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Senate GOPers push bill to allow Minnesota businesses to apply to reopen

DEED Commissioner Steve Grove said the measure would create a logistical nightmare for the state. 

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Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

With little to no revenue during the COVID-19 pandemic and Gov. Tim Walz’s stay-home order, some Minnesota businesses say they’re teetering on the edge of permanent closure and hoping the state will let them reopen.

While the Walz administration is still developing plans for relaxing public health restrictions, a  Republican-led group of state lawmakers has a new proposal aimed at speeding the government along. A bill introduced by Sen. Andrew Mathews, R-Princeton, would allow businesses to apply for permission to reopen if they have a plan to safely operate. And the measure would require a yes-or-no-answer from the Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) within three business days.

The measure represents the first attempt by the Republican-controlled Senate to use legislation to pressure Walz to open the economy faster. It comes amid growing frustration within the GOP over the governor’s plans. On Monday, Mathews’ bill got a hearing in the Senate’s Jobs and Economic Growth Finance and Policy Committee.

Steve Grove, the DEED commissioner, told the Senate panel it would be a logistical nightmare for the state to review thousands of individual business plans. The Walz administration’s stay-home order has been less stringent than many other states, but the governor has warned against hasty reopening that could reignite the spread of COVID-19, a disease that has so far killed 160 Minnesotans, hospitalized 629 and forced a Worthington pork plant to shut down indefinitely.

Mathews’ measure, however, was met with support by other Republicans, and even has one Democratic cosponsor. “What you feel in this bill is a sense of urgency that we need to move more quickly,” Mathews told the committee.

Three days for state response

Walz has asked his cabinet members to help create plans to reopen the economy after his stay-home order expires May 4. And while that strategy hasn’t been released, state leaders have been clear they want individual businesses to create plans for operating safely. In the meantime, they’ve also let a few industries go back to work — including golf courses and garden centers.

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But most other businesses haven’t been given the green light. About 18 percent of the state’s labor force is considered non-essential. Bob Riegelman, president of the Riedell Skates manufacturing company in Red Wing, told the Senate panel he has developed extensive plans to keep workers safe, from daily temperature checks to masks, hand sanitizer stations, staggered lunch breaks and more. 

And while Riegelman said his business is similar in nature to Red Wing Shoes, located just 500 yards away from his facility, the shoe company is essential and allowed to operate while he sits shuttered. A federal loan from the Small Businesses Administration has helped Riedell for now, but Riegelman said they’re losing customers “right and left” because they can’t build roller and ice skates to fill orders. “We will have nothing to sell very shortly and we will be gone,” he said.

Mathews bill would still leave Walz’s administration in charge of deciding which businesses can open. But it would make DEED begin taking applications from businesses outlining how they would minimize or eliminate contact between staff and customers, as well as take proper healthy and hygiene measures.

The bill would then set a time limit of three business days for DEED to approve or deny the application. Mathews said the measure would give businesses some certainty, and a shot at reopening swiftly. While business owners have hung on for weeks, draining reserves and in some cases the personal savings of owners, it “could end up being too little too late,” if the state doesn’t intervene soon, Mathews said.

DEED: plan not ‘prudent or even reasonable’

Grove said he shared the GOP goal of quickly opening up businesses that can safely do so. DEED released a template Monday for businesses to devise their own plans for operating and minimizing risk of COVID-19 spread.

But Mathews’ measure would require a massive and likely unrealistic effort by his agency, Grove said. The commissioner estimated it would take a couple hundred staff to set up such an operation and vet each plan. Last week, describing DEED’s efforts, Grove told the Senate’s jobs committee they hoped to avoid such involvement in the minutiae of each business even as they decide who can go back to work.

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“That’s not a scale or scope or role that we think government should play,” he said. “Now we can maybe see those plans if there are complaints coming in. But reviewing those plans does not seem prudent or even reasonable.”

The Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, which has pushed for more businesses to restart but also worked closely with the Walz administration in recent weeks, also opposed Mathews’ bill. 

Lauryn Schothorst, the Chamber’s director of workplace management and workforce development policy, said the inability to process a flood of applications could “further delay” businesses from opening. Meanwhile, the paperwork involved would be another hurdle for businesses stretched thin. “Practically speaking, there are hundreds of thousands of businesses in the state,” Schothorst said. “For those who are not currently deemed essential, we don’t believe it should be even harder for them to open their doors.”

Instead of Mathews’ bill, Schothorst urged legislators to delay a May 15 property tax deadline “to keep cash flow available for payroll and operations” of businesses, and also said the state should pay for more testing to track community spread of COVID-19. Walz has said Minnesota should have capacity to do 40,000 tests a week. In recent weeks, the state has tested between 8,000 and 11,000 per week. 

The Chamber on Tuesday released lengthy “best practices” guidelines for businesses hoping to open.

Toward the end of the hearing, Mathews said his bill was meant to begin a conversation on reopening the economy quickly, and he said he was trying to get a DFL sponsor in the Democratic-led House to garner bipartisan consensus. But Mathews also said that if it’s easier or faster to do so without legislative action, that’s something he would support. 

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The GOP also used the hearing Monday to let businesses make the case for speedy help. Lynn Loehr, owner of GG Pretty Things boutique in Prior Lake, said her business has adapted to rely on local delivery, curbside pickup and offering “deep” discounts online. But current income is about 15 percent of normal. She and seven other boutiques in downtown Prior Lake hatched a plan to create a “safe shop zone” where all the stores adhere to common rules like limiting the number of customers in the store and sanitizing fitting rooms after each use. 

For now, however, those plans are awaiting government input.

“I’ve been in daily contact with the other boutique owners in Prior Lake, and we’re not talking about weeks any longer with some of these businesses, we’re talking about days,” Loehr said of how long the companies can hold on. “I don’t know that all of them will be able to come back … We need help, soon. Very soon.”