HUTCHINSON, MINN. – The inescapable trade-off between saving her business and saving lives weighs heavily on Sara Pollmann.
Her husband is a physician who works on the coronavirus task force at the local hospital. Meanwhile, their restaurant is on life support after the state shut down dine-in service almost six weeks ago.
“I do believe we should be closed,” she said. “And we may lose our business.”
As Gov. Tim Walz begins to relax restrictions on some businesses and return as many as 100,000 Minnesotans to work in the week ahead, the calculus of gently reopening the state’s economy has begun.
In this community of 15,000 on the south fork of the Crow River, businesses are straining under efforts that so far seem to have kept the worst of the pandemic’s spread at bay. McLeod County has three known cases of COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus, but no deaths.
Last week, the County Board urged Walz to end the stay-at-home order on May 4 and let businesses in the community about 60 miles west of Minneapolis open up in a “safe and responsible manner.”
“This resolution doesn’t say we want to open it up too fast,” said Joe Nagel, chairman of the McLeod County Board of Commissioners and a police sergeant in Hutchinson. “We want to let the governor’s office know rural Minnesota is hurting.”
Many business owners, including Pollmann, believe they should be trusted both to reopen and to take precautions that will protect their employees and the public. It’s time, many said, for society to figure out how to live with the coronavirus.
“We sanitize pens between each person, we sanitize the board they sign between every person,” said Pollmann, whose eatery offers a limited menu of its artisan pizzas and other locally sourced meals for curbside pickup and delivery.
She’s making about 15% of typical sales at Zellas, a special-occasion restaurant on Hutchinson’s Main Street that she and her husband, Brian, bought in 2016.
She weighs the limited income against sometimes crushing fears that the decision to remain partly open will expose Zellas’ general manager and delivery driver to unnecessary health risks.
“We’re all trying to make the best choices,” Pollmann said with a loud sigh, “and the economy’s going to suffer. But the economy would suffer if we lost 5% of our population here in Hutch, too. It’s a hard time.”
McLeod County has long been reliably Republican, voting for GOP presidential candidates 90% of the time going back to 1897, when William McKinley was elected.
Donald Trump won the county by one of the highest margins of victory in Minnesota.
Still, Nagel and many business owners were quick to convey their support of Walz’s handling of the crisis and say they are prepared to heed the warnings of health officials who fear risking a second wave of illnesses by restoring some freedoms.
“The vote was not to disrespect the public health community,” Nagel said. “I believe and trust what they are doing. I just hope we can find the right balance.”
Joe McCormick is ready to go back to business.
He shut down McCormick’s Family Restaurant on the south side of town last week, realizing he couldn’t survive on takeout alone. A display once stocked with homemade pies and cinnamon buns sits empty, and he has laid off 30 employees, some of whom had worked there more than 15 years.
“We’re all clear on the potential risks, and it’s up to every individual to make their choice,” he said. “I choose to go. Not in a way that’s reckless, but in a way that’s safe so we can gradually start moving back into normalcy, whatever that will be.”
McCormick’s father built the restaurant 40 years ago and then bought it in 1997. For two generations it has been a go-to spot to hang out over a cup of coffee and dip a fork into comfort food made from scratch.
McCormick doesn’t expect to see a packed lobby on weekends. But he said he believes he can revive the business if he cuts the dining room capacity in half, takes precautions to disinfect and outfits his staff in masks and gloves.
“I look around here at Target, Walmart and Menards, and there are 300 cars sitting out there all day long, and we have three people in this county that have been diagnosed,” McCormick said. “People are doing it, so why can’t we control it at 50% capacity?”
As the weather warmed up last week, tee times began filling up at Hutchinson’s golf courses and more bicyclists headed off to the Luce Line State Trail. Four weeks into the state’s stay-at-home order, people mostly kept their distance as they strolled along the river walk downtown and stopped at the popular Humpty Dumpty sculpture.
Signs at the Chamber of Commerce headquarters and Citizens Bank offered encouraging messages to #StayHomeMN.
But there is evidence of strain. There’s a sizable agriculture industry that already had been hit hard by tariffs. Major events at the county fairgrounds are starting to cancel, along with the Windstock Country Music Festival, heading toward its 27th year.
More than 2,000 families showed up on April 9 for free bags of eggs and potatoes.
“People were in tears,” said Mary Hodson, president of the Chamber of Commerce, which co-sponsored the event with Michael Foods. “We had families who were living in vehicles, people we wouldn’t have necessarily expected to see in the line.”
The Citizens Bank of Hutchinson processed more than 240 loans worth more than $20 million under the federal government’s Paycheck Protection Program, or PPP. Another 40 applications are at the ready for Monday, when applications start on the second round. The loans are forgivable if businesses use the money for payroll, utilities and real estate costs.
“That shows you the need,” said Tim Ulrich, the bank’s chief executive.
He said the program doesn’t work for everyone. The owners of bars and restaurants, dentists and chiropractors, and such one-on-one service businesses as hair salons are reluctant to take a loan when they can’t put people to work. Many are hoping Walz will end his stay-at-home order — issued first for two weeks and then extended another two weeks through May 3.
“Everybody’s got May 4 in the back of their mind, where they’re anticipating some kind of partial relief,” Ulrich said. “If that gets delayed, people will be disappointed.”
A road headache
Until the coronavirus began spreading across the globe, most businesses in Hutchinson thought their biggest threat was a six-month road resurfacing project on Hwy. 15, which began two weeks ago and cuts through the center of downtown.
“Now it just feels like piling on,” said Leah Watzke, owner of the Hair Lounge.
Watzke’s salon and spa services shut down seven weeks ago, and neither she nor the four contractors who rent booths have been able to draw unemployment. Just on Friday, Minnesota began to offer unemployment assistance, helped by federal funds, for contractors, the self-employed and others who don’t usually qualify for it.
“We were asked to close our doors, basically with no help,” she said. “I can’t clear out my family’s entire savings just to stay above water so that at some point I can go back to work.”
Forty-five customers have called to reschedule appointments, and Watzke estimates that between haircuts, waxes and colors, she’s missed out on 200 services.
Now Watzke is preparing for the day when she can open the doors again, by rearranging the salon to give each stylist a separate room. She’s preparing a written plan with photos, and expects to work 10-hour days for a month to catch up.
“Just because I want to go back to work doesn’t mean I want to get sick or make people sick,” she said. “What if somebody comes in who isn’t feeling well? It’s a push-pull internally. One day I’m fine, the next day I’m in a complete panic.”