In early May – weeks before Gov. Tim Walz announced that outdoor restaurant seating for up to 50 people would be allowed starting June 1 – one Minnesota town was already getting prepared.
Nicholas Johnson, city administrator of Fairfax, Minn., was thinking of ways to help local restaurants during the pandemic. He drew up a plan to temporarily convert various parking areas and empty lots into outdoor seating areas – and began pursuing any permitting and permissions needed.
He also made arrangements to relocate the city's 33 picnic tables from local parks so that the restaurants would not have the added expense of buying outdoor tables and chairs. Last Friday, the tables got put in place – safe distances apart – by city workers. On June 1, restaurants in Fairfax began serving food at these outdoor areas.
"It was quite awesome. The city did a lot of work in getting all of us what we need," says Jennifer Rogstad, manager of Neisen Brothers Bar and Grill in Fairfax.
In a sidewalk area outside the restaurant stretching into what used to be parking spaces, there is now a coned-off seating area with enough space for 50 people. "It was a little windy, but we had people eating there on Monday," says Rogstad.
"I'm feeling a lot more hopeful than I was before," she adds. "And the fact that the city is working with us every step of the way has been a relief. They sure lightened the burden of everyone."
Fairfax is a primarily agricultural community of 1,200 in Renville County about 100 miles southwest of the Twin Cities. Last week, the Fairview City Council voted 5-0 to adopt a temporary ordinance which allows alcoholic beverages to be consumed in the various outdoor seating areas.
Johnson has been a city administrator for 10 years. "I like to keep close ties with our businesses and have my ear to the ground on ways we can help them," he says.
"We didn't want them to have to purchase outdoor seating as they've already been struggling since March," he adds. "The nice thing about being a small town is we are very nimble, and the City Council is very supportive of our local businesses."
For coffee and pastries, there's also the Sweet Spot Bake Shop on First Street S.E., where a group of retirees known as the "coffee ladies" gather regularly. Now, thanks to the city, the bakery has three picnic tables outside that people can use.
"It's really good the town stepped up to help out all of us here. I'm glad that the city thought of it," says Tina Castillo, bakery owner. "To go the extra mile to think about how they can help us was above and beyond. I don't think any of us could have afforded to get our own tables and chairs."
Since the bakery is only open Thursdays through Saturdays, customers haven't had a chance to use the bakery's outdoor seating yet, but people who stopped by last Saturday saw the picnic tables. "They were really excited," says Castillo. "They all miss each other a lot – and I miss chatting with them."
"The city is really trying to make sure businesses stay within the town and don't have to close," she adds. "It gives us some inspiration to stay open."
"Open for Business Pledge" is a program launched May 20 across Iron Range communities designed to help customers feel more comfortable as they shop and do other business because they know that participating businesses are committed to best practices for COVID-19.
"We wanted to do something to help promote consumer confidence as businesses are reopening – and to recognize the hard work businesses are putting in to be safe environments for their employees and customers," said Vicki Hagberg, president of the Hibbing Area Chamber of Commerce.
"You can recognize participating businesses by their Open for Business window cling," she added. "Several businesses signed onto the pledge as early adopters, and we hope to see businesses throughout the Iron Range sign onto the pledge."
One of the early adopters is Vince Nelson, owner of Active Standard Drafting & Design in Hibbing. "We have changed our regular routines in a number of ways to ensure the safety and health of our clients," said Nelson.
"We have been cleaning and sanitizing our office after every visit, wearing masks and practicing social distancing at every site visit, and we've started actively promoting our use of online video chat and phone conferences for our consultations. Our clients have generally been very receptive to these changes and thankful that we are looking out for them."
The Open for Business Pledge was developed by the Iron Range Tourism Bureau and Hibbing Area Chamber of Commerce with support from the Aurora Chamber of Commerce, Chisholm Chamber of Commerce, and Laurentian Chamber of Commerce.
Hagberg noted that it's based on recommendations from state agencies – including the state departments of health, employment and economic development, and labor and industry – as well as federal entities such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and OSHA.
Businesses that sign onto the pledge commit to following best practices around social distancing and use of personal protective equipment; increased cleaning and disinfecting; training for staff; working only when healthy; and offering drop-off, pick-up, and delivery of goods when possible. These five best practices align with state guidelines on what businesses should be considering when they develop their own COVID-19 Preparedness Plans.
"We know not every business is required by the state to have a COVID-19 Preparedness Plan, but many have already gone above the requirements to help protect workers and customers," said Hagberg. "The Open for Business window clings are a signal to residents and visitors that businesses are taking their safety and comfort seriously."
In addition, the pledge requires participating businesses to provide a welcoming environment for all patrons – both locals and visitors.
"The summer travel season will be different than what we're used to, but it's important that we welcome everyone to our area," said Beth Pierce, Executive Director of the Iron Range Tourism Bureau. "Many area businesses rely on visitors to support their bottom line, and the Open for Business program allows travelers to see at a glance which businesses are taking steps to safely welcome them back."
Another early adopter of the pledge is Moxie, a boutique in downtown Hibbing. "I'll be slowly starting in-store appointment shopping beginning May 27 with CDC best practices in place," said Suzanne Rian, owner of Moxie. "I'm encouraging customers to continue to utilize curbside and online options when possible, and I want to be able to give proper attention to those customers who choose to safely shop inside."
Added Rian: "I am committed to putting the health of our community first, and I have already received wonderful feedback from customers thanking me for being so prepared."
Customers and community members can view a list of participating businesses that have signed onto the pledge on the website, which will be updated as more businesses learn about the pledge and sign on.
Bob "Slip" Hall and his wife Judy Hall own Slip's Sharpening, a small business in Coon Rapids. Slip's sharpens knives, scissors, shears, and clipper blades, and also repairs clippers. Bob does the sharpening and repair work while Judy handles the bookkeeping and paperwork.
