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Area legislators, chamber urge safe reopening of businesses

Legislators share thoughts with area businesses via online Zoom event

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Area state legislators shared their thoughts Friday, April 24, via Zoom, including Sen. Carrie Ruud and Rep. John Poston (right). Also shown of the 150 people participating are Colleen Dols and Matt Kilian, both with the Brainerd Chamber of Commerce. Nancy Vogt / Echo Journal

After taking a stand to “Reopen Brainerd Lakes - Save our businesses. Save our communities,” the Brainerd Lakes Chamber of Commerce hosted area state legislators to get their take on the state’s response to the COVID-19 crisis and reopening businesses.

All five Republican legislators, who each represents all or a part of the Brainerd lakes area, agreed DFL Gov. Tim Walz needs to move faster to reopen businesses, as well as to give more consideration to Greater Minnesota.

Matt Kilian, Brainerd Lakes Chamber president, began the online Zoom meeting Friday, April 24, by saying the chamber board decided the organization representing businesses couldn't stay on the sidelines any longer.

“It doesn’t make sense to promote buying local when so many businesses are closed,” he said.

So the chamber launched its “Reopen Brainerd Lakes” campaign to urge the governor and the state Legislature to speed up safety protocols and guidelines so businesses could reopen.

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“We’re not advocating a dangerous or reckless reopening,” Kilian assured legislators and more than 100 others participating in the Zoom meeting, adding the campaign also wasn’t politically motivated. “He (Walz) needs to hear our voices and our stories. And they should matter.”

Participating state legislators were Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Fairview Township; Sen. Carrie Ruud, R-Breezy Point; Rep. Josh Heintzeman, R-Nisswa; Rep. John Poston, R-Lake Shore; and Rep. Dale Lueck, R-Aitkin.

Kilian asked legislators where they stand on reopening businesses and what is the best approach.

“I’d encourage the governor to move a little bit quicker,” Gazelka said, adding later that Walz has emergency power to act without legislative approval. Every 30 days he extends that emergency power, which can only be stopped with Senate and House action; however, Democrats control the House.

Gazelka predicted that emergency power would be extended another 30 days on May 13.

“At that point, if it continues, he has to call us to special session," he said, noting he’s encouraging Walz to work with the legislative branch.

It is completely under Walz's control at this point, so that’s why it’s important for the governor to hear from legislators and citizens, Gazelka said.

Gazelka said he agreed with the governor that more testing for COVID-19 and an adequate amount of personal protective equipment needed to be available for businesses to reopen. The state now has that, Gazelka said, so he'll continue to press Walz to keep moving forward.

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He said the governor is following a University of Minnesota model that shows the state would get the same results (number of deaths and number of hospital beds needed) if everyone shelters at home, or if senior citizens and vulnerable people shelter at home while everyone else follows social distancing guidelines.

“For the business community and the people who need to keep their jobs, it’s important that we peak earlier rather than later,” Gazelka said. “He (Walz) does care about these issues. We all care about the safety of people.

“People are flat out afraid of this,” Gazelka said, but he believes with recent breakthroughs, the governor should feel more comfortable opening businesses and churches.

“These stories that come from the Brainerd lakes area will get to the governor through your group of legislators here,” he said.

Kilian said: “The economy locally depends on tourism so greatly, we are going to need a safe path to follow.”

Ruud said Walz needs to really look at Greater Minnesota.

“He doesn’t have a lot of experience with Greater Minnesota issues. So we need to make sure he sees us and what we’re doing,” she said, adding the story needs to be reiterated about how these small businesses are so vital, how many people they employ and how many families they affect.

She encouraged all businesses to look at how they will operate when they do reopen.

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“Don’t just complain about not being open, but put a plan in place of how you will do business. What’s your new reality about doing business?” Ruud said, noting a one-chair beauty operator can’t do business like before, and she recently asked a pastor what church will look like.

Heintzeman praised the Brainerd chamber, which includes Pequot Lakes and Crosslake, for taking a bold position to reopen businesses.

He also said legislators aren’t advocating a wholesale opening of all businesses, but a safe opening, and he said the House introduced a resolution to end the governor’s peacetime emergency declaration.

Heintzeman said the COVID-19 situation is not a hoax.

“This is something that’s affecting Minnesotans in a very dramatic way, and we haven’t yet reached the peak of the impact,” he said, noting as businesses do reopen, the area must make sure it doesn’t become a hotspot where people get sick.

Heintzeman said he and other legislators are working to reopen campgrounds.

Poston said he’s been visiting an array of businesses in the area and regardless of sector or business, they have plans.

“They’re ready to reopen. They have plans how to do things safely,” he said, noting having a plan will help move along reopenings.

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Poston shared a story that he sent to the governor. He met with Dave Erlandson at Dave’s Sportland Bait & Tackle in Nisswa, a small, one- or two-man business with few customers in the store at one time and that wasn’t able to open at first. He took a photo of the building and empty parking lot, and then did the same at Fleet Farm in Baxter, which had a hundred cars in the parking lot and where people were able to buy bait and tackle.

“Those are the kinds of stories I think we need to show and we need to prove that business can do this better than state government or federal government,” Poston said. “Businesses are working together and sharing best practices ideas, even if they’re competitors.”

Lueck said people need to stop talking about essential vs. nonessential classifications of business. Instead, assess if business can be conducted in a safe and responsible manner.

“You declare an emergency and that means stop and get your act together. I think we’ve got our act together,” he said, noting the need to shift to risk analysis. “We’re all essential.”

Lueck also advocated to reopen campgrounds safely, and compared big box to small business.

“They both should be able to provide services. Small businesses have fewer people and can control it,” he said, noting people must keep up the pressure and analyze if something can be done safely.

Legislators also agreed broadband is critical and needs continued funds. Lueck said it’s abysmal what’s happening with distance learning at schools where buses have to get thumb drives to students to do their homework.

Answering a question about emergency loan programs that had more applications than available funding, Gazelka said the Senate will focus on a tax bill that provides relief to small business owners, delaying every tax, waving every penalty and buying small business owners time.

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Poston said maneuvering through the emergency loan process is not easy. He encouraged business owners to be persistent and to work with their bank or accountant to navigate the forms and applications.

Lueck acknowledged “real tension in our area between folks who want everybody to stay away and the absolute necessity that people come to our area and use our area for recreation.”

He asked the business community to be sensitive and understand that.

“It’s a minority, but we get pushback that people have to stay in Minneapolis because our hospitals aren’t big enough,” he said.

He also advised people to read all of the governor’s emergency orders online to better understand what businesses can be open and what they need to do.

Nancy Vogt may be reached at 218-855-5877 or nancy.vogt@pineandlakes.com. Follow her on Facebook and on Twitter at www.twitter.com/@PEJ_Nancy.

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Nancy Vogt is editor of the Pineandlakes Echo Journal, a weekly newspaper that covers eight communities in the Pequot Lakes-Pine River areas - from Nisswa to Hackensack and Pequot Lakes to Crosslake.

She started as editor of the Lake Country Echo in July 2006, and continued in that role when the Lake Country Echo and the Pine River Journal combined in September 2013 to become the Pineandlakes Echo Journal. She worked for the Brainerd Dispatch from 1992-2006 in various roles.

She covers Nisswa, Pequot Lakes, Lake Shore and Crosslake city councils, as well as writes feature stories, news stories and personal columns (Vogt's Notes). She also takes photos at community events.

Contact her at nancy.vogt@pineandlakes.com or 218-855-5877 with story ideas or questions. Be sure to leave a voicemail message!
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