On the same night an East Grand Forks bar defied restrictions Gov. Tim Walz put in place to slow the spread of coronavirus, several of the community's business owners and state lawmakers decried the latest round of restrictions and, briefly but seemingly seriously, contemplated an illegal mass reopening.
At a meeting scheduled to draw attention to their predicament and push for a new round of financial aid from the state, regional business leaders teared up as they told tale after tale of financial woe: mass layoffs, precipitous drops in revenue, higher logistical hurdles and the looming threat of permanent closure.
“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t angry,” said Bob Moore, who owns the River Cinema 15 movie theater and the mall in which it sits.
The Blue Moose, a restaurant and bar in downtown East Grand Forks, has laid off 75 of its 100 employees, according to co-owner Pat Boppre, and has cut its weekly payroll from about $40,000 to $6,000.
“And that six, we’re still losing money on,” he said, holding a stack of unemployment forms for emphasis. “You don’t make money on takeout food. You keep people employed.”
The meeting was organized by Mayor Steve Gander, who hoped to underscore the financial toll Walz’s most recent order, which bans in-person dining service and closes gyms and theaters outright, had placed on the city’s businesses. Attendees generally hoped the governor would allow the order to expire later this month.
Conversation eventually turned to the elephant in the room: the Boardwalk Bar and Grill, which owners Jane Moss and Dan Stauss reopened on Wednesday afternoon despite the governor’s order.
“We need to come up with a plan. Maybe we need to do what Boardwalk is doing. Maybe we need to just say, you know what, we’re all opening. I don’t know how our law enforcement will view that, but I think our businesses have to open up,” Rep. Deb Kiel, R-Crookston, told attendees. “If I can go shopping in Target, Walmart, and see all of these people, why can’t I go to the movie theater or the restaurant? That’s my business. I’m an American. I make those choices. If I get sick, I get sick.”
Justin LaRocque, who owns The Spud Jr. bar and restaurant, said he and Boppre had considered acting similarly during the first round of business restrictions state leaders enacted last spring and wondered what the cost would be to the city government if businesses in town reopened en masse.
“We should call that an autonomous zone, and I think we’ll be OK,” Sen. Mark Johnson, R-East Grand Forks, quipped, referring to the encampments that activists founded in Portland and Washington, D.C., amid protests over the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis last summer. Attendees chuckled.
Gander and, later, City Council President Mark Olstad said the assembled business leaders shouldn’t worry about the city’s finances or the fallout thereupon.
And the mayor warned that state powers-that-be, including Attorney General Keith Ellison, who has sued three businesses for refusing to follow gubernatorial orders during the pandemic, might come down hard on them.
“You can expect an enforcement effort the likes of which you’ve never seen. It would be upon you swiftly and like a ton of bricks, and it would not be a good thing,” Gander said. “But you guys work it out and do what you have to do. From our standpoint, I would say hang in there, let’s see what they can do in their special session. Let’s see what we can do for some special funding.”
Kiel, Johnson and the rest of Minnesota’s legislators are set to convene for their seventh special session of 2020 on Monday, Dec. 14. Walz has indicated that he wants to renew the state’s peacetime emergency, which grants him the powers he has flexed when issuing closure orders, and urged lawmakers to send to him an aid package for businesses across the state, on which Republicans and Democrats have yet to agree.
“Minnesota’s small businesses and workers are bearing a large burden of the COVID-19 pandemic in order to protect their entire community amid restrictions that are saving lives,” Walz said in a Wednesday news release. “I call upon our state Legislature to come together and ensure our businesses stay afloat, our workers are supported and our families can put food on the table.”
Forum News Service's Sarah Mearhoff contributed to this report