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How is the state government deciding which businesses will reopen and which won’t?

Last week, I wrote that during the lockdown, every day is Big Business Saturday because the rules of Minnesota’s stay-at-home order (SHO) work in favor of big businesses over small ones. Sadly, as Gov. Walz starts slowly turning his dials, our state’s small businesses still seem to be getting the short end of the stick.

At the weekend, KEYC reported that:

For many small businesses, owners and employees are wondering when they can finally reopen their doors to customers and they’re frustrated that some independently-owned stores like Minnesota’s Largest Candy Store in Jordan, can reopen early before May 18.

Many are saying they’re ready to open and implement social distancing guidelines in their buildings for customers but the clock is ticking and their wallets are slimming.

“I’ve gone from being sad, to angry, to just devastated and back to being angry. It’s literally like going through the stages of death of somebody dying because you are literally watching this business that you have put so much pride, passion and effort into, long days and you’re watching it just dissipate a little bit more every day,” said Jo Radlinger, owner of Jo’s Fitness Garage.

While most restaurants can scrape by, by offering curbside pick-up and delivery, owners say it isn’t enough because a bulk of their profit comes from in-house dining.

“We’re down 70 percent. We’re missing out on that whole angle and stuff like that. I get the whole social distancing and I realize why we’re doing this, but I mean we’re to the point now that I mean come on it’s time,” said Jason Amdahl, Owner of Ummie’s Bar & Grill.

Small businesses like Jo’s Garage on North Riverfront Drive serve a small amount of clientele…which works in their advantage because they could control social distancing guidelines in their building…unlike larger gyms that have thousands of members.

“The number thing has never been an issue for me, because that’s been my premise as a business the whole time I’ve been in business, is to be small, exclusive and private. That’s what my clients like. That also gives me the ability to control the people that come in here,” said Radlinger.

Tough, but they’re all in the same boat, right? Wrong. Minnesota’s Largest Candy Store partially reopened last Friday with state approval. As Kare 11 reported:

“We reached out to the governor’s task force,” owner Robert Wagner said, “and they got back to in about three days indicating we met the qualifications of an essential business and we had permission to open.”

I am pleased for Mr. Wagner, but wonder how he got such a rapid response from Gov. Walz when the state’s salons, bars, and restaurants have got a busy tone. KEYC again:

…small business owners are frustrated over how that business was allowed to open early given their high volume of customers it serves.

“I just don’t it’s fair. I just think it sets a precedence and you have the little guys down here just screaming. Not just here, but they’re all over the state. They see that and they say ‘this guy is an independent guy, so how’s he able to open.’ Give me a break,” said Amdahl.

As Dave Orrick of the Pioneer Press recently asked Steve Grove, Minnesota’s Commissioner of Employment & Economic Development:

I can go into Menards and buy a kite for my kid, but I can’t go into Hub Hobby and do the same. If Hub Hobby were open, it would accomplish more for social distancing, no?

No doubt other businesses are wondering what it is about candy that makes you immune to Covid-19.

We have been told often during this crisis that the state government response has been driven by experts and science. If that were so, you would expect to discern a consistent pattern when it comes to which businesses can reopen and which cannot. Instead, there is just confusion. KEYC again:

[The reopening of Minnesota’s Largest Candy Store] also presents some confusion over just how essential some, services are.

“There’s been businesses that have been given the pardon and the approval from the governor to reopen. It’s hard to understand the division of essential and nonessential and I’ve been coded as a nonessential, but I would argue that I am essential because of the whole health requirement in keeping people healthy. That’s where I’ve struggled with all of this is it seems a little unfair,” said Radlinger.

Those businesses have plans in place for social distancing like spacing out seating, strengthening cleaning procedures or allowing for directed foot traffic through their buildings.

Recently I wrote that Minnesota’s businesses are suffering from a lack of certainty and that Gov. Walz could help with that. There seems to be little rhyme or reason to the Governor’s knob twiddling and, as a result, small business in Minnesota have little idea where they stand. The shutdown has been criticized for being ‘one size fits all’. Quite the contrary: it isn’t clear there is a particular size at all.

John Phelan is an economist at the Center of the American Experiment. 

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