U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar hosted a conference call with area community representatives Aug. 26 to discuss the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the economy in southwest Minnesota and gather input on what has helped and could help them going forward.
“We’re going to get through this and so we’ve got to think of what our needs are and how we meet them in southern Minnesota and, in particular, southwest Minnesota in the coming months,” Klobuchar said. “That’s what I want to hear from all of you.”
The call included Pipestone Mayor Myron Koets, Slayton Mayor Miron Carney, Hills Mayor Keith Elbers, Kimball Township (Jackson County) Supervisor Richard Peterson, all of whom are members of the board of directors of the Southwest Regional Development Commission (SRDC), and other representatives of the SRDC.
SRDC Deputy Director Robin Weis discussed how SRDC had used CARES Act funds to make loans to help area businesses stay afloat and city officials spoke about how they used CARES Act funds to pay for their city’s COVID-related expenses and provide grants to businesses.
Koets said there had been 41 applicants to Pipestone’s CARES Act grant program for businesses and nonprofits as of Aug. 26. The Pipestone Economic Development Authority will review those applications after the application period closes on Aug, 31 and start getting the funds out.
Koets said what he called “quality of life” businesses have been hit hardest by the pandemic. He said those include golf courses, bowling alleys, American Legions, salons, barbers, restaurants, bars and other similar businesses.
“They’re in a real pickle yet to get their business back and become profitable,” Koets said.
Carney said the added unemployment benefits helped his family while the salon he and his wife own was closed and after it was able to reopen in a limited capacity.
“One of the things that’s kept us afloat was the $600 on the unemployment that was extended to gig workers,” Carney said. “I think now it’s a little over $160 dollars. It’s not really making our utility payments.”
Elbers said his business was shut down for two-and-a-half months due to the pandemic.
“The biggest problem we had here is I’m only two miles from South Dakota and two miles from Iowa, which were both opened up, so you know where all my business went,” he said.
Peterson said his township switched to mail-in voting due to the fact that many of the people in the township were at high risk of COVID-19 complications. He also said farm commodity prices were down and that he’s seeing a lot of farm sales.
“I don’t know if people are just giving up or what,” he said.
Peterson also said the switch to Zoom rather than in-person meetings has been challenging due to poor internet connection in rural areas.
Klobuchar asked what impacts were affecting hospitals and health care in the region.
SRDC Executive Director Jay Trusty said he’d heard from Murray County Medical Center that the facility had received some emergency funding that was “keeping them afloat, but just barely.” He said the facility was concerned that due to a lack of revenue from elective surgeries and other care during the pandemic, they might have to cut staff.
He said there is also concern among medical facilities in the region that Avera and Sanford, which are based in Sioux Falls and manage or own many area medical facilities, might decide they can’t afford to operate fully staffed hospitals in small communities and cut back to emergency care only.
“I hear that more than I hear anything else, that they’re really struggling to maintain a level of service that their communities are used to having,” Trusty said.
Koets said long-term care facilities are struggling and some have closed in the region. He said some people are deciding not to go to long-term care facilities now due to concerns about the pandemic and the lock down of the facilities in response to the pandemic.
As for future needs, Trusty said it would be helpful to prepare businesses to weather future pandemics or natural disasters.
“How do we build some resiliency into the business plans so that the next time something happens we have a little more flexibility in how we react,” Trusty said.
He said businesses with an online presence seem to have faired better during the pandemic, so that might be helpful for businesses in the future. In addition, he said diversification in meat processing is important and that some co-ops are looking at creating small-to-medium size slaughter facilities that could help if there is an issue at large processing plants.
Koets said additional funding for cities would be helpful if state aid is cut due to a reduction in state revenue. Trusty said school districts could also use additional funding to help with efforts to maintain social distancing and operate safely during the pandemic.
At the end of the 45-minute phone call, Klobuchar thanked the participants for their input and said she would take their comments into consideration when Congress resumes this fall and begins work on additional COVID-19 response packages.
“This has been really, really helpful for me because we’re going back in a week,” she said.
Klobuchar said during the call that one of her goals is to get the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions (HEROES) Act passed in the Senate. The House bill, as it was introduced in May, would provide assistance in response to the pandemic and its impact on the economy, public health, state and local governments, individuals, and businesses. Among other things, it would provide additional funding to state and local governments, expand the Paycheck Protection Program and provide direct payments to individuals.