants must close to dine-in patrons for four weeks beginning Friday, Nov. 20. Terry Buraas, adjutant at the Eastside legion, presumes most of his customer base would probably be disinclined to order a carryout meal, hence the outright closure.
The American Legion will rely on cash reserves while closed, but those reserves can only be stretched so far, Buraas said.
“We're gonna keep our fingers crossed,” he said. “One of these days we might have to throw the keys on the floor and leave.”
Buraas said he doesn’t believe the restrictions will prove to be effective, as people will still find ways to congregate.
The mandatory closures are worrisome but expected, according to some East Grand Forks business leaders.
“I don't think it was really any surprise when you look at the spike in COVID cases in Minnesota,” Barry Wilfahrt, president of the Grand Forks/East Grand Forks Chamber of Commerce, told the Herald Thursday, the day before Walz’s order kicked in. “Businesses, I think, in East Grand Forks anticipated that an announcement was coming.”
A few blocks from the legion on DeMers Avenue, staff at Up North Pizza Pub are brainstorming ways to minimize the financial damage they assume the order will cause. The pub, like businesses across the state, was shuttered for weeks at the outset of the pandemic, and co-owner Jesse Johnson said they plan to once again focus on curbside service, including selling frozen pizzas patrons can bake at home.
During the first go-round of mandatory closures, Up North’s revenue dropped by about 90%, Johnson said, and he had to lay off employees and cut others’ hours. The business took out a Paycheck Protection Program loan and, more recently, received $40,000 via a city grant program paid for by the multi-trillion dollar Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act. That money represents at least a third of the revenue the pub has lost during the pandemic thus far.
“ That check is going to come at a perfect timing with the shutdown that we're looking at now,” Johnson said.
He said he wasn’t particularly surprised by Walz’s latest order.
“But it's still, I guess, nerve wracking,” Johnson said.
Wilfahrt, the chamber president, said he hopes Gov. Walz and other state leaders offer some kind of financial help for businesses that will have to curtail their services for the next month.
“A targeted grant program to those businesses that are being required to close, I would say that that would be a good start,” Wilfahrt said. “In terms of how you reach the employees, do you do some kind of a credit on their taxes or is there something like that? There’s some creative ways that they can come up with to assist those employees, too.”
Wilfahrt and Paul Gorte, East Grand Forks’ economic development director, both urged Grand Cities residents to patronize local businesses more than ever.
“It’s going to be hard on everybody, and we all have to work together to support each other to get through this,” Gorte said. “That means, instead of maybe fixing a dinner at home, you buy something from a restaurant and so you take it out, you try to do things that can support the people who've been laid off for this 30-day period .... Try to make it a positive and try to help people. Buy a meal, save a restaurant.”
Walz’s order means that bars and restaurants must stop in-person service but can still do delivery and takeout. Theaters and gyms are required to shut down entirely.
As of Nov. 18, the day Walz formally announced the order, there were about 218,000 positive COVID cases recorded across Minnesota. Of those, about 3,200 were associated with outbreaks at bars and restaurants, according to epidemiologists at the Minnesota Department of Health.