Since March, Valley Access Channels (VAC) has been hosting a series of cable programs on COVID-19 and its impact on our community. Marguerite “Margot” Rheinberger, a Stillwater native who holds an advanced degree in public health, has been the series host. The most recent program, entitled, “COVID-19: Recovery in the Valley,” looked at how the businesses in our community have addressed the challenges presented by COVID-19.
On Friday, July 17, a round-table interview in Lowell Park gave us insight to the effects of the virus, the efforts of the community, and a collective optimism for the future. Among the guests in attendance were Margot Rheinberger (host); Robin Anthony (executive director of the Greater Stillwater Chamber of Commerce); Judy Johnson (manager at Bayport American Legion); and Megan Palm (co-owner at The Daily Grind Espresso Cafe).
Throughout our treacherous battle against the pandemic, some businesses have prospered, while others have not. As many of us recall, previously popular areas like downtown Stillwater turned into “ghost-towns” when stay-at-home orders went into effect. Our community was faced with fear and uncertainty: we worried for our small businesses, we felt concern for our society’s health, and we tried our best to understand the information the government gave us. While some businesses were not able to reopen, others have come along quickly, working creatively and collaboratively to stay above water.
Some businesses have not been able to reopen because the revenue they would collect simply would not be enough to cover their expenses and staff costs. Other businesses chose not to open due to health and safety concerns. And many businesses are having a hard time getting their employees to come back to work. Currently, there are programs within Washington County to assist small businesses in retaining their employees.
As a former business owner, Robin Anthony of the Greater Stillwater Chamber of Commerce understands how difficult this time has been for our small businesses and their owners. “My focus has been helping our local businesses. It was all dependent on State and Federal governments, and they really stepped up and helped us quickly.” This is one way the government has been very helpful to our small towns and communities.
The Bayport American Legion has had to make several major changes to operations since the pandemic began. Charity, Judy Johnson says, is something that has always helped the Legion maintain its livelihood. From offering gambling and serving Friday night dinners, the Legion was able to raise $500,000 in 2019. The entirety of this funding was redistributed as charity to local school districts, sporting departments, disabled veterans, senior centers, and as Judy says, “anyone who needs our help.” However, charitable gambling came to a complete halt when COVID-19 hit our community, so all monthly donations just stopped.
Earlier in the pandemic, the Legion was only able to serve curbside dinners to its patrons. But now, Judy says, “We’re up and running, we’re movin’ and groovin’, and we’re not going to let it break us. We’re just not.” The Legion keeps a log of every single person who comes into the restaurant so that if someone gets sick, there is a record of everyone who was there that day. Half of their bar stools and tables have been removed to comply with social distancing requirements. Additionally, every guest has their temperature taken, with which Judy says her patrons are happy to comply.
The Daily Grind Espresso Cafe was never forced to close its doors, but rather to “make a shift,” owner Megan Palm says. Megan and her husband Timothy have had to bring their young children to the cafe for 107 days (and counting!) so they can do their remote learning in a separate part of the cafe. All Daily Grind employees wear masks, and they have seen a great increase in curbside orders. The Daily Grind has helped their next-door neighbor, a bookstore, sell books while they had to be closed.
“We are learning a lot,” Robin Anthony says, “And we have had to get creative. Don’t plan to only do business in one way.” We also have to do whatever it takes to stop the spread of the virus. Every one of us knows someone who is especially vulnerable to the virus, such as the elderly, infants, and immunocompromised individuals. Although there is controversy about whether masks are effective in stopping the spread of the virus, it is one small way we can make an effort to protect our most vulnerable citizens and allow others to leave their homes during these isolating times.
COVID-19 has had profound effects on our psychological and social wellness. The decrease in our ability to interact with others in-person has struck many with feelings of distress, anxiety, fear, and loneliness. Judy hopes that by the Fall, people will be able to get out of their houses even more, spend time with their families, and visit local businesses safely.
As a member of the Stillwater community, I have deeply appreciated the dedication and efforts of our local business owners and their employees to maintain their livelihood and continue serving the community safely. As Robin Anthony stated, “Our small businesses are the lifeblood of our community.” It is our hope that each of our businesses will continue to thrive, innovate, and collaborate in order to get through this tumultuous season. And always remember to support small businesses in the Stillwater area!
The next COVID-19 program hosted by VAC will be filmed at Lowell Park on August 7.
Louisa Westrup is a Stillwater native and a student at the University of Minnesota.