Meeker County businesses could see more assistance as a result of the COVID-19 aid bill passed by the Legislature last week.

The bill, which passed during a one-day special session Dec. 14, included $216 million in business relief. Among the details, it calls for:

  • Department of Revenue to distribute $88 million to restaurants, bars and other eligible business that have seen a 30 percent decline in their business. Also included in the list are gyms, bowling alleys and breweries, wineries and distilleries.
  • $14 million in targeted assistance to movie theaters and convention centers through the Department of Employment and Economic Development.
  • $114 million for the state’s 87 counties, who will be tasked with distributing their allocation to businesses in need. Meeker County is in line to receive $458,000; McLeod County $700,000.
  • A 13-week extension of unemployment benefits for those who lost jobs due to the pandemic.

“I think that was remarkable,” Rep. Dean Urdahl, R-Acton Township, said of the Legislature’s quick and collaborative action. “But even more remarkable was in such a short time they were able to put the bill together.

“(Rep.) Dave Baker, R-Willmar spearheaded the Republican side,” Urdahl added, “and did a fine job of getting both sides and the governor. It’s a good example of what can be done when we’re working together.”

Though there was overwhelming bipartisan agreement on the bill — it passed 117-13 in the House and 62-4 in the Senate — there was division over who, or what, was at fault for the dire position many businesses have found themselves in during the pandemic.

Many Republicans pointed directly at Gov. Tim Walz, whose executive orders restricting some businesses, including closing bars and restaurants to indoor service, they blamed for putting businesses in peril. Democrats pushed back, saying Walz has followed the science in trying to slow the spread of COVID-19.

For his part, Walz said in a statement that the bill’s passage was “a critical lifeline for those businesses, and for the Minnesotans whose livelihoods depend on them. This bipartisan bill will provide direct, targeted aid to keep our small businesses afloat, support workers struggling to get by, and help families put food on the table while we work to get the virus under control.”

But State Rep. Glenn Gruenhagen, R-Glencoe, one of 13 legislators who opposed the bill, called the bill the wrong way to help businesses and workers.

“…While the relief will help some, ultimately the best way we can help businesses is to let them fully open so they can safely serve their customers,” Gruenhagen said in a Dec. 16 statement. “That is why I will continue pushing to end Governor Walz’s emergency powers and restore the legislature’s constitutionally designated role as a coequal branch of government.”

The frustration with closures bubbled up during a Meeker County Board meeting Tuesday, as well, when Commissioner Beth Oberg, who manages the Litchfield American Legion restaurant and bar, offered what she called a “rant.”

“Now we all know why Walz put off his decision,” Oberg said of the governor’s scheduled address, originally set for Dec. 14 then delayed to Dec. 16. “It’s just a band-aid. The whole thing has been ridiculous.”

She mentioned “a movement” among rural businesses who planned to ignore the governor’s executive order – which he did extend through Jan. 10.

“People want to open,” Oberg said. “In my opinion, it’s just not the answer. They’re throwing some money at people trying to keep businesses … to keep their mouth shut. All they want to do is operate. This isn’t what they want.”

Gruenhagen also faulted the extension of unemployment benefits because of “unintentional consequences.” He said he’s been contacted by business owners who have struggled to hire employees during the pandemic.

“Understandably, some folks may choose to stay unemployed despite being offered their job back because unemployment benefits have been so generous,” Gruenhagen said. “Ultimately, unemployment insurance is not supposed to pay out if an employee is offered their job back or another same or similar job, but they have not been stopping payments for this reason.”