EVELETH — Local business owner Margie Koivunen conducted a little experiment during an informal meeting Tuesday afternoon with Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) Commissioner Steve Grove.
She asked the local restaurant and bar owners in attendance to stand during the listening session, held in the outdoor courtyard at Eggy’s Red Garter in Eveleth.
Koivunen, owner of Margie’s Roosevelt Bar, just down the road in Eveleth, had the owners take a seat when a statement applied to their business during the coronavirus pandemic.
How many, she inquired, have taken out a bank loan, laid off or terminated employees, dealt with stress, anxiety and depression?
Quickly, all were seated.
“I’ve long since sat down,” Koivunen said, standing with the microphone.
State Rep. Dave Lislegard, of Aurora, helped organize the meeting with Grove. They were joined by State Sen. David Tomassoni, of Chisholm, and Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board Deputy Commissioner Jason Metsa.
The session was aimed to provide a chance for Iron Range small business owners, particularly those in the bar and restaurant sector, to voice concerns of how their establishments have been affected by COVID-19 restrictions.
“We are here to listen,” said Grove, adding that before the state can take action, honest feedback is needed.
Business owners, including Deb Judnick of Eggy’s bar and John Sniderich, an owner of the Village Inn restaurant in Virginia, expressed their struggles to stay open with limited capacity and other restrictions — especially in an area that is not a COVID-19 hotspot compared to the Twin Cities and more populous areas of the state. They also talked about difficulties of obtaining Small Business Administration loans.
“We want to know how (Minnesota) Gov. (Tim) Walz is going to make us whole again,” said Koivunen, adding that she continually contacted state government offices by phone and email seeking help, but received no responses.
No industry has been impacted more by the pandemic than hospitality, Grove noted.
Those businesses are the ones that “make life worth living” by providing a social atmosphere, he said. However, wearing masks and staying 6 feet apart impede that socialization. “It’s heartbreaking and incredibly challenging.”
The business owners agreed that no one wants customers or employees to get sick.
However, they are encountering financial and emotional issues of their own.
Judnick said her bar was among many that lost revenue by not being able to hold major summer events. She had to sink earnings from her other job into the business, she said.
Sniderich said the Iron Range is no stranger to hardships, with a long history of weathering the ebb and flow of mining downturns. But this challenge has been unlike any other, with complete uncertainty and no end in sight for the pandemic.
He said the restaurant has been losing many longtime older employees, who are having a hard time wearing masks. He is also concerned for kitchen employees working over a 350-degree grill. Cooks often take breaks, walking into the coolers to catch a breath and cool down after long periods of mask wearing.
Sniderich added that restaurants have invested many thousands of dollars they don’t have into complying with printing disposable paper menus.
He also noted that the 50 percent capacity rule may seem reasonable, but establishments are not 50 percent full all day long, especially since the public is still leery about being in public settings.
“We are at the point where we are all getting scared,” he said. “We are worried about what will happen to us in this little area of northern Minnesota.”
Bank representatives Jon Hoel, president of Miners National Bank of Eveleth, and Marci Knight, chief marketing officer at American Bank of the North, said community members have been requesting delayed payments during the pandemic.
Grove said the state is considering increasing table size limits, which are currently at six people per table, “especially with the holidays coming up.”
The commissioner said he empathizes with small businesses. He grew up working for his dad’s small landscaping business.
Grove also mentioned DEED’s Shared Work program option, which allows businesses to retain all employees but cut their hours, which are then filled in by Unemployment Insurance. For example, rather than terminating a 40-hour employee, a business could reduce two employees’ hours to 20 per week.
It was also noted that the IRRRB has money available in the Entrepreneur Fund, and the City of Eveleth is working on a forgivable loan program.