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One year of COVID-19: Northern Brainerd lakes area communities take the good with the bad

It has been a year since COVID-19 came to Minnesota, and community members are learning to make things work.

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It has been 365 days since COVID-19 gripped the nation, state and local communities.

Over the past year, area communities at virtually every level have had to learn how to live and conduct business differently in an effort to slow the spread of the respiratory disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

Many did so in unique ways.

Pequot Lakes Schools Superintendent Chris Lindholm called the state’s “continually moving” parameters one of the greatest stumbling blocks he and the school district have had to deal with in the past year. He also pointed to the highly contentious political disputes surrounding the pandemic as a point of tremendous challenge.

“I keep thinking I could navigate a pandemic if the politics weren’t so hot, and I could deal with the politics if we weren’t in a pandemic,” Lindholm said. “When you put them together, I just think, ‘holy cow.’ That has made for a very difficult environment over the past 12 months.”

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"I keep thinking I could navigate a pandemic if the politics weren't so hot, and I could deal with the politics if we weren't in a pandemic. When you put them together, I just think, 'holy cow.'"

— Pequot Lakes Schools Superintendent, Chris Lindholm.


But in those struggles, the school district managed to come up with plans to make education work, including distance learning for those that need it and in-person learning and activities conducted in the safest manner possible.

“I’ve learned that we can really be flexible and creative, and pivot quickly and make changes when we come together and work against the common adversity,” Lindholm said. “Time after time, I’ve seen our staff come together and be part of making solutions.”

Pine River-Backus Schools Superintendent Jon Clark noted similar challenges with changing information. He said it was difficult when communication and directions were coming from several jurisdictions at once.

"I think the biggest challenge for me was keeping up with all the incoming communications coming from the county level, state level, national level, Minnesota Department of Education, Minnesota Department of Health and just keeping up with all the different information that was coming and making sure it got dispersed appropriately and timely to all the groups that needed it - the staff, the community and teachers," Clark said. "That almost became a full-time job, especially this fall when everything was new."

Clark was also surprised at the polarizing nature of the pandemic.

"The biggest surprise was how political COVID-19 was and the dealing with it," Clark said. "I think if it was just medical it might have been a bit easier. But in this big election we went through and everything, I think that surprised me a little bit on how much that played into the state's response and how we needed to respond as a school district."

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"The biggest surprise was how political COVID-19 was and the dealing with it."

— Pine River-Backus Schools Superintendent, Jon Clark.


Zaiser’s owner Biff Ulm, like many business owners, saw some financial ramifications in the early months of the pandemic when many shops had to close temporarily. But the Main Street, Nisswa, business owner said he saw the safety requirements of reopening as one of the greatest challenges.

“You’re darned if you do and darned if you don’t with COVID,” Ulm said. “Just trying to manage how we can best serve our customers - and serve them all equally - has been one of our biggest challenges.”

Months-long shutdowns last spring meant 2020 was certainly a down year for many in the retail industry, but Ulm said Zaiser’s “made up a lot of ground” beginning in late summer and through the holiday season.


"You're darned if you do and darned if you don't with COVID. Just trying to manage how we can best serve our customers - and serve them all equally - has been one of our biggest challenges."

— Zaiser's owner Biff Ulm.


“It was a really rough spring for us,” Ulm said. “Once we hit July and August, honestly, we have felt so blessed that our customers have supported us so well. People are making a conscious decision of where they want to spend their dollars, and we’re just happy that people have done that with us.”

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The pandemic was obviously difficult for those in retail and food service, but it also had a tremendous impact on other industries, like salons. Cindy Couture, owner of Salon Couture on Government Drive in Pequot Lakes, said last spring brought plenty of hardships, but once businesses reopened, the salon struggled not only with canceled appointments, but a large number of “no-shows” throwing off schedules.

In addition to business struggles, Couture also has two school-aged children, and she said keeping students on task during distance learning proved to be difficult at times, especially for middle-schoolers.

“It’s hard for a boy that age to stay on task as it is, let alone when your parents aren’t there and your teachers aren’t there, so he can get distracted easily … There is just so much crucial stuff (to learn) at those ages,” she said.

