STILLWATER, Minn. — At the start of the COVID-19 outbreak, Kristy Zimmerman had to shutter her Uptown Curl hair salons in Stillwater and Minneapolis. They remained closed for 2½ months.

“It was pretty awful,” Zimmerman said. “The bills were still due, and I wasn’t getting unemployment. It took about eight weeks to get unemployment. I had some savings, thankfully, but that was really hard.”

Since June 1, Zimmerman’s salon in Stillwater has been back in business, but operating at 50% capacity. Her Uptown Minneapolis salon opened a week later due to the protests and unrest in the neighborhood in the wake of the killing of George Floyd at the hands of police.

As Gov. Tim Walz and Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan launched a statewide small business listening tour — to hear from owners and workers how COVID-19 has affected them — they visited Stillwater and White Bear Lake on Tuesday.

At her downtown Stillwater salon, Zimmerman shared her concerns during a one-on-one listening session with Walz. She told him she hopes he will consider easing back on the state’s capacity restrictions and offer some sort of payroll tax relief.

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“We look forward to getting through this and into the next year,” Zimmerman said. “It would be nice to have that 50% capacity removed, so we can go back to our normal volume. Of course, some of that is dependent on consumer confidence, and that is going to be different for everyone. It’s a personal decision. But that would help tremendously.”

Walz said he could understand Zimmerman’s frustrations.

“We’re trying to find that sweet spot between staying safe and being open,” he told her. “I’m just grateful for the efforts that have been made. We have proven that it works.”

Owner urges payroll tax relief

Zimmerman, who has 24 employees, told Walz that the $35,000 emergency small business loan she received from the state helped her survive the shutdown brought on by the spread of the novel coronavirus. The interest-free loan is 50% forgivable.

“I got the (state) money before I got unemployment, and that made a huge difference,” she said. “I was able to get caught up on the almost three months of rent I was behind on here.”

She urged Walz, however, to consider some type of payroll tax relief. “I have a heavy load of payroll tax, and we’re just not at our normal volume,” she said.

Zimmerman said her Uptown Minneapolis location has been hit especially hard — first by COVID-19 and then by the violence that has rocked in Minneapolis.

“I lost about 50% of my neighbors in Uptown — that really changes the neighborhood,” she said. “The spike in crime over the past four weeks is really shocking. I almost closed that location, but I decided to reduce my hours instead.”

Walz responded: “We’ve got to fix that. There’s got to be a recognition that reforms are needed. What happened to George Floyd is horrific, but people need to be able to go to their businesses and feel safe as employees.”

One silver lining: a drop in commercial real estate prices, Zimmerman said, which led her to recently open a third salon in Minnesota in Maple Grove. She also owns a salon in Menomonie, Wis.

“There were a lot of businesses that had to close that maybe weren’t in a good position pre-COVID and decided they didn’t want to go through all the work and the fight that it took to survive COVID,” Ziimmerman said. “And so it has really brought a lot of the rent prices down. I said, ‘I might as well make the best of a bad situation and just take a risk and open another location … especially for a lot of my clients in the suburbs who right now don’t want to come into Minneapolis.’”

‘Pay it forward’ fund

Walz also met with Megan and Tim Palm, the owners of The Daily Grind Espresso Cafe in downtown Stillwater. He donated $100 to the coffee shop’s “Pay it Forward” fund, meaning the first $100 worth of coffee sold Wednesday will be paid for by Walz. It will mark the 182nd day in a row for the “Pay it Forward” fund.

“People have been really good to us,” said Megan Palm, who purchased the business when she was 23 years old. “I’m thankful for the relationships we have built over the last 27 years. Without our community support, there is no way we could have survived.”

Megan Palm told Walz that she did not think small businesses along Main Street “should have been shut down when Target and other big-box stores were kept open. Small businesses, she said, can regulate better.

With the start of cold weather, the Palms are worried that the Daily Grind and other restaurants in Stillwater are going to need major financial help this winter. “We are very worried about the winter,” she said. “We weren’t big in the first place. If all the cogs in the wheel don’t add up, we’re in for a hard winter.”

The Palms received a $10,000 grant from the state, through the Small Business Relief Grants Program, which she told Walz will help them cover three months rent.

She told Walz that she struggles with what to do when people walk into the coffee shop without a mask. “Do I jump at them?” she said. “Here’s the problem: if they don’t wear a mask because they feel like it’s something they don’t want to do, and I don’t stand up and say something, the 15 other people will leave the store. That’s where I’m trying to find the balance.”

“You should never be put in that position,” he said.

“No matter what, I am put in that position,” she responded.

Walz said state’s infection rate is currently at 5.4%, but the rate of community spread is at 40%, which will drive more case numbers. He said he does not want Minnesota to follow in the footsteps of Wisconsin, which had a 22% positivity rate as of Tuesday.

“The things we can do to help these businesses: simple social distancing, handwashing and wearing the mask has much more impact than anything else we’re really doing,” he said. “Our goal is to make sure, first and foremost, the safety, security and wellbeing of Minnesotans and then to open as many things as possible. … Small businesses have taken the brunt of this.”