Hubbard County calls for reopening of businesses
The Hubbard County Board is encouraging Gov. Tim Walz to reopen bars, restaurants and other places of public accommodation while still following social distancing and Centers for Disease Control safety requirements.
The letter was set to be hand-delivered to Walz Wednesday by District 2 State Sen. Paul Utke.
Local business owners approached Hubbard County commissioners, “expressing their frustration with the executive orders that have been issued by the governor,” said County Coordinator Eric Nerness at Tuesday’s board meeting.
Nerness said there is agreement the executive orders were “solely for the preservation and protection of life and people; however, circumstances in some of our counties may be different than circumstances in metropolitan or urban counties with higher concentrations of population.”
A number of neighboring counties are also considering a resolution or letter, “asking the governor to permit counties more latitude to proceed with reopening their economy,” Nerness said, adding that this isn’t a call “for a stampede and throwing all the doors open overnight, but we do have some very serious concerns, especially with business owners who may have a seasonal business.”
Citing “a disproportionately high number of seasonal businesses, resorts, vacation rentals, guide services and the like” in rural, northern Minnesota counties, the letter notes that those
businesses “generate the vast majority of their revenue through a 10- to 14-week window,
principally late May through July, and then Labor Day, MEA week, and some high-volume hunting weekends in the fall.”
“We are not a year-round economy with every month being much the same as the next, like many larger and urban counties,” the letter continues. “We would really appreciate some stronger guidance about when we anticipate being able to reopen, so that we can market, schedule and prepare for our seasonal economies.”
County commissioners unanimously approved the letter, which concludes with, “We need to know when to begin expending scarce resources to salvage what we can from this season. Our rural economies are exceedingly fragile and seasonally dependent. If businesses fail, there will be a corresponding loss of tax revenue, increases costs for assistance, and a detrimental effect on housing, as people relocate in the hopes of finding new employment.”
Similarly, the resolution passed by the county board states that seasonal businesses “need time to plan and prepare for reopening, marketing and other efforts needed to maximize their window of opportunity, and allow time for their clients and guests to plan, as schedules cannot be changed at the flip of a switch.”
The resolution also noted that “support from unemployment benefits, DEED and SBA programs can only provide temporary and limited relief; never be a substitute for the loss of revenue, livelihoods, careers for business owners and employees; and have the added disadvantage for further straining the state budget that will ultimately have to be funded through the taxes of the very people being irreparably harmed.”
County commissioner David De La Hunt said businesses are struggling. “This is simply not sustainable,” he said of the shutdown. “If we lose our summer in this community, we will not have our community back for years.”
People are “burning through whatever cash reserves they have,” De La Hunt said. “If there is no taxpayer left to pay the bills, we’re going to be in serious trouble.”
Without free enterprise, there is no government, he said.
County commissioners Tom Krueger, Ted Van Kempen and Dan Stacey all voiced their support of the letter and resolution.
Board chair Char Christenson said, “We can’t afford to shut down any longer, not only from a monetary standpoint but also a mental standpoint.”
Park Rapids Mayor Ryan Leckner said the city council was considering a similar letter at their Tuesday meeting.
“I’m for the letter to try to open up businesses as soon as possible,” Leckner said. “Safety is very important, but I also believe our local businesses can make proper adjustments to their business to protect and be as safe as the grocery stores and Walmart.”
If COVID-19 cases got worse, “we could always close,” he added, commenting that modeling has been frustratingly “off.”
Sue Tomte agreed it was valuable to send the letter to Walz. She noted the Park Rapids Rotary Club is fundraising for the Fourth of July fireworks display “because we want to provide a sense of normalcy.”
“Fireworks are going to be a key, wonderful healing thing that is going to be happening in our community. We can all be sitting in our cars or whatever we have to do to keep our social distancing,” Tomte said.
CHI St. Joseph’s Community Health Director Marlee Morrison said the public health sector fully understands business owners’ concerns about economic impact.
The fact that widespread COVID-19 testing is still not available should also be considered, she said.
“Testing capacity is limited in Hubbard County and the whole state of Minnesota,” Morrison noted. “Without the more wide-scale testing, it’s really hard to predict and to know what is going to happen in the coming months.”
Minnesota continues to see an upward trajectory of cases of COVID-19, she said, even with the limited testing that’s being done now.
As of Thursday, Hubbard was one of nine counties in the state with no confirmed cases.
“We’re pretty much completely surrounded. As we know, the virus does not stop at county borders,” she said.
The latest modeling shows peak illness in late June or early July, Morrison continued, which is also peak tourism season in Hubbard County. “Opening up many of our businesses would bring people from the Metro to our county, which would increase the possibility of disease spread right at the time they’re predicting that illness is going to be at its peak,” she said.
The other consideration is the county’s healthcare capacity. CHI St. Joseph’s Health has five ICU beds and five ventilators. “All of our surrounding hospitals in other counties would be under the same pressure,” Morrison said.
Hubbard County Emergency Manager Brian Halbasch echoed morrison.
“Based on forecast models we’ve seen, we’re still playing a guessing game,” he said. While the peak date is unknown, “I still feel, personally, we’re going to have a spike in cases no matter what because of people that may be asymptomatic now will get back into the population.”
Ed Becker, owner of In-We-Go Resort, said they earn their annual income in two months. “I feel we can be every bit as safe as Walmart,” he said. “It’s hard for me to believe we couldn’t have some form of social distancing at the resort here.”
Becker warned, “You’re going to be missing a lot of businesses next year if they’re not allowed to make the income that they need to this year.”
A $10,000 emergency check isn’t the answer either, he said, as it won’t even pay the light bill let alone other bills.
Becker said he supported the resolution to reopen businesses. “I think we need to look through it with a multiple lens, not just the healthcare lens,” he said.
According to state government guidance, the hotel portions of resorts, including rented cabins, may open as planned and accept guests. Communal amenities may not be open for use.
While resorts can accept visitors, the stay-at-home order continues to discourage unnecessary travel and asks people to remain close to their homes.
Guests do not have to be members of a critical sector to stay at a resort.
Resorts do not have to open if they are not comfortable doing so.