As a parent of student-athletes, Couture has seen some benefit to the early end to the school day, as game day no longer means her kids miss the final class of the day. However, she worries about a lack of social interaction for her kids, particularly her senior, when they are stuck learning from home.

The struggles of restaurants in the area is no secret. Roger Hoplin, owner of Bites Grill and Bar in Pine River, also noted that on top of long closures, communication issues were a huge challenge.

"I think it was lack of communication with the governor's office," Hoplin said. "Like deciding to close restaurants down with one day notice and then how much food we had to give away and donate because it would have spoiled. I think that communication period could have been a lot nicer."


"I think it was lack of communication with the governor's office. Like deciding to close restaurants down with one day notice and then how much food we had to give away and donate because it would have spoiled. I think that communication period could have been a lot nicer."

— Bites Grill and Bar owner, Roger Hoplin.


"I think also communication with customers," he said. "Even today a lot of customers come in that don't know you have to wear the mask inside, or maybe they do, but they don't know about the reservation requirements and they don't know there's an 80-minute time limit requirement. There's so many rules we're trying to follow that I don't think the average customers know. Better communication could have saved a lot of headaches for everybody."

Hoplin was surprised at the lengths customers would go to though to support them.

"They know we're going through hard times and there are a lot of them that went above and beyond the call of duty," Hoplin said. "They were generous tipping our workers, and twice we got cards in the mail with monetary donations. They don't want us to go under. So everybody in their own little way is helping to make sure we remain successful and open. The lifesaver for us has been the pipeline employees."

Some businesses were fortunate enough to be deemed essential from the start, and while those businesses may not have had to close, that doesn't mean they weren't impacted.

"The biggest surprise was probably the lack of product we can get, supply issues," said Pequot Lakes Supervalu Store Manager Corky Ledoux.


"The biggest surprise was probably the lack of product we can get, supply issues."

— Pequot Lakes Supervalu Store Manager, Corky Ledoux.


During the pandemic, Ledoux had to deal with panic buying and supply chain interruptions. On top of that, he had to work with fewer employees than usual.

"We lost employees because of it," Ledoux said. "Some people didn't want to work anymore. We were trying to keep everything functioning normally that way as far as employees trying to keep healthy. Otherwise business has been good, but we did it with less help."

While businesses have seen the ramifications of the pandemic, those who help businesses find each is also constantly looking for new ways to get the job done. Crosslake Chamber Director Cindy Myogeto said local chambers are “rolling with the punches,” but an inability to network in person makes things very difficult at times.

“We are an organization that networks people,” Myogeto said. “We have all of our members who offer goods and services, and it has been difficult to get them together to find each other’s goods and services.”


"We are an organization that networks people. We have all of our members who offer goods and services, and it has been difficult to get them together to find each other's goods and services."

— Crosslake Chamber Director, Cindy Myogeto.


As businesses reopened in the summer, Myogeto said there was a struggle to give tourists enough to do in a manner deemed safe, according to state regulations.

“Early on, people were choosing to quarantine here, which was wonderful,” Myogeto said. “What better place to quarantine? As things started opening up, there were some folks that just didn’t want to come out and others that did, so there was a challenge finding the balance of something to do safely for people who wanted to come out but not jeopardize the people that didn’t.”

The Brainerd Lakes Chamber of Commerce, which includes Crosslake and Pequot Lakes, offered its Cuisine Cash program of selling gift certificates for local restaurants online. The chambers saw $50,000 worth of Cuisine Cash sales as a lofty goal, but they sold $170,000 in local gift certificates.

“I am just grateful that we live in a community that recognized the importance of the shop-local effort,” Myogeto said. “The minute COVID hit, everybody just did everything they could to support our local business community … I’ve always known that we live in a community that supports one another, but it has never been more evident than when COVID struck.”

Dan Determan may be reached at 218-855-5879 or dan.determan@pineandlakes.com. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter at www.twitter.com/@PEJ_Dan.

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.

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