Danielle Betker knows her customers at Lillians of Hutchinson are looking for a certain experience. The boutique's visitors are often enjoying a day with friends while they walk down Main Street, stop for lunch and visit shops to try on clothes.
Lillians, like numerous businesses in Hutchinson, has had to close its doors due to the state's COVID-19 response plan. When Gov. Tim Walz extended the stay-at-home order to May 18 but allowed retail businesses to offer curbside or delivery services, the adjustment didn't look like the change Betker says her business needs.
"We have a lot of different vendors," she said. "If you go to a big box store, sizing is standard. But at a boutique it is not. On every brand the sizing is a little different."
Betker said her business has done "OK" with online sales, but in an entire month she has made in sales about what she would make in a day or two of regular business.
"Customers want to come in," she said. "I'm excited (curbside) is another option for us, but do I think it's going to really bring us a lot more business? I'm not really sure."
One of the first groups of businesses to close doors was salons. While they still cannot open their doors or offer many of their services, the curbside and delivery option has provided some means to earn income by selling hair and beauty products. Leah Watzke, owner of The Hair Lounge in Hutchinson, said she bags order when they come in and takes them home to be picked up by customers.
"We can't do any colors or any services, so it doesn't pay to sit at the salon for the one, two, maybe three (orders) every few days," she said. "It's not a really good use of my time."
Another Hutchinson business, Genesis Salon and Enso Spa, announced it would open two days a week with limited hours for curbside pickup.
Even though Watzke can't open the doors at The Hair Lounge, she's ready. Over the past few weeks she has ordered product as it's available in order to prepare. She has also made major changes to her interior in order to comply with social distancing requirements.
"We are a salon where we are one room, and everyone does hair in the one room, so we are separating everyone," Watzke said. "We got rid of the break room and my office and the dryer room and separated all our stylists so we have our own rooms. Each girl has been able to decorate their space however they want. We got rid of our lobby and took out all the magazines and books and all the (stuff that can't be sanitized)."
As of early this week, the Board of Cosmetology had not offered any rules for sanitation. "So we are using the common-sense approach," Watzke said. "We're going to be so busy when we come back. ... I want our clients to be able to come in and feel safe and know we did everything we can."
Watzke said she and the stylists at the salon are trained in sanitizing, and even before the response to COVID-19, the salon received training and surprise visits from the state in order to make sure a healthy environment was being maintained. Though she feels ready to open for business and offer a safe environment, she worries she won't be allowed to open for more than another two weeks.
Other businesses around Hutchinson have made changes as state orders develop, such as Smokes 4 Less, which early this week posted a sign advertising curbside pickup and delivery. Happy Sprout Brew & Grow was able to open its doors when garden centers were given the go-ahead a few weeks ago, and has taken to sanitizing everything people touch.
Mary Hodson, president of the Hutchinson Area Chamber of Commerce and Tourism, said that like Lillians, many local businesses have switched to online sales, and that like The Hair Lounge, many are making plans to offer a safe environment for customers when they are able to open.
"We're not asking for the lever to be pulled and for everything to open, but we are trying to get it so people can make their best judgments," Hodson said. "Businesses don't have to open if they don't feel it's safe, but to give them the option to do what's best is what's really important right now."
She said that most manufacturers are operating, but a few are not because the industry they support is not up and running. Tourism has taken a big hit, she said, and many restaurants have made the choice to close for now.
"In restaurants, the margin is very small," Hodson said. "So when you see restaurants aren't open, it's not that they're closing down. But it doesn't make sense for them to get product in, pay people to be there, and then jump through the hoops they have to. ... They can't make any money doing it."
As time goes on, the Chamber is receiving more frustrated calls seeking guidance.
"People are starting to dip into savings accounts," Hodson said. "You have businesses talking about how they can't keep their store open, they can't keep their business open. They can't dip into the family savings account. ... It's a critical situation. We are right on the cusp of another hammer dropping. We are right at that point here in Hutchinson."
She encourages business owners to write to legislators, the governor, the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce and the state Department of Employment and Economic Development.
In conversations with business owners around Hutchinson, Hodson said she has heard consistently the desire to open up with safety measures in place and with means prepared to take care of customers' well-being.
"Some know one part of the business can't be opened safely, but another side or aspect could be opened safely," she said.
In the meantime, Hodson said she takes encouragement from the many businesses that are serving their customers in whatever way they can, and other times by inventing creative methods to help.
"That's the part that makes me very proud to be part of the business community," Hodson said. "They want to be sure to take care of their customers."
