By Anthony Monzon

Small business owners and elected leaders from Minnesota are continuing to push for pandemic relief on Capitol Hill.

U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar and Representative Dean Phillips held a listening session with entrepreneurs from the restaurant, live event, and fitness industries Wednesday. Many taking part in the session say they're still struggling as coronavirus continues wreaking havoc on their professional and personal lives.

One of those who spoke during the event was Brandon Helgeson, owner of Rochester's Big Bang Companies and a director of the Olmsted County Fair. Helgeson says many small businesses and fairs haven't received meaningful aid throughout the pandemic, and are needing federal help to stay afloat.

"During the pandemic, our local fair has barely survived, operating solely off donations taken in from some drive-in events, and from me not taking a salary as its director," Helgeson said. "I'm here to tell you these fairs are an integral part of our communities and our ag economy, something that is extremely important to many Minnesotans."

Helgeson shares in 2020, his company saw a 90% drop in revenue, a 50% decrease in 2021, and is working through a 30% cancellation rate so far this year, spurred on by the Omicron variant. These struggles are taking a significant toll on his employees and family, Helgeson says, particularly his son, whose college tuition he promised to help pay for.

"Instead of handing him a check to pay off his student loans, I had to tell him I doled on the money, not knowing how long I would be closed. This has also taken a toll on my health and my home life. As the owner, I also have to be concerned about how it affects my staff, including six full-time employees, 12 part-time employees, and their families. When I do the math on that, the success or failure of my business affects 45 people directly, not to mention all the other companies that we contract for services.

Klobuchar and Phillips say they're continuing to work on a new relief package with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, which could include $60 billion for restaurants and $2 billion for gyms, among other measures.

"The bill that we're working on with Senator Cardin is a bill in the Senate that has the support of a bunch of Republicans as well. We've met a few times, Susan Collins, other people that are interested in this, and probably the disagreement is how much we're going to have total." Klobuchar continued, "there is some leftover money from 'stages' that we obviously can repurpose. That's great, but that's not going to get us to where we need to be."

Senator Klobuchar says the package would likely be part of the upper chamber's end-of-year budget, or a special bill given the ongoing impact of the Omicron variant.