DULUTH – Monday — and the relaxation of indoor dining restrictions in Minnesota — couldn't have come soon enough for Tia Marie, the owner of UnWined Up North in Grand Rapids.
Over the past few months, she set up weekly virtual wine tasting events and digital trivia. She bought $800 worth of gift certificates from other local businesses to give away with her own.
But takeout, and those hardy enough to sip and snack by a bonfire on the shortest days of the year, weren't enough.
After sales at her wine bar and restaurant hit a new low last week, she reluctantly opened domed outdoor "igloos" after seeing many other businesses open fish houses and similar structures to help drive business during the shutdown.
"I decided, 'Why not, I am going to open the igloos or lose everything,' " said Marie, an early childhood special-education teacher by day. "I was worried about losing my business and my house, which is on the loans."
Within hours of opening up the two igloos, which retail for about $1,500 each, she said she received a call from a Minnesota Department of Health official, who said she could be cited and fined up to $5,000.
Ultimately the Department of Health did not issue a citation or fine after the igloos were again put off-limits following a visit.
But when Marie posted her story on social media, an outpouring of community support followed.
"I have tried to be so positive and everyone's cheerleader, but today I'm crushed. ... I am not sure what I have left," she wrote on Facebook in a post that reached more than 41,000 people, nearly the entire population of Itasca County.
Marie said the support from customers, the community and far-flung fans has left her feeling grateful and relieved.
"I can't say enough about our community," she said in an interview. "It really is a story about love. About one person's dream." And the community support helping her keep her dream going under awful circumstances.
UnWined opened in the heart of Grand Rapids in June 2019, and Marie said that makes the business too young to qualify for much federal or state aid meant to soften the blow of pandemic restrictions.
Despite the tough climate, county health officials said UnWined "has done a nice job following the executive order and limitations and restrictions put in place," Itasca County Health and Human Services Director Eric Villeneuve and Public Health Manager Kelly Chandler said in a statement.
"Tia has been a local champion for small businesses in our community. She's role-modeled positivity and made several accommodations because of the pandemic. Itasca County responds well to those who show this resiliency. In light of her history of following the restrictions and making accommodations, we are pleased that the state decided to waive this fine."
As news of the potential fine spread online, donations poured in and customers came out in record numbers to support the business.
UnWined manager Erin McKinney said the phone was ringing off the hook last week and the small kitchen could barely keep up.
"We're just overjoyed," she said. "The public support is astounding."
Now that Gov. Tim Walz has pulled back indoor dining restrictions — setting a 50% capacity limit and strict distancing/masking guidelines — indoor seating is back, and the igloos are now officially open for reservations.
"The staff is all hired back," Marie said Monday. "We have several reservations and everyone is overjoyed to be back in person."
McKinney said the recent wave of support will help carry the business through the next phase of the pandemic.
"It was a scary couple of months for the business," she said, "but it looks like it's all going up from here."