Approximately 22 members of the Crosslake business community gathered Monday, May 18, at Maucieri's to discuss plans in light of the COVID-19 shutdown, with most saying their plans depend on whether Gov. Tim Walz holds firm on a June 1 reopening of restaurants and bars.

Most of those present echoed frustration that Walz is not allowing them to open once they have made a safe opening plan, saying they shouldn't have to wait until June 1 if they have safety measures ready. Most believe they are uniquely prepared to create and follow safe opening plans due to training in sanitation necessary in their fields.

In addition to representatives of the local dining community and other businesses, Crosslake Mayor Dave Nevin and Crow Wing County Commissioner Bill Brekken attended. Near the end of the meeting, Anthony Chesak, lobbyist of the Minnesota Licensed Beverage Association, participated in the meeting through speaker phone due to family business out of state.

At first, attendees appeared to be planning to abide by state orders to remain closed until June 1, though reluctantly. The tone of the meeting may have changed from when it was first planned due to word of Attorney General Keith Ellison's action against other establishments that either planned or attempted to open early.

Kris Schiffler, owner of Shady's, a chain of bars in Albany, Burtrum, Cold Spring, New Munich, Rice and St. Martin, was the target of one such action, with a threat of $25,000 fines at each location that opens early after Schiffler planned to reopen May 18. Likewise, the Pequot Lakes American Legion became the target of such a threat upon reopening Friday, May 15, after the Pequot Lakes City Council declared Pequot Lakes businesses able to open.

Those incidents likely complicated plans for those who believed the Pequot Lakes City Council's stance and the local law enforcement's directions to stand down would protect them from consequences of reopening.

In addition to fines, businesses that reopen early have to worry about licenses, permits and other documents that the state could potentially withhold from businesses that defy the order. For some bars and restaurants, a buy card allowing them to purchase alcohol in the state is perhaps the major concern since liquor licenses are technically issued more locally, though the state also approves those. Buy cards, however, are controlled directly by the state.

Brekken told those gathered that the county is working to create guidelines as part of a campaign called Lake Country Cares that local establishments may use while planning to reopen. Much like Lake Country Cares, Chesak said the MLBA is also creating guidelines that are being submitted to the state that local establishments can also use.

Business owners said they were ready to take measures to make reopening safe and sanitary, especially touting hand washing and disinfecting surfaces, though more than a few spoke in disdain or skepticism for face masks and suggested they might not have many options to prevent their guests from ignoring social distancing guidelines.

In an industry defined by a “customer is always right” perspective, establishments might have issues enforcing their own safety guidelines. One business owner used the Pequot Lakes American Legion opening on Friday, May 15, as an example, saying he stopped there and found it packed with no distancing or masks, a possible indication of what is to come once establishments do reopen in spite of guidelines.

When Pequot Lakes City Council members declared local businesses could open, they did so with the understanding that safety guidelines would be followed.

“I stopped in there on Friday afternoon to see what's going on,” the person said. “They were packed. Nobody was wearing masks. Nobody was social distancing, so I think as soon as we're all open, every single smalltown bar is going to be packed.”

Matias Latorre, of Zorbaz: Crosslake, said making a safety plan will be easy, but educating customers will likely be difficult.

“The hardest part is convincing you to follow those (guidelines) when you're out,” Latorre said. “The hardest part is making sure you do that when you are at Maucieri's. People that have been waiting too long won't care. So that means more labor for us.”

There are indications that Gov. Tim Walz might limit capacity of establishments for a “soft” reopening to 25% or 50% of full capacity. Some said such capacity would not be enough to keep them afloat. Business owners also asked how it would be possible to enforce those restrictions.

Bruce Larson, of Larson Group Realty, said removing half of all seats from the establishment could be one way to comply. Such distancing guidelines, however, may not be logical for groups that rode into the area together or are staying in the same cabin.

One owner declared he would likely open Thursday if the governor chose to extend the restrictions beyond June 1 during his conference scheduled Wednesday, May 20. Another present said they might also do so, but they agreed with the sentiment that if one opens, all should open. They did not, however, make a definitive plan to do so.

Someone suggested dining establishments that do not depend on liquor licenses and buyer's cards should be the first to do so. Again, no plans to reopen early were actually made, but merely suggested.

This was an informal meeting of business owners from the Crosslake area. Crosslake Chamber Director Cindy Myogeto said these meetings are not uncommon among Crosslake business owners whenever the local business community wants to compare notes or form a unified plan.

Travis Grimler may be reached at 218-855-5853 or travis.grimler@pineandlakes.com. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter at www.twitter.com/@PEJ_Travis.