Sen. Amy Klobuchar is the latest to lend a listening ear to Central Minnesota business leaders as state and national leaders prepare to shepherd the state through a lengthening pandemic.
Klobuchar, D-Minn., spoke on a conference call Friday afternoon with Central Minnesota business leaders, including Dan Ortloff, president of Falls Fabricating in Little Falls, Rob Dubow, president of Dubow Textile in St. Cloud, and Jeff Wig, vice president for entrepreneurship at Initiative Foundation in Little Falls. Traci Tapani, co-president of Wyoming Machine in Wyoming and Initiative Foundation board chair, also joined the call.
Klobuchar said she is focused on providing businesses with additional relief until a COVID-19 vaccine comes out. Part of that, according to Klobuchar, means making more rapid testing possible.
Ortloff and Dubow both said employee numbers dwindled during the pandemic. Falls Fabricating used a paycheck protection program loan from the Small Business Administration to keep the company's 95 employees through June, but as funds ran out, layoffs and furloughs began.
"Our hope was we could bring them back quickly with really unknown how long this would impact us and how long this was gonna go on," Ortloff said.
However, "we're just really starting to really be ourselves impacted by the virus," Ortloff said, as employees test positive for COVID-19.
And when workers are staying home for COVID-19, it's taking days to get results back, Ortloff said.
Klobuchar said she's heard similar stories from other employers, and also of larger employees coordinating their own testing operations or flying employees into the Twin Cities to get tests.
"The question is, how do we get you, and maybe your local hospitals, the stuff so that you can do the faster testing?" Klobuchar said. "... I just think the more we can get the tests out while the vaccine is coming out, we'll be in a much better place."
Like Falls Fabricating, Dubow Textile is starting to feel the impact of COVID-19 absences among its workers, Dubow said. He said 20 of Dubow's workers were out as of Friday for reasons related to COVID-19 (whether that be a positive test themselves or caring for a family member).
Dubow said he sees a private clinic in town offering rapid testing, but not other health care facilities. What's more, Dubow said, waiting for an appointment for rapid testing can still take days.
"Rapid testing is imperative to bring to market," Dubow said. "... I think that will solve a lot of businesses' issues."
Dubow said when COVID-19 hit Minnesota in mid-March, Dubow Textile had 204 employees. In a two-week period, attrition and fear of the virus together dropped the staff to 135 members, according to Dubow.
The company now has 281 employees, Dubow said, as business shifted online and Dubow then had some of its busiest months in the history of the company.
Wig said the Initiative Foundation will finish the year having done more than 100 loans and deferments and approximately 1,000 grants as the foundation stepped in to help administer state and federal programs as well as provide funding through its own means. In a normal year, they'd do about 30 loans and 150 grants.
"We know the COVID crisis doesn't seem to be letting us relax," Wig said. "So we're getting ourselves ready to help out in whatever new ways we can as this very interesting year wraps up and the next one begins."