Watzke said she has helped customers with virtual haircuts. With a child holding the phone, she has guided mom or dad to the best of everyone's ability, sometimes before a needed haircut is started and sometimes after a mistake was already made.
"We're in this field because that's what we love," Watzke said. "We love to take care of others and I love hearing from clients. ... It makes the anxiety a little less."
The curbside and delivery option doesn't allow The Paint Factory to return to business as usual, as the event-driven venue still can't open its doors. But it has allowed it to try something new to interact with customers. The studio has started an event called "Friday Night Live."
"I'm down at the studio," said owner Tara Tepley. "I bring my brother in and he's our socially distanced DJ, and we do what we do at the studio. We do a canvas painting class and turn it into canvas and karaoke."
Karaoke is used because the event is streamed live through Facebook, and full songs can't be used.
"We had to get creative," Tepley said.
With curbside pickup, customers can grab the paint and canvas needed for the lesson. Throughout the week, The Paint Factory also offers take-home kits for other crafts projects.
"It's nice to be able to offer something again," Tepley said.
To help customers who may prefer a visual guide in place of written instructions, she has taken to uploading videos of craft ideas most days of the week.
"Yesterday I took a terracotta pot and painted a donkey on it," Tepley said Tuesday. "And last week ... we took two plant things and put them together and painted it and made a cow."
Hutchinson’s girls swimming and diving team has been one of the most dominant squads in Hutchinson athletics history, racking up 18 conference titles, including a current streak of 12; 24 section titles, including a current streak of 13; and four state championships.
When it comes to school records, however, many have been broken within the past 10 years. Tigersharks head coach Rory Fairbanks attributes this to the hard work that the girls have put in the pool since they were a part of the High Tides program.
“They've all swam together since they were 8 years old,” Fairbanks said. “They have been good the whole way through. We've just had that natural competitiveness in practice to push each other and get better.”
One of those swimmers is current Hutchinson senior Lexi Kucera, who holds four individual school records in the 200 freestyle and 100 butterfly, and is also a member of the 200 and 400 freestyle relay teams that also set school records. She’ll be attending the University of Nebraska this fall and swimming with the team, but some of her drive also has to go to her sister, Kaylee. Kaylee was a few years older than Lexi, who looked up to her sister and attended many meets and saw Kaylee breaking records.
“When Lexi was in fifth or sixth grade and Kaylee was setting records, she would come in before practice and she would tell us she's going to beat her sister's records,” Fairbanks said. “Both of those girls are very competitive. … The Kuceras are an athletic family, so it's in their nature to be that way and be driven.”
Fairbanks said that the girls are keenly aware of what the records are since they hang up in Carlson Pool for all to see. The goal isn't to focus on that, but to improve every day.
Speaking of focus, former diver Rachel Haugen holds the records for scores after six and 11 dives. She set those records back in 2015, her senior year.
Since that time, the Tigersharks had a string of good divers come through the program including Jenna Nagy and Emma Trenton. Those two pushed Haugen in practice to be better, but she was also learning that sometimes thinking about something too much can be a detriment.
“Rachel got caught up on the records,” Fairbanks said. “So we finally just said, 'Just go out and dive and let the scores happen.' That's when the records came about.”
Another great Tigershark during her time was Audrey Kumm. Although she only holds one record in the 200 medley relay with teammates Kaylee Kucera, Jordan Ford and Aspen Billiet, she is second in school history in the 200 individual medley and 100 butterfly.
Kumm is a product of the swimmers that came before her, Fairbanks said. She came in and worked hard to get better everyday, which led to her setting records.
“She worked hard every day,” Fairbanks said. “She was a good age group swimmer and just continued to improve all the way through.”
But records are meant to be broken, and Kumm’s have since been broken by recent swimmers. Lexi Kucera beat her butterfly time by 0.16 seconds, while another younger swimmer, sophomore Hailey Farrell, set a new record in the 200 IM by just 0.04 seconds.
Farrell has been a big part of the team’s recent run of success and broken records. Along with the 200 IM she holds the school record in the 500 freestyle and is a member of the 400 freestyle relay team that holds the record. The 200 IM and the 500 freestyle are the longest individual events in high school swimming. That's where Farrell's focus is and where Fairbanks believes that she will do her best at the next level.
“She can hold a pace in practice as long or longer than anyone we've ever had,” Fairbanks said. “She wants to be a sprinter, but we've talked with her several times. When coaches start calling and looking at her as a recruit, her strength is going to be those distance events. Her strength, just the way her body is made up and the way her energy systems run, she's definitely a better distance swimmer than she is a sprinter.”
