As Minnesota’s pandemic-related restrictions continue to financially suffocate small businesses, a rebellion in East Grand Forks brings attention to the plight of desperate business owners.
Gov. Tim Walz last month announced bars and restaurants must close for indoor service for four weeks. He also closed fitness centers and other places of entertainment. In East Grand Forks – whose main business district includes numerous eateries and entertainment-related businesses – that’s a big ask, and especially for a border town across the river from North Dakota, where mitigation efforts are less restrictive.
So it's really no surprise a mutiny has occurred, and others across the state – a coalition of more than 100 other businesses, as of Monday afternoon – are considering opening as well, despite the governor’s restrictions. The Boardwalk Bar and Grill, for instance, ignored the governor’s order and last week remained open for indoor service. That is, until Attorney General Keith Ellison intervened. Sunday, the Boardwalk’s liquor license was suspended for 60 days.
We don’t condone what the Boardwalk’s owners have done. As Ellison said, “our whole system of justice depends upon people complying.” But we don’t blame the Boardwalk or other businesses that make this decision, either.
"What have I got to lose? I have to go out fighting," co-owner Jane Moss told WDAY.
Financial losses during the shutdown have been huge, she said. She also feels responsible for her employees. And faced with losing her business, what else could Moss do?
Her plight shows why the state needs to amend the moratorium on restaurants, bars and other establishments. And here's a good development: Late Monday evening, the Legislature passed a $216 million grant program intended to help these affected businesses. As of Tuesday morning, it awaited the governor's signature.
This is a tough predicament for Minnesota small businesses, and they have the right to be frustrated. Big retail stores continue to be open throughout the state and business continues generally unabated in nearby towns in states like North Dakota and South Dakota.
This isn’t an argument against COVID restrictions – each state must make its own decisions. It is, however, an argument in favor of providing immediate and meaningful help to the businesses that are most affected and that form the bedrock of small-town main streets.
At a meeting of business owners last week in East Grand Forks, we saw the seriousness of the situation. There was obvious distress and strain. There were tears.
The state will do what it believes it should do to mitigate spread of the virus, but it absolutely must consider the burden it has put on businesses. The Legislature's aid package will help, but it's not enough. Also helpful would be a compromise that allows bars and restaurants to host socially distanced patrons (perhaps 50% of capacity) for in-house dining. The federal government needs to step in with a relief package.
Main streets are hurting and communities are on the verge of what could be permanent, and sad, changes in their business landscape. Boardwalk Bar and Grill, with its rebellion last week, has become an unforgettable symbol of that pain.