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Getting by: How businesses in one Greater Minnesota town are dealing with ‘social distancing’ disruptions

Bethany Lee owns The Tavern on Main
MinnPost photo by Gregg Aamot
Bethany Lee owns The Tavern on Main along with her husband, Michael.

At The Tavern on Main, a downtown café and bar in Litchfield, Minnesota, Bethany and Michael Lee had to lay off 13 workers as they try to salvage their business during the disruptive “social distancing” brought on by the COVID-19 crisis.

The Lees had to shutter their dining area, which doubles as a popular bar in the evening. But they have been selling enough takeout orders to generate about a quarter of their usual business – enough, they hope, to get them by until things return to normal.

Business only got more challenging this week when workers began digging up the road in front of the restaurant as part of a downtown redevelopment project that could last several months. “The real issue is that we are still paying bills and taxes for that period of time when we were super busy,” Bethany Lee said. “So, if we can make it through that hump, hopefully the road work won’t crush us.”

Slower than usual

Many businesses in this Meeker County town have had to close, of course, or direct their employees to work remotely in an effort to comply with Gov. Tim Walz’s request that people stay home until May 1.

Some of those businesses deemed “essential” and allowed to remain open, meanwhile, have also had to adjust – certainly glad to be open but also operating with smaller staffs or reduced services.

Bikes by Bob owner Bob Tanner has been able to keep his bike/coffee shop open on the east end of town, along Highway 12. Asked if it was a stroke of luck to be deemed “essential,” he said: “Well, I don’t believe in luck. I serve a God that is in control, you know?”

Business was down – the drive-thru was busy Tuesday, the bike shop slow – but Tanner was hopeful for a quick turnaround based on what he had been learning about efforts to contain the pandemic in other countries. He has several new bicycles in stock for what he said would usually be a very busy time of year.

Bikes by Bob owner Bob Tanner in his bike shop.
MinnPost photo by Gregg Aamot
Bikes by Bob owner Bob Tanner in his bike shop.
“We’re running at about 30 percent (of normal business) across the board,” he said. “It’s definitely slowed things down drastically.”

Nearby, the AmericInn by Wyndham, a 38-room hotel on the north side of Highway 12, also remained open. A construction crew has been staying at the hotel recently, helping to keep it afloat, General Manager Abby Hemingway said, but the number of business travelers who stay at the hotel has dropped off. “We’re still open, but it’s a little bit slower than our normal March and April,” she said.

An employee who runs the breakfast area of the hotel has been laid off but will likely be re-hired when business stabilizes, she said. Just three cars stood in the parking lot Tuesday afternoon.

‘As positive as we can’

Judy Hulterstrum, the executive director of the Litchfield Area Chamber of Commerce, said the business community was hurting, to be sure, but also sharing in a sense of solidarity. “It’s a really tough time right now because of the uncertainty,” she said, “but we’re staying as positive as we can.”

A few restaurants have completely closed, she said. The grocery stores remain vibrant, however, and several manufacturers have been able to continue operations, including Doosan Bobcat, Minnesota Rubber & Plastics and IRD Glass, she said.

About 65 people work for IRD Glass, a precision glass-components maker whose customers include the defense and aerospace industries, said Todd Anderson, the company’s vice president of business development.

IRD Glass, a manufacturer, has remained open.
MinnPost photo by Gregg Aamot
IRD Glass, a manufacturer, has remained open.
Like many counties in Minnesota, Meeker County, through its economic development authority, is offering emergency loans for businesses that have had to close or curb their operations. Litchfield is the county’s largest city with 6,200 people.

So far, so good

At The Tavern on Main, Bethany Lee mopped the floors and took out the garbage late Tuesday morning while her husband cooked. The Lees bought the place 3½ years ago and renovated it to reach a broad swath of customers, from the retirees who come for breakfast to the younger people who trickle in later for the Castle Danger and Organ Grinder craft beers.

Downtown Litchfield was quiet on Tuesday.
MinnPost photo by Gregg Aamot
Downtown Litchfield was quiet on Tuesday.
They hope to bring all of their employees back once things return to normal. In the meantime, they have helped their workers apply for unemployment insurance. (More than 255,000 Minnesotans have applied for the benefits since mid-March, according to the Department of Employment and Economic Development).

For now, the Lees will continue to put in 10-hour days, preparing about 80 meals every afternoon. “It’s working, so far,” Bethany Lee said. “It’s a small enough town that the options are limited, so people come here. That helps.”

Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Nathan Johnson on 04/02/2020 - 10:58 am.

    Litch is a great town setup to weather this storm better than others.

    Even if social distancing stands awhile, the Starlite Drive-In Cinema will likely be popular this spring/summer!

  2. Submitted by Robert Gauthier on 04/02/2020 - 11:11 am.

    Glad to see outstate respecting the isolation strategies, given some of the negative stuff you read coming out of rural areas. This will need to go on several months, am guessing more in rural areas due to limited hospital capacity in these cities.

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