’Sharks aren’t without a star in the sprinting events as well. Sophomore Grace Hanson, who was recently named the Class A Swimmer of the Year by the Minnesota Swimming and Diving Coaches Association, holds records in the 50 and 100 freestyle events and is part of the relay teams with records in the 200 and 400 freestyle relay. Hanson's 50 freestyle time of 22.79 tied the Minnesota Class A record, and hopefully in June she will head to Omaha to compete in the Olympic quaifier.
So Hanson is a little bit of the opposite of Farrell in that she's quick with fast twitch muscles. Faribanks believes that if Hanson were to swim in more distance events, there's no doubt that she would be high on those lists as well.
“She can swim the butterfly, also some breaststroke,” he said. “You know, her 500 isn't bad either. We just haven't even needed her in there.”
While the Tigersharks have had a long tradition of success, fans and swimmers of the team in recent years have literally watched history be made, and there’s no telling how long those records will stand. While Fairbanks is looking forward to seeing who will be the next swimmers to challenge those records, he’ll make sure that their priorities are straight first.
“If you work hard every day, trying to improve every day, the records are going to be what they are,” he said.
Miss the gym? In rural Plainview, a commercial fitness center reopened to visitors as of May 1, despite a statewide executive order to the contrary.
“There was no funding for small businesses, with all these economic relief loans,” said Plainview Wellness Center owner Brandon Reiter, who applied for federal Payment Protection Program help without success. “I had no choice, financially, to make this go.”
Need a new vase, or maybe an old one? After witnessing crowds of customers frequenting big box stores near her home, the proprietor of a furniture and home decor shop in Cambridge, is opening its doors Friday through Sunday in open defiance of the governor’s stay-at-home orders. Customers can also shop outside.
“I have not received a dime of this money I was supposed to be getting for unemployment, and I filed six weeks ago,” said Mary Andersen, owner of The Vintage Pixie, fighting back tears. “I’m not trying to be defiant. I have to feed my family. And I will be safer than Walmart or Menards.”
Across Minnesota, some desperate small retailers that had readied to reopen May 4 have thrown open their doors for at least limited hours anyway and are back in action, despite statewide executive orders to remain closed for all but curbside pickup and delivery.
Some businesses barely shuttered, or have encouraged curbside pickup even before the state allowed it for small retailers. Shared through social media, a website dubbed “Minnesota Pacesetters” lists 17 “courageous businesses that are now responsibly open or will be opening soon.” Among those businesses is Alternative Health Specialties north of Hutchinson, which provides massage and holistic therapy treatments. Stephanie Kadelbach, the owner of the business, declined to comment.
CHURCHES, BUSINESSES FILE LAWSUIT
On Wednesday, the Upper Midwest Law Center announced it had filed suit against the Walz administration in federal court on behalf of multiple Minnesota churches and small business owners. The suit calls the governor’s shutdown orders unconstitutional.
Plaintiffs include the Northland Baptist Church of St. Paul, the Living Word Christian Center of Brooklyn Park, Glow In One Mini Golf of Blaine, and Myron’s Cards and Gifts of Roseville, Blaine, Bloomington and other locations.
A previous lawsuit against the Walz administration was filed by the “Free Minnesota Small Business Coalition.”
Elsewhere, authorities have begun to take notice.
In St. Joseph, the BabyGirlz woman’s clothing boutique announced on Facebook that it plans to be open from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. this Thursday through Saturday. When it opened last week, an officer with the St. Joseph’s Police Department was sent to shut it down.
Proprietor Melissa Kolstad said she respectfully complied at the time, but come this weekend, anyone who wants to step in her store and try on clothes is welcome to.
Gov. Tim Walz last Thursday announced he would extend store closures that took effect in late March to May 18, two weeks later than previously planned, in order to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus and buy more time for hospitals to acquire potentially life-saving supplies.
New statewide projections are expected this week from the University of Minnesota, but some national models predict as many as 3,000 COVID-19 deaths per day across the country by June 1.
Walz said many Minnesotans have voluntarily embraced the spirit of social distancing for the greater good. Still, he said, it’s tough to explain the benefit of business closures to those who have not been infected, in the same vein as it’s tough to explain beach closures to everyone who hasn’t drowned.
“I think most of us know, regardless if it’s speeding laws or moving up to other things, social compliance is the idea that (our) actions don’t only impact ourselves, they impact others,” Walz said at a news conference this week.
The governor acknowledged that some business owners may go to great lengths to keep clients and workers safe, even beyond what’s expected of them, but the state wasn’t yet ready to turn the dial to “open.”
