The plan would be as welcome as it is ambitious — assuming it could be carried out safely, without adding to or reigniting the spread of the coronavirus.
May 1. That was a date stated this week by Minnesota hospitality industry leaders and Republican lawmakers for bars, restaurants, gyms, and theaters to reopen, and for larger events to resume, all freed from the COVID-19 restrictions that have been decimating them, their industries, and their employees for almost a year.
With case rates, hospitalizations, and deaths trending downward, and with vaccinations ramping up, preparing for a return to normalcy can’t come soon enough. Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz, who has acted boldly during this time of emergency, can reengage with lawmakers, business owners, and others to plan for what comes next and to determine when a transition back to pre-pandemic activities and an economy that was humming along can occur.
“The thing we’re going to have to come up with is something everybody can trust: a number or some kind of guide that says ‘This is working’,” Rep. Dave Baker, R-Willmar, said, according to a Forum News Service report Monday.
Such a guideline also needs to acknowledge when “this isn’t working.” Reopening too quickly or too aggressively can lead to a spike in serious illness and deaths, as we’ve learned this difficult, heart-wrenching year.
But reopening too slowly would unnecessarily exacerbate the devastation we’re already experiencing to our economy, employment levels, mental health, and more. Minnesota needs an exit strategy.
This and more need to be turned around: tourism tax collections that plummeted 32.5% in Duluth, as the News Tribune reported late last week; food and beverage sales in the city that declined 28.6%; lodging revenues that fell off by 35.3%; unemployment that climbed to a whisper of 10% in May in Minnesota; and a statewide labor-force participation rate that fell to its lowest level since the summer of 1978, as St. Paul economist John Phelan reported in a January commentary in the News Tribune.
Encouragingly, help for struggling industries, businesses, and workers continues, and President Joe Biden and Congress are working on another stimulus package. On Monday, the distribution of more than $13 million in aid to 78 movie theaters and convention centers across Minnesota was announced. On Tuesday, the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center said it received $500,000 from the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development’s Convention Center Relief Grant program. And, as just a third recent example, Rep. Andrew Carlson, DFL-Bloomington, joined House Democrats in announcing legislation this week to help laid-off hospitality and service-sector workers return to their jobs.
The demand for assistance, for a hand up, is great. Consider the way desperate St. Louis County businesses flooded a third cycle of COVID-19 relief, as the News Tribune reported Tuesday. About 900 businesses submitted requests totaling $16.4 million, almost tripling the previous round’s number of applications — and with only $3.8 million from the state for the county to offer in grants.
As pretty much all of us have been saying — and screaming — for almost a year now, the pandemic needs to end soon. With glimmers of optimism for that, Minnesotans can call on Gov. Walz, our divided state Legislature, business owners, industries, and others to all work together, and to do so now and with urgency, so we can be ready when it does end.
By May 1? It’s a date that was worth tossing out there and a goal worth working toward.