It had been more than two months since the coronavirus pandemic threw Minnesota’s economy into chaos, and only days before George Floyd’s death would introduce a new sort of tumult to the Twin Cities. Weekdays and weekends were blending into each other, all consumed by work. Steve Grove needed a break.
On a beautiful Saturday afternoon in late May, Grove, the commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, hopped on his bicycle in Linden Hills and, with his 3-year-old twins towed in a bike trailer, went for a ride. Near the Lake Harriet Band Shell, they paused for ice cream and cheese curds. His wife, Mary, watched the twins throw flower petals into the lake while Grove made a few phone calls in advance of the governor’s announcement of a phased reopening of churches that afternoon.
However briefly, it felt like they were human again.
Then they loaded the kids back up. Mint chocolate chip ice cream fell to the ground. Their bike fell over, twice. And on the ride back home, the skies opened up, a colossal downpour drenched Grove and his wife from head to toe as the kids screamed in delight from the shelter of their trailer.
This was not the plan.
For the former Google executive, who took over as the state’s economic czar in 2019 after returning to his home state the year before, not much has been going according to plan these days. It certainly was not the plan to, in a few chaotic months, shift from near record-low unemployment and a focus on the “innovation economy” to a time where the state’s and nation’s economies resemble the Great Depression more than any time since World War II.
“The idea that anybody who’s here to help grow the economy would have to focus on pausing the economy for the sake of public health is really unfathomable,” Grove said. “But it’s what this time required, and ultimately it’s what we needed to do to keep our economy safe. It’s not just public health or the economy on an either-or spectrum. It’s all interrelated. And that’s what makes this so challenging.”
It also was never the plan to, in the midst of this pandemic, be visiting with Lake Street businesses destroyed by fires and looting that caused an estimated $100 million to $150 million in damage to buildings in Minneapolis alone, according to preliminary city numbers. In person and on Zoom calls, Grove has spoken with business owners affected by the destruction when protests after Floyd’s death turned violent, as well as legislative and city leaders.
He asks what the businesses need. At first, the most pressing need was security. Eventually, they say, they’ll need funds to rebuild, and assurances that the rebuilding process will not gentrify these economically diverse neighborhoods. The message: “You better get this right this time.”
There’s been the same feeling with the economic fallout of the pandemic: The Walz administration better get it right, though there are no obvious solutions.
Since the virus paralyzed America in March, the ongoing discussions in the Walz administration and in state governments throughout the country have been a push-pull between the desire to restart an economy that locked down for much of spring and the pressing public health concerns over the spread of a mysterious new virus.
In Walz’s cabinet meetings on Zoom, Grove tends to be more aggressive on the economy than Jan Malcolm, public health commissioner. But there have been plenty of times when Grove makes public health arguments while Malcolm makes economic arguments.
Grove started having weekly calls in March with a dozen or so economic leaders — heads of large corporations, owners of smaller businesses, labor leaders — to get their unvarnished (and confidential) thoughts on the state government’s latest moves. In these calls, he tries to take a weekly temperature from business leaders and present those thoughts to the governor.
“You need to hear the good, the bad and the ugly, otherwise you’re the emperor with no clothes on,” said Mark Urdahl, president and CEO of Red Wing Shoe Co. “And nobody wants to be that.”
According to those on Grove’s weekly calls, the commissioner mostly just listens. Before the June 1 reopening of restaurants and hair salons, he asked for input on the state’s plan. It was too cumbersome and detailed, business leaders told him, and needed to be pared down for overwhelmed business owners. So the state revised it to be more straightforward.
“I don’t hear political rhetoric, but I do hear an increasing urgency from people and a concern for the communities they live in,” said Traci Tapani, co-president of Wyoming Machine, a contract manufacturing company in Stacy.
“People realize we can’t stay locked down forever,” said Rod Young, CEO and president of Delta Dental of Minnesota, a dental insurance company. “They also realize that coming back too soon could be a challenge.”
What Grove and others in state government know is there are no perfect decisions with COVID-19. That’s why Walz refers to it as a dial; it’s a delicate balance of slowly reopening the economy while minding public health concerns. And when nationwide protests over Floyd’s death have their epicenter in the Twin Cities, and bring thousands of people in close physical contact, that delicate balance can burst in a matter of days.
The most difficult decisions have had to do with small businesses; when Grove was growing up in Northfield, his dad owned a landscaping company with a half-dozen employees. Decisions about shutting down small businesses have been excruciating.
“For a business that’s not open, these are their lives for them, food on their table,” Grove said. “To say you’re a noncritical business — noncritical? Noncritical to who?
“There are lots of fairness questions there are not good answers to,” he continued. “This whole issue for several weeks, small retailers saying to us, ‘I don’t understand why Walmart is cranking in the revenue and I can’t be open.’ They’re 100 percent right. In the bigger picture, there’s a reason. … But there’s no perfect decision.”
Grove kept hearing complaints about Minnesota’s Largest Candy Store in Jordan. It stayed open because it sells food — but as the huge sign says next to the highway, it’s a candy store.
As the pandemic has worn on, the definition of what is “critical” has crumbled, Grove said, as many businesses permanently shuttered and the national unemployment rate skyrocketed. Last week, nearly 2 million Americans filed new claims for unemployment. But some hopeful notes came Friday, when the Labor Department announced improving unemployment numbers — from 14.7% in April to 13.3% in May — and that employers had added 2.5 million jobs in May.
The June 1 phase of the economy’s reopening was disrupted by the violence. But state government remains on edge to see if Minnesota has struck the right balance. Another marker comes on Wednesday, when the dial increases again: limited indoor dining, indoor entertainment at movie theaters and other venues, fitness club usage, and outdoor entertainment of up to 250 people.
“When I say getting it right, if we open retail and the whole state decides there’s no reason to take precautions, that’s our biggest concern,” Grove said. “It’s summer. We’re trying to loosen this. [The June 1 reopening] is really tough because it’s no longer a stay-at-home order.
“Did we nail the decision right, so that people can get back to it but do it in a safe way, where we don’t get overwhelmed?”
This time, Grove hopes things go according to plan.