“In every society, you’ve got to have an orderly way to do this,” Walz said Tuesday.
Many business owners say they’re not blind to those concerns, but they’re confident they can open the doors to their retail shops to a few customers at a time while maintaining sensible safety protocols.
And they call it unfair that many big box retailers have been allowed to serve dozens of customers at a time while they’re shuttered from serving even a single one.
Not all of the business owners qualify for unemployment, Kolstad said, or have received small business assistance from the federal government. “I am not wearing a mask, but (my customers) can wear a mask if they so choose. I’m steaming clothes. I’m wiping down the entire dressing room after each use.”
INDUSTRY LEADERS URGE CAUTION, COMPLIANCE, PLANNING
In St. Paul, a barber who reopened his University Avenue shop Monday in defiance of the governor’s orders wore a thick face mask and switched from cloth to vinyl customer aprons that won’t absorb moisture and virus-carrying droplets. Milan Dennie said at the time he was playing it safer than many other barbers who are now making clandestine house calls.
The decision to begin serving customers anew, however, put him at odds with official guidance from industry leaders, and with the state.
On Tuesday morning, an officer with the St. Paul Police Department asked him to close. The department has not issued any formal citations to store owners.
“He said there wouldn’t be any repercussions if I closed so I asked if I could finish my next customer first and he said yes,” said Dennie.
Dennie was scheduled Wednesday afternoon to speak to Walz and the Minnesota Board of Barber Examiners through Skype, an online platform.
‘SAFETY FIRST’ APPROACH
Damon Dorsey, president of the American Barber Association, said he’s encouraging barbers to follow local guidance on reopening.
“Some barbers have gotten the virus and some have died,” Dorsey said. “We strongly support a ‘safety first’ approach to reopening.”
Given the economics of their situation, health concerns, access to personal protective equipment, logistics and other factors, some shops and restaurants that are allowed to offer curbside service have chosen not to.
Bruce Nustad, president of the Minnesota Retailers Association, said last week he worked with the Walz administration prior to the extension of stay-at-home orders.
Reiter, the proprietor of the Plainview Wellness Center, said he’s already received a cease-and-desist style letter from local law enforcement, with information forwarded by the county attorney’s office indicating his business could be fined $1,000 per day for reopening.
He respects the intent. But he was open all weekend and plans to remain so, with extra safety and sanitation protocols in place.
During a COVID-19 update at the Tuesday morning McLeod County Board meeting, public health officials asked residents to stay the course and maintain social distancing.
"We are still in a state of widespread cases worldwide," said interim McLeod County Health and Human Services director Meghan Mohs.
She said the U.S. was approaching 1.2 million cases and Minnesota was over 7,000, recently increasing by 471 each day. Mohs said that as testing increases, more confirmed cases will naturally be found. As of Thursday there were six confirmed cases in McLeod County.
Gov. Tim Walz recently extended the stay-at-home order to May 18, but made some changes to allow retail businesses to provide curbside pickup and delivery services
"I'm glad more people are able to return to their jobs," Mohs said. "We are also concerned at the same time that some are gradually losing patience with the stay-at-home order. We are seeing some relaxing of social distancing measures that is maybe not the best for everybody involved."
She asked county residents to maintain social distancing, to wash hands regularly, wear face masks and to stay home if sick, and work from home if possible. Due to other states opening up major sections of their economies, Mohs said, the University of Washington's COVID-19 model had produced revised projections, increasing its estimates to 134,000 deaths in the U.S. by early August.
Laurie Snegosky, who is acting as the incident commander for the county's emergency response, said public health was working to increase the availability of testing. Drive-thru testing is now available in the county by appointment at Hutchinson Health and Glencoe Regional Health.
Public health is coordinating with local services and businesses.
"We are working with our local dental offices ... to find out what personal protection equipment they need to safely reopen," she said. "We are currently continuing to plan with our long-term care congregate living facilities and are no longer focused on if they will be affected. We know that they will be effected, so we are planning for worst-case scenarios there to make sure that we can meet the needs of the residents of those facilities."
Minnesota Department of Health is still in charge of testing results and responding to them, but the county is working with the agency to find ways to provide more help locally. One item of discussion is the best way to provide daily follow-up calls with those in quarantine.
McLeod County Emergency Management director Kevin Mathews said the county is planning for the worst but hoping for the best. One potential issue the county is planning for is the possibility of danger to migrant workers who will be in the county soon. The county is also seeking federal reimbursement for its expenses. At this point, it has received a $7,051 grant to help with its COVID-19 response.