DULUTH – Area business groups teamed up to launch a voucher program geared at funneling money into local restaurants at a time when many are in dire need of cash.

Through the Strong Northland initiative, individuals and businesses can purchase $20 slips to be redeemed at a few dozen restaurants in the region, which have been at least partly shut down for two months due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Dining establishments remain limited to delivery and takeout options under Gov. Tim Walz's "stay safe" order, though state agencies are developing guidelines for restaurants to start reopening with social distancing measures as soon as June 1.

"We need help today. We need help so that we can survive, so that we can get back to some normalcy in our Duluth area," said Carol Valentini, the owner of Valentini's Italian restaurants in Hermantown and Duluth.

Strong Northland was organized by the Duluth and Hermantown Chambers of Commerce, Visit Duluth and Duluth's Greater Downtown Council. Duluth-based Cirrus Aircraft has already purchased 1,000 vouchers for employees.

Restaurants and bars form one of the largest industries in tourist-friendly Duluth. A study from the University of Minnesota Extension last month projected that the pandemic would cause the city to lose almost 2,000 jobs at food services and drinking places.

"Without these small businesses, big businesses like Cirrus are going to struggle as well," Valentini said at a news conference Tuesday. "Our hospitality industry is what makes the culture of Duluth what we are."

Vouchers can be purchased online and are valid through Aug. 31.