av chamber ed kearney

From left, Apple Valley Chamber of Commerce President Ed Kearney speaks while chamber member Karen Kirkman listens at a chamber luncheon in December 2019. The Apple Valley Chamber, Burnsville Chamber, Hastings Chamber and River Heights Chamber, recently sent a jointly authored letter to Gov. Tim Walz asking for a more firm timeline for the phased reopening of businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Joint letter urges reminding customers of personal responsibility

Four Dakota County-based chambers of commerce are asking Gov. Tim Walz for a “prompt turn of the dial from ‘business closure’ to ‘business open’ with personal/consumer responsibility.”

The Apple Valley, Burnsville, Hastings and River Heights chambers (which serves Inver Grove Heights and South St. Paul) sent a letter to Walz on May 27 in response to the next phases for reopening businesses he had announced May 20.

“The frustration I hear from businesses isn’t the fact that they were closed,” said Ed Kearney, Apple Valley Chamber president. “Where they’re frustrated is there’s not a timeline. Give them a date. Give them a date so they can make firm plans.”

Opening phases

Walz’s “Stay Safe” order plan includes four phases with the second phase starting June 1. The third and fourth phases do not have specific start and end dates at this time.

The second phase in Walz’s “Stay Safe” order plan included limited outdoor dining at restaurants and bars starting June 1 and that salons and barbershops could reopen on the same date at 25 percent occupancy. In both industries, customers are recommended or required to wear masks, make reservations and adhere to social distancing requirements, according to the governor’s office.

Since March, critical businesses have been allowed to remain open with the option to telework if possible. Non-customer facing businesses could also be open with a COVID-19 preparedness plan and the option to telework.

Retail businesses could only offer curbside pickup until May 18 and were allowed to open at 50 percent capacity with a preparedness plan. They will be able to have increased capacity in the third and fourth phases.

Salons and barbershops were closed and bars and restaurants could only offer delivery and takeout until June 1. Bars and restaurants can include indoor dining in the third phase and increased capacity in the fourth phase. Salons and barbershops can have increased capacity in the third and fourth phases.

Gyms, personal fitness and yoga studios and martial arts are listed for the potential for a phased opening with capacity restrictions in the third phase and increased capacity in the fourth phase.

Entertainment businesses including bowling alleys, movie theaters and arcades are listed for a potential phased opening with capacity restrictions and social distancing requirements in the fourth phase.

Response

The announced phases took many by surprise. There was some expectation that gyms and fitness centers would be allowed to reopen in some capacity sooner, and they were stunned that no indoor service was allowed for restaurants, said Jennifer Harmening, Burnsville Chamber of Commerce president.

“Our phone lines and emails were blowing up that afternoon after the governor’s conference call,” she said. “We are the voice for business in the community. We feel like sometimes the small business voice gets lost. We felt like we needed to say something.”

In the May 27 letter, the chambers said that for the past nine weeks small businesses had been closed for the health and safety of Minnesotans. They created safe reopening plans and found new ways to serve customers.

“Unfortunately, many customer facing businesses are operating at an unsustainable level, bringing in only a fraction of typical revenue while working twice as hard and incurring higher per unit costs,” the letter said.

Harmening said some businesses are running out of money even if they had reserves to fall back on or got funding through the Paycheck Protection Program or Economic Injury Disaster Loan Program.

“Right now we already have businesses that can’t reopen that are closed permanently. We expect more of that now,” she said.

Businesses have their pandemic preparedness plans in place, which were created to follow strict guidelines from federal and state officials. Small businesses are willing to take the risk though the new plans are showing a need for more staff to serve fewer customers, the chambers said in the letter.

The chambers also said Minnesotans are now “incentivized to leave our state for recreation, entertainment and travel,” which undermines the hospitality industry and encourages greater spread of COVID-19.

The letter asks Walz to move from a short-term strategy of business closures to a long-term strategy of opening businesses with personal and consumer responsibility.

“Businesses have their plans in place, now it is time to equip our citizens with preparedness templates and expectations, including social distancing and face masks, and empower them with guidance to manage their activities and maintain their health throughout the pandemic. Please establish a more concrete, rapid timeline for opening now while reminding consumers of their personal responsibility to keep Minnesota safe,” the letter said.

Kearney said one thing that’s missing on “the dial” is the public. Businesses are ready to go but the public needs to be educated on the expectations.

“We’re asking the governor come up with the standards and enforce them and hold people accountable,” he said.

Kearney and Harmening both said the chambers have had a longstanding partnership and have frequently met virtually during the COVID-19 pandemic to address various issues locally and at the state level.

“We work together on the metro level, state level and national level. We try to coordinate efforts as much as we can,” Harmening said.

A spokesperson for Walz could not be reached for comment. Kearney said they did not expect Walz to directly respond to the letter, but to take their requests under consideration during their decision making.

Patty Dexter can be reached at patty.dexter@apgecm.com.

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