Slowly, downtown Fargo coming to life again

A week after Gov. Doug Burgum lifted restrictions on North Dakota's bars, restaurants and other businesses and let them reopen their doors, the customers still weren't coming.

Mary Larsien-Cantrell stands Friday, May 8, in front of Scan Design on Broadway in Fargo. She expects downtown to come alive slowly in the coming weeks as customers become more comfortable. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor

FARGO — Mary Larsien-Cantrell opened the two larger outer doors to her Scandinavian furniture store in downtown Fargo Thursday, May 7, and put a welcome mat out hoping to catch the attention of shoppers.

It wasn't working very well.

There have been a lot of days without customers in the past six weeks during the pandemic, said the president of Scan Design along Broadway in the once thriving and booming heart of the city.

A week after Gov. Doug Burgum lifted restrictions on North Dakota's bars, restaurants and other businesses and let them reopen their doors, the customers still weren't coming, she said.

She is hoping things will improve as she's planning to advertise a sale, but hasn't exactly set the beginning or ending date.


"It'll come slowly I think," she said about the reopening of businesses downtown. "I think they (customers) have to get their confidence back. But there's nothing happening now."

She said her store has plenty of room for social distancing and she has hand sanitizer and disinfecting wipes at the front door. Her mask is also ready to go.

Melissa Brandt, president and CEO of the Downtown Community Partnership, guesses that only an estimated 15% of the businesses are open downtown after the state began its “Smart Restart” program at the beginning of the month.

She was on a conference call Thursday with many of her member business owners and Mayor Tim Mahoney discussing various issues.

"I think you'll see more and more to start opening up," she said after the call.

Most of the businesses, including bars and restaurants, are "cautious and want their customers to be comfortable," she said. "We've got to start opening up, though."

Mahoney agrees. In the conference call, he encouraged just that.

"I think in another two to three weeks we will be into the new normal," he said, where most businesses will be open but with safety in mind.


He believes it will "mimic" the reopening of West Acres, which started anew on Friday, May 8, with about 20% of its businesses open.

The city is "doing better than expected" during the pandemic, he said, and there's a plan to step up testing and tracing. He said he continues to be encouraged by the low hospitalization rate.

He pointed to a study by the Harvard Global Health Institute that found North Dakota is one of only nine mostly rural states that can safely reopen.

Zach Hudson, who was enjoying an early evening drink Thursday at Dempsey's Public House on Broadway with friends, agrees with that assessment.

He said he was probably one of the few out-of-state visitors in North Dakota.

"I had heard the state was the least risk of any," said Hudson, who lives in Tampa, Fla., and was here with his companion, who had to come for personal reasons.

"I feel safe," he said about being in the bar.

Dempsey's Manager Jeff Fonder said he doesn't know how things are going to go after they reopened their doors last Wednesday.


What he does know is that they have cleaned "every surface in the bar and that every single one of our employees are planning to come back" to one of the city's most popular bars.

"Not one employee said they didn't want to be here," he said.

Fonder said it's going to be an adjustment as the new guidelines call for tables to be spread apart with customers asked to find a seat and not stand around next to each other.

The dance floor is also covered with a few tables as any dancing is off-limits, as are the blackjack tables. Customers can still play video gambling machines and pull tabs.

It was pretty slow Thursday on Dempsey's second day, though, with only about 10 people inside, almost matching the six workers on duty as happy hour wound down.

Brandt said many bars and restaurants were happy they weren't flooded with customers during this first week.

"They said they haven't been overcrowded and that it's been manageable with customers being respectful and considerate," she said. "That was good as many didn't know what to expect."

Brandt said many downtown businesses are opening in different ways, including opening only by appointment or reservation, staying open shorter hours or continuing to only offer takeouts and deliveries for now.


One thing many of the restaurants learned through the pandemic that was encouraging was that takeouts and deliveries are something they want to continue as it was working well, she said. The toll the pandemic took, though, is unknown on all of the businesses.

Larsien-Cantrell believes her business will be one that can survive.

"I'm hanging on and I'll claw my way back tooth and nail," she said. "It's going to be rough, though."

She said she's thankful to be living in Fargo as she's had lots of calls from concerned customers who told her not to worry and they'll be back to shop.

"This community is so great," she said.

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