They opened in 2010 and run the store themselves with no employees. The mainstay of their walk-in clientele – hair stylists, barbers and animal groomers – all worked in businesses that have had to temporarily close due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Unable to cut hair or clip fur, these clients didn't need their tools sharpened.
"We figured we could safely work behind closed doors because we have a good size mail-in sharpening business," says Judy. Indeed, customers – mostly from the surrounding five-state region – have continued to mail them items to the sharpened.
But the Halls also serve emergency veterinary clinics, which have continued to operate and need sharpened, functioning clippers. "That made us essential enough to offer curbside pick-ups and drop-offs," says Bob.
In fact, Slip's Sharpening provides clipper blade sharpening and repair services for the hundreds of veterinary clinics that belong to the Veterinarian Hospitals Association in St. Paul.
The couple put several safety measures in place. People dropping off an item call when they arrive. They put the item on a special table set at the entrance, then fill out a ticket.
"It's been working well," says Judy. "We've ramped up sanitation of course. After each visit, we wipe off all the door handles and everything."
Bob, a disabled veteran, has been doing sharpening since 1995. Judy, who used to work in a salon, started working at the store when they opened it in 2010.
As they wait for all their regular customers to be able to return to work and re-open their businesses, the Halls wanted to give back to the community. They heard about people making masks to help protect health care providers and others.
"We've been offering to sharpen one pair of fabric scissors or shears for free for these mask-making angels," says Judy. "We've had a pretty good response to this. We feel really good about being able to do something."
Bob Moeller, co-owner and president of R.F. Moeller Jeweler, was happy to be able to bring back the company’s 34 employees on May 4 – even though they can’t yet allow any customers inside their stores in St. Paul and Edina.
"It’s been interesting to navigate and find new ways to present and show items and give people the service they need while keeping safety measures in place,” says Moeller.
Those safety measures include having sales staff show jewelry to prospective customers using Zoom and FaceTime as well as by texting them photos.
While sales volumes this week have been significantly lower than pre-COVID, some people have been willing to buy jewelry – including some larger items – without handling them in person. Others own items that they want to have cleaned or repaired.
"It’s been encouraging," Moeller says. "We find that people have been waiting to accomplish some things."
Customers who have an item that needs service make an appointment and drive up. An employee wearing a mask and gloves goes to the car with a tray and the customer puts the item in a tray. The employee takes it inside and texts a photo of the service ticket to the customer. The stores also offer pick-up and delivery of items that have been purchased or need service.
R.F. Moeller is a family owned business started in 1951 by Bob’s parents, Robert and Bernice Moeller.
A recent Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan through the Small Business Administration has been “critical” to their ability to stay in business, says Moeller.
Moeller says the staff all wear masks and gloves and are screened each morning – with temperature checks and a series of questions. They’re asked to sanitize their hands right when they come in. Staff are divided into teams – working different shifts – to minimize exposure and make it easier to trace contacts, just in case someone gets ill.
They’ve instituted many other new safety practices – including cleaning stations and sterilization procedures for anything that’s been touched – as well as the daily sanitizing of all surfaces. In preparation for when they’re able to reopen to customers, they’ll have directional arrows, waiting areas six feet apart and sneeze guards, among other things.
When they reopen the store to customers, they plan to offer appointments and limit the number of people in the store for safe distancing. "We have a high impact, low volume store,” says Moeller. “We’re thinking about our customers and our staff and want to do whatever it takes to keep everyone safe."
They also want to give back to the community. "For the month of May, 5% of all proceeds will be donated to organizations that assist frontline health care workers," says Moeller.
The team at KARE 11 are sharing what they’re doing to work safely while delivering the news. KARE 11 staff who can work from home started going remote in March. Now, nearly everyone at KARE is working from home. Anchors are broadcasting live from their living rooms, reporters are conducting interviews by video chat on their phones, producers are writing scripts and stacking shows miles from the studio. With the help of modern technology – and dedicated engineering staff – it all comes together on the air and online. You can see more snapshots of how TV reporters, anchors, producers and others are staying safe on the job in this post on KARE 11's site.
Photo credit: KARE 11
IRD Glass in Litchfield has implemented a plan to keep its 65 employees safe during the COVID-19 pandemic while continuing to provide essential medical, defense, and transportation components to its customers. IRD Glass workers are considered Critical Workers and many employees must be in the workplace in order to do their jobs. IRD examined all areas of its business and implemented a business continuity plan to help keep workers safe while meeting needs of their customers.
The IRD Glass plan includes:
Harmony Enterprises in Harmony, Minnesota, has remained open as a Critical Sector business under the Stay at Home order, providing waste and recycling equipment and services to medical, grocery and other essential businesses. These are some of the steps Harmony Enterprises has taken to keep employees safe during the pandemic:
At Digi-Key, based in Thief River Falls, they're making products in-demand by health care providers. They're ensuring employers stay at least 6 feet apart, reminding workers about handwashing and covering sneezes and coughs and staying home if they're sick, and are thoroughly disinfecting and sanitizing workspaces, following CDC guidance.
At Hormel, based in Austin, they're processing food to feed people throughout the country. Under the guidance of health care professionals, they're taking workers' temperatures and are screening for illness, they've implemented staggered start times to provide for social distancing and they're providing plant workers with masks and personal protective face coverings.
At Target, based in Minneapolis, they're providing access to food and needed supplies nationwide. They've instituted additional social distancing and safety measures, including providing non-surgical face masks and gloves for team members to wear on the job, are asking employees to monitor for COVID-19 symptoms, and are taking steps to limit the number of people inside stores to prevent unsafe crowding.