A bride-to-be’s first stop would be a hand-washing station. Sales staff could wear masks and sanitize between dress fittings. Employees would have staggered hours, and customers would be instructed to wait in their cars for their appointments.
Brenda Brinkman has a plan for operating Amazing Alterations in Anoka in the age of COVID-19. She’s just not sure when she can put it into action.
Businesses are clamoring for exemptions to Gov. Tim Walz’s stay-at-home order, which is in place until at least May 4. Employers have inundated administration officials, legislators and professional organizations with requests for help since the governor shuttered nonessential businesses in March.
Nearly 80% of Minnesota jobs are estimated to be in those critical fields that are still operating, and Walz has since allowed a few more sectors, such as lawn care, to resume work. But the political pressure to loosen the rules for other companies has not abated.
When Walz announced an extension last week of the stay-at-home order, he said a group of state agency leaders would look at exemptions for more businesses over the coming weeks. According to the latest order, state officials would come up with requirements for social distancing, hygiene and public health best practices.
“If it were safe and we could protect people, we would of course start every business tomorrow. We’re not certain that’s the case,” Walz said. “But we do think that there are many out there — mowing of the golf course being one of those — that can fit social distancing, make sense [and] get things going.”
The agency heads, along with members of the business community, talked last week about letting more businesses open and operate safely. Minnesota Chamber of Commerce President Doug Loon said they are looking at the protocols essential companies use to keep their workers safe and are trying to quickly figure out how those could be applied more broadly to nonessential businesses.
Department of Employment and Economic Development Commissioner Steve Grove said Monday that the state will provide guidelines to businesses once it’s safe for them to reopen. But when that might be, he added, remains a big question.
In addition to lives, jobs and money ride on the answer.
Walz’s decision to grant more leeway for landscape and golf course maintenance workers was critical for businesses like Oak Marsh Golf Course, said Steve Whillock, the general manager at the Oakdale course. Now he and other golf industry leaders are making the case for the governor to allow people to return to the links, as some other states have done.
The course had a “practice run” operating safely with social distancing before Walz’s closure order set in, he said. They had been sanitizing cart handles, allowing only a certain number of people in their pro shop and taking other steps to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, he said.
“We want to make sure we can get the message to the governor’s office and the people who are making the decisions about how much everyone has already thought about making it safe,” Whillock said.
For some business owners, it’s frustrating to see businesses operating that seem like a higher risk while they are forced to stay closed — especially when they have plans they feel would allow them to reopen safely.
“I definitely want to be safe, and I don’t want to cross any lines,” said Amie Flaherty, a floral designer who was forced to shut down the co-working space she runs. “But knowing we can do that safely makes it hard not to be there.”
Flaherty was one of many business owners who reached out to her state lawmaker, Republican Sen. Jim Abeler, about the closures, which first hit bars and restaurants across the state. Republican legislators have been the most vocal in calling for Walz to allow more people to get back to work and revive the economy. Some of the loudest complaints have come from rural lawmakers concerned about closing Main Street businesses while major brands such as Target and Walmart remain open.
On Monday a group of restaurant owners went to the State Capitol to urge Walz to allow takeaway sales of beer and wine, a proposal that Walz and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle said they support.
Some GOP lawmakers also have called for more transparency about how new state guidelines are developed. House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, called on the Walz administration Monday to include in the planning members of the public, legislators, and representatives from small businesses and large corporations.
“It should not be up to a few commissioners in St. Paul to be the sole decisionmakers for thousands of businesses and millions of employees,” Daudt said in a statement.
Senate Republicans also want Walz to set up a plan to reopen businesses, schools and churches on May 4. Walz replied that when it comes to reopening businesses and other activities “the virus will lay out the timetable for us.” As the state waits for more testing and personal protective equipment, he said he doesn’t want a repeat of situation like that at the Smithfield Foods plant in South Dakota where hundreds of workers contracted the coronavirus.
Walz’s latest executive order is a “starting point” that opens the door to allow some nonessential businesses to resume work, said Sen. Andrew Mathews, R-Princeton.
One of Mathews’ constituents runs a marina and boat shop on Mille Lacs Lake and was pressing for the business to be allowed to resume operations. Staff there could operate on opposite ends of a warehouse where boats are stored and prepare the boats for customers without having to come in contact with anyone, Mathews said. He would like to let business owners come up with their own ideas for how they can operate safely and present them to state health officials for review.
“This would help alleviate the unemployment claims we have backing up right now,” he said.
It’s not just small companies that are pushing for more leeway. La-Z-Boy CEO Kurt Darrow sent the National Governors Association a letter outlining their protocols for cleaning, social distancing and monitoring employees’ health. He asked policymakers to allow furniture retailers to be in the first wave of nonessential businesses that reopen.
Walz said he is talking with leaders in surrounding states about the lockdown orders they have in place. The vast majority of states have blocked people from working in-person unless it’s for an essential business, according to National Governors Association data. What is included as an essential business can vary.
In the meantime, many businesses continue to make the plea to reopen with safety measures in place, arguing that additional weeks of lost income could be ruinous.
“I just don’t want to lose my business,” said Brinkman, who runs the clothing alterations company. “If we’re doing everything that we’re supposed to be doing, how can we not be open?”