Given Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz's decision to allow restaurants and bars to open for limited outdoor service only, Rep. Paul Marquart of Dilworth believes the state owes those small businesses a bridge to survival.
"I'm really worried about a lot of these restaurants in our area, particularly the ones that are more seasonal," Marquart said. "I'm not sure they're going to make it through this."
So Marquart, a DFLer like Walz, is pushing for the state to use some of its federal CARES Act money to offer targeted grant money to small businesses hardest hit by the governor's executive orders.
"Now it's not just COVID-19 hurting some of these businesses. Now government decisions are involved," Marquart said.
He was referring to Walz's announcement last week that Minnesota's restaurants and bars could open June 1 for outdoor business up to 50 people at a time. It was a baffling decision that caught the business community off-guard because Walz had hinted at a full open instead of a limited one.
Restaurant and bar owners, already reeling from two months of extremely limited business after Walz's original executive orders rightly shut them down in the earliest days of the pandemic, must feel like they've been kicked in the teeth. Memorial Day weekend was already off the table for them, and now they don't know when they'll be allowed to open for indoor service.
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Some won't make it, at least not without a financial lifeline.
That's where Marquart's idea comes in. He wants Walz to carve out $50 million to $60 million of the state's federal assistance that was tabbed to help local government and have it targeted to the businesses that continue to be most affected by the governor's latest executive orders.
The state received $2.2 billion in CARES Act funds, with the stipulation that 45% had to be used locally. There's about $667 million of the local money remaining.
Under his emergency powers, Walz could make the decision to use the money how he sees fit without legislative approval.
The governor shouldn't make a habit of appropriating the money without legislators being involved, but in this case he should follow Marquart's plan.
Immediately. Maybe even sooner.
The state's restaurants and bars need help now, in large part because of Walz's decision to only allow outdoor seating.
"If they can't open to indoor seating right now, they are going to need cash flow," Marquart said. "This could serve as a bridge. Some of these places are in survival mode right now."
Marquart was as taken aback as anybody when Walz announced his outdoors-only decision, saying he was "frustrated." Marquart's House District 4B, which includes parts of Clay, Norman and Becker counties, has many small-town bars, cafes and restaurants — many that depend on summer traffic for their profits.
"Some of these seasonal places already operate on very small margins. They are not going to survive without some sort of assistance," he said.
Marquart carried a bill during the recently adjourned legislative session that would've provided emergency funding to small business. It didn't get out of committee before the session ended. He said he's been encouraged to continue negotiating that bill in preparation for the upcoming special session.
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In the meantime, Marquart said he's contacted the governor's office, Speaker of the House Melissa Hortman and Department of Employment and Economic Development commissioner Steve Grove asking them to push Walz to provide grants.
Marquart believes this is urgent. And he wants the money to be in the form of grants, not loans, that doesn't have to be paid back. If Walz targets the money toward those that need it most, Marquart believes it will help dozens of small businesses survive the next few months.
"There's just so much uncertainty right now for some of these business owners. They were kind of getting ready to go June 1, then took a gut punch with the outdoor seating rule. Now they don't know when they'll be able to open," Marquart said. "I think we can get them grant money to help. We're doing it for individuals, giving them basically grant money through the federal government to get them through. Why can't we do it for these businesses?"