MOORHEAD - Local bar and restaurant managers and employees say new restrictions on hours, bar seating and customer numbers announced Tuesday, Nov. 10, by Gov. Tim Walz may be necessary, but will make it a lot harder to meet expenses this winter as the COVID-19 pandemic grinds on.
Walz’s latest executive order bans serving meals and drinks on the premises of bars and restaurants between 10 p.m. and 4 a.m.. Sitting at a bar counter is also no longer allowed. A business can have no more than 150 people indoors and no more than half of total capacity. The restrictions start Friday and violators can be fined or face jail time.
The announcement comes after a week of record-setting highs in new cases, hospitalizations, and deaths due to the virus, the governor’s office said.
The time restriction was a jolt for Legends Sports Bar & Grill in south Moorhead.
“We were caught a little bit off guard but we’re known for being quick on our feet and rolling with the punches,” said bartender and spokesperson Baylee Engquist.
Engquist said customers have been willing to roll with state mandated changes.
“Their support is what keeps us going. They want us to keep open as much as we do,” Engquist said.
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Jaime Sjoblom, assistant general manager for The Boulder Tap House, said the bar and restaurant wouldn’t have to close too much earlier, but losing bar seating will hurt.
No bar seating “is still going to lessen what we already have to do. It’s already tough. It takes away 25% of what we have,” Sjoblom said. “Realistically, I do think we need that bartender to customer interaction that people value. A lot of bars really work off that.”
Walz said the earlier closing time for bars is geared toward Minnesotans ages 18 to 35 who've been prolific spreaders of the COVID-19 virus, often without recognizing they have the illness. State officials say more than 70% of COVID-19 outbreaks in Minnesota from June to November have a direct link back to weddings, private social gatherings, and late nights at bars and restaurants.
Beginning Friday there will be a 10-person limit for indoor and outdoor gatherings. Capacity limits for receptions related to weddings, funerals, and similar events will be instituted through a phased approach, but will eventually lead to a 25-person cap.
Walz also announced $10 million in Small Business Relief Grants to support small businesses affected by the pandemic.
Moorhead Mayor Johnathan Judd could not be immediately reached for comment.
On the west side of the Red River, Fargo Mayor Tim Mahoney said he’s asked the city attorney to draft enforcement measures to get bars and restaurants to require patrons and staff to mask up, and to keep occupancy at 25% of a business’s legal capacity. He said compliance was poor at some businesses over the Halloween weekend.
Mahoney doesn't want local hospitals to be overwhelmed.
“We think COVID hospitalizations will be high the next couple weeks. We may double the rates over the next two weeks. We just don't want to exceed our capacity” for effective medical care, Mahoney said.
Back in Moorhead, JL Beers Manager Ben Vuicich said the tiny bar and restaurant has been following all state guidelines.
“Basically, our focus is trying to keep our customers safe and our staff safe,” Vuicich said, but the new restrictions on hours and seating “would be a pretty big hit. We’re a small store."
The JL Beers bar normally seats 22 and was down to 10 before Walz’s order. Now, that seating goes away.
We’re still “just trying to keep this thing together,” Vuichic said. Fortunately, customers have significantly increased their to-go orders, he said.
Executive director of the Minnesota Licensed Beverage Association Tony Chesak says they've been at the table with the Department of Health since day one, helping provide input and guide policy changes. But Chesak found out about these latest changes on Twitter.
"We're pretty emotional about it; we didn't really know it was coming," Chesak said.
He said bars and restaurants are already doing what they can. They have mask-wearing rules and are also cleaning, keeping capacity limits and social distancing. The owners he's been speaking to still feel helpless.
Junkyard Brewing has kept their taproom closed since businesses had to shut down temporarily in the spring. Co-founder Aaron Juhnke says a new wave of restrictions comes as no surprise.
"I've been expecting this all summer long," he said.
Juhnke said they're prepared for a lot more restrictions to come this winter, and they’re keeping afloat with off-sale alcohol sales.
"I overheard one woman saying, 'I think I buy more of your beer now than before this pandemic,'" Juhnke said.
Realistically, he said, that's the best they can hope for right now.
"I can complain all day long, but it wouldn't really change how many people would get this virus or whether or not people think it's a big deal," Juhnke said. "I'm just trying to focus on the things I can control, I can have an effect on, and that's lowering the risk for the staff and the community."
At Mick’s Office, bartender Jeremy Smith was tidying up after the lunch rush.
“I think it’s absolutely going to be harder to do business,” Smith said. “But I’ve got a sick mom at home and vulnerable people in my life, so on the other side of that, you don’t want to get them hurt or spread anything to them.”
Mick’s Office is on the “resilient end” of the business spectrum, he said.
“I think Mick’s is going to survive regardless,” Smith said.