Businesses in the region that have been shuttered for weeks by the pandemic are gearing up to reopen their doors, but they don’t expect things will suddenly be back to normal Monday morning.
To say that the owners of Mill Pond Mercantile in New London are eager to reopen their gift and home decor shop would be an understatement.
“I cannot tell you how thrilled and relieved we are,” said Ginny Knapp, who owns the popular store with co-owner Anita Stulen.
“This is our livelihood. This is how we connect with people. This is our paycheck,” said Knapp.
The state has been under a stay-at-home order since March 27. While some modifications have been made over the weeks, Gov. Walz announced Wednesday that the stay-at-home order would be allowed to expire Sunday.
He has issued a new order taking effect Monday that would, among other things, allow many more businesses to open their doors to shoppers, at 50 percent capacity. Bars, restaurants and salons remain closed.
Aaron Backman, executive director of the Kandiyohi County and City of Willmar Economic Development Commission, said the industries hardest hit by the pandemic have been food service and health care, while lately more from transportation and warehouses have started applying for unemployment benefits.
The eased restrictions will help some of Kandiyohi County’s businesses but not all.
“There is some opening of things, but there is still an impact on a number of our businesses,” Backman said.
Other than two stores — Dunham’s and Paradise Pools and Spas that were considered essential and three businesses that offered curbside pickup — all the other stores in the Kandi Mall in Willmar have been closed.
Now the mall is preparing to open its doors Monday morning and will resume regular hours of 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Saturday and noon to 5 p.m. on Sunday.
However, not all retailers in the mall will open immediately.
John Vornholt, Kandi Mall general manager, said it will take time for stores to reorganize and prepare for customers but that “over the coming days and weeks,” he’s confident the mall will be operating fully.
Businesses in the region that have been operating through the pandemic have been implementing measures to protect customers and employees, according to public health workers in the region.
“I’ve been very impressed with many local businesses that are implementing measures,” said Jill Bruns, director of Renville County Public Health.
Countryside Public Health, which serves Big Stone, Chippewa, Lac qui Parle, Swift and Yellow Medicine counties, is also responding to businesses looking to increase safety protocols, according to Liz Auch, the agency’s director.
Since the pandemic started, the agency’s staff has made contact with every restaurant in the five counties to provide them information. They field a lot of calls too, including from many who want to voice their concerns about the challenges they face.
“It’s a really difficult time for all of our communities,” Auch said.
Mill Pond Mercantile co-owner Stulen said the weeks of being closed in response to the state’s action to prevent the spread of COVID-19 were “bleak,” “sad” and “anxiety producing.”
They used the time for some behind-the-scenes cleaning, painting and rearranging of displays. As a way to generate some revenue, they provided curbside pickup and recently had allowed groups of up to three to shop by appointment.
They have plans to meet the required guidelines to ensure customer safety when they open the doors at 9 a.m. Monday.
A greeter will be at the door to help maintain the flow of traffic to make sure they don’t exceed the 50% maximum capacity in the store.
Stulen said they will have hand sanitizer at the door and will “strongly encourage” customers to wear masks. There will be masks for sale for those who don’t have one.
“We know requirements and we will follow them to the best of our abilities,” said Stulen. “We are excited to finally be open,” she said.
The Kandi Mall in Willmar during the shutdown has been thoroughly cleaned to “present the safest environment possible under the guidelines set by the state of Minnesota,” Vornholt said.
Safety standards, rules and regulations will be posted at each entrance. Vornholt said mall management and merchants will share the responsibility of complying with the state’s safety guidelines.
“We are excited for the opportunity to reopen Kandi Mall. It is promising news not only for Kandi Mall but the entire Willmar area retail community,” he said “We have missed you and look forward to seeing you soon.”
Knapp, Mill Pond Mercantile co-owner, said the mandated closure of small shops, when larger stores were open, didn’t seem fair.
”We’re thrilled to have our hat in the ring again,” she said.
Awaiting June 1
Businesses including bars, restaurants and salons where customers interact closely with one another for an extended period are planned for a phased reopening starting June 1. The governor has ordered three state departments to develop a plan by May 20 to achieve safe reopening.
Michele Mithaugen, manager of the American Legion in New London, said the Legion will open June 1 if that date remains in place.
“Everything is so unpredictable,” she said.
The Legion has seen strong community support for its carryout menu through the pandemic — delivery and carry-out have been allowed — but Mithaugen said she doesn’t think things will be back to what we once knew as “normal” for a long time.
She is preparing a variety of measures — from separating tables to limiting the number of guests — to assure safety.
Hair salons and barbershops have been hard hit by the closure order, and their owners are more than ready to reopen.
“If they told me to open, I’d run down there right now,” said Jennifer Long, owner of Shear Magic Salon and Fitness in Madison. “It has been challenging when you lose your income.”
Long said she had purchased disposable masks and an ultraviolet sanitizer wand before the governor issued the emergency order that closed her business. She said hair salons have always complied with state guidelines to prevent the transmission of disease, and are more than ready to resume operations with safety in mind.
Her customers live only a 20-minute drive from competitors in South Dakota which have been allowed to remain open, but Long is confident she will be very busy when she and her two employees reopen.
Customers of Salon Nouveau in Willmar have been extremely patient, according to owner Jennifer Lothert.
“It’s amazing. I can’t believe the patience people have. I could just cry when I think about it,” said Lothert.
She and two other cosmetologists are each separated by walled partitions, which will allow distancing. Along with procedures to sanitize and disinfect equipment and supplies, Lothert said she will be implementing additional measures such as taking temperatures to protect customers and the stylists.
There’s no need to remind cosmetologists about the importance of safety. “Because if we do get sick, what happens? We have to quarantine and we’re out again so it’s just a real fine line we walk.,” she said.
It’s 58 days now that the business has been closed, and June 1 cannot come soon enough, she said. “So excited. We can’t wait. We miss our clients. We miss everybody.”
Law enforcement continues to educate
While the new executive order outlines fines and possible imprisonment for violating the order, law enforcement in Kandiyohi County plans to focus on education if they need to bring people into compliance, an enforcement plan they have continued since the original order was signed March 25.
Willmar Police Chief Jim Felt said his department will not be monitoring capacity levels at businesses and any investigations into violations will be complaint-based.
“In the event of an immediate danger, our office may be required to take action and we strongly urge compliance,” Felt wrote via email. “For unsafe or unhealthy condition complaints, we’ll be referring those to the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry which can issue citations, civil penalties or closure orders.”
These enforcement measures were echoed by Kandiyohi County Sheriff Eric Holien, who said business owners who violate the order are at risk from actions from state agencies and regulatory boards that have oversight.
“We will use our discretion and guidance from the Department of Public Safety to investigate and educate,” Holien wrote via email.
Possible penalties for a person violating the order include conviction of a misdemeanor punishable by a fine not to exceed $1,000 or imprisonment up to 90 days.
Any business owners, managers or supervisors that encourage employees to violate the order are guilty of a gross misdemeanor that may include a fine of $3,000 and imprisonment up to a year.
West Central Tribune by Tom Cherveny │Carolyn Lange │Shelby Lindrud │Mark Wasson