U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (DFL-Minn.) hosted a conference call with Mayor Russ Wilson, Breckenridge, Minnesota, and three other Minnesota mayors about the economic impact COVID-19 is having on the towns, as well as their short-term and long-term needs.
The call — which also included Mayor Deb Hengel of Elbow Lake, Minnesota; Mayor Rick Rone of Baudette, Minnesota; and Mayor Sid Michel of Bagley, Minnesota — covered what struggles the four towns were facing, including business shutdowns, broadband issues and surging cases.
Klobuchar began by addressing the already fragile economic state of rural Minnesota towns, which often depend on one or two industries. She said there are also broadband differences from metro to rural Minnesota, which are a breeding ground for inequitable education amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We have every reason to believe those doses of the vaccine are going to be coming out at the end of this year and the beginning of next year,” Klobuchar said. “That being said, one of my concerns is that we are able to get them to all parts of our state … We’re going to have to find a distribution that works, that doesn’t leave rural (Minnesota) behind at all, in any way.”
She said the reason she raised the topic of a vaccine first is because she knows the end is in sight, but her next question was how rural Minnesota will get there. It is important that no more small businesses are lost in the waiting period, she said.
The virus’ effect is different depending on the business and the employee, Klobuchar said. For instance, someone who works at the top of a large technology company will not suffer the same as someone who works a small diner job, she said.
“I am really focused on not just reupping some of the loan programs and grant programs we had with the CARES act, which were helpful, but also focusing specifically on areas that have really been the hardest hit,” Klobuchar said.
Wilson also told the senator CHI St. Francis and St. Francis Nursing Home in Breckenridge are the largest employers in the town, and they can’t afford to lose them.
Mayor Hengel of Elbow Lake said some of the key employers in the town are the bars and restaurants, which were shut down under Dial Back Minnesota, Gov. Tim Walz’s recent executive order.
Mayor Rone of Baudette echoed what Hengel said. A lot of businesses in the town are struggling, he said, and they need grant money. There are plenty of loan programs businesses can utilize, but they cannot afford to take out more loans, Rone said.
Mayor Michel of Bagley said his town’s situation is no different from any of the other three mayors. The small businesses are hurting, and locals are trying to support them as best they can. Several of the restaurants tried to open outdoor seating during the summer, but now, the season for dining outside is over, Michel said.
Michel said he’s warned local businesses who don’t like to wear masks or enforce the mask mandate that if they don’t start complying, there’s nothing he’ll be able to do to help them if cases come flooding in.
“Until they have somebody, like a close family member or friend get it (COVID-19), they don’t seem to pay attention,” Michel said.
Klobuchar said she is supporting two bills, one a restaurant bill that would help bars and restaurants threatened by the pandemic, and the other a nonprofit organization bill, which would help fund places of worship or other nonprofits that, in turn, support disenfranchised members or areas of a community.
Klobuchar said on the way, people need to work together to do two things: the first, distribute the necessary help to rural communities, and the second, get people to follow the rules. She said it’d be a tragedy if people were dying the week before the vaccine comes out because they or someone else didn’t follow the experts’ guidelines.
Klobuchar said if people can just hold out and have hope, the vaccine will come soon enough and begin lifting people and businesses out of the holes they’re in.