ST. PAUL — As the coronavirus pandemic takes hold in Minnesota, the state's small businesses and jobholders face tough decisions on how to proceed.

As of Monday, March 16, the state Department of Health reports that 54 people in Minnesota tested positive for COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by coronavirus. A majority of the cases are concentrated around the Twin Cities metro area.

With public schools shutting down, and colleges and universities canceling classes throughout the state, business owners weigh whether to keep their doors open or scale back their operation, while some businesses are being left with no choice. Late Monday, Gov. Tim Walz announced that he would sign an executive order that will temporarily close restaurants, bars, cafes, gyms, movie theaters and other businesses throughout the state.

Takeout and delivery will still be allowed under the order, which will not affect grocery stores and pharmacies.

What if I get sick or lose my job?

According to the state Health Department, those forced to miss work because of COVID-19 may be eligible for unemployment benefits. The same is true for those who miss work in order to care for others who take ill with it.

As the epidemic threatens to grind consumer activity to a halt, fears have mounted about widespread job loss. Minnesotans who are laid off or have their hours cut during the pandemic should also apply for unemployment, according to the state Health Department. Walz on Monday announced a separate executive order meant to beef up the state unemployment insurance trust fund.

"This will be the single largest unemployment request in Minnesota history," he said.

Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development commissioner Steve Garner said during Walz's announcement that the order will waive the waiting period that usually comes after an unemployment application is submitted, making benefits available almost immediately. Garner asked for applicants to apply for unemployment at uimn.org as DEED likely does not have the capacity to handle an expected increase in phone calls.

A DEED spokesperson on Monday, March 16, could not immediately say how many Minnesotans had applied for unemployment as a result of the outbreak.

What should I do for my employees?

State and federal health officials recommend that businesses make contingency plans for how to deal with the outbreak. Sick workers should be directed to stay home, and work-from-home options should be made available for businesses that can offer them.

Additionally, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends being flexible with sick leave options. Posting hygiene tips around the workplace is also advised.

The CDC recommends taking steps to sanitize workplace premises as usual. It also said to provide sanitizing wipes, hand sanitizer and hand soap to employees when possible.

What if I need to cut back on business hours?

Employers faced with this decision should apply for the state Shared Work Program, according to the Minnesota Health Department. It allows businesses to retain trained employees who qualify and provides them with unemployment benefits based on the amount of hours or wages they lose by up to 60%.

I might have to close my business. What should I do?

The state Health Department recommends contacting the Department of Employment and Economic Development's Rapid Response division for guidance on your specific situation. Employers considering mass layoffs should do the same.

What else is there to know?

Assistance may be available for some employers through the U.S. Small Business Administration. Brian McDonald, the director of the SBA's Minnesota office, said that the agency is working with Gov. Tim Walz's office to issue the disaster declaration needed for the Small Disaster Loan program to be activated.

McDonald could not say when the program will be made available in Minnesota, but during a phone interview Monday added that his staff worked with the governor's through the weekend on the state's application for the program. He said he expects businesses in all of the state's counties to be eligible.

Thirty-year repayment plans are available through the loan program, which can provide up to $2 million in assistance at interest rates of 3.75%.

McDonald could not immediately say how long it takes for loan applications to be approved and what the average payout offered tends to be. He said this is the first time that disaster loans would be available for a public health emergency as opposed to a natural or man-made disaster.

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