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On The Mark: Viral upheaval hits this corner of Carlton County


March 20, 2020

Ann Markusen

Fran Johnson buys groceries at the Wright Co-op this week.

What a week. News of the coronavirus has altered our pathways, habits, spending and sociability. Just last Thursday evening, we were hosting visitors to The Knot Gallery, serving food and drink and trying to remember to bump elbows rather than shake hands or hug. By Tuesday, everyone was madly imagining living without K-12 schools, restaurants, bars, sports and church services. Some of us worried about food and medical supplies - would the shelves be empty? Celebrating St. Patrick's Day at a pub was out of the question.

Once upon a time, it all seemed far away. Seattle, San Francisco, New York ... all preferred destinations for people returning from international travels to China. In Minnesota, the known cases is slowly creeping up. On Monday, I felt lucky to get into Tomhave Dental to fix a molar I'd chipped over the weekend.

How are we coping? For me, the pandemic imposes a welcome opportunity to stay home and do an early spring cleaning. And more: rooting out whatever has accumulated in corners of our home. Repotting house plants, washing yoga mats with a vinegar solution, and consigning heavy winter clothes to the basement cedar chest. Time to pause at the Tamarack River to admire a pair of swans, just returned, sparkling white in the sunlight. To wander in our woods and see if I can rouse the barred owl I heard two mornings ago.

My Spanish language camp week, scheduled this month, has been canceled. I rebooked, hopeful for an April session. Social distancing gives me more time to practice speaking, watch videos, and read an Isabel Allende novel aloud. I'm calling faraway friends who live in Chicago, Portland, Oakland, Texas and elsewhere, catching up, hearing what they're experiencing. And emailing friends in Seoul, Kyoto, Scotland and Italy.

What about our Cromwell area businesses? Well, there's the amusing toilet paper rush. I was pleased to hear a radio account from the head of a U.S. manufacturers' organization who claimed we have plenty of capacity to rapidly produce more toilet paper.

I wondered about our local businesses. A quick check discovered both feast and famine. The Wright Farmers Co-op has been treated to a buying spree. Manager Tim Bury said that normally the winter doldrums would be lingering there.

"My sales are paltry, from $1,300 to $1,900 a day. We need $2000 to break even," he told me. But all of a sudden, this past Saturday, people flocked to the store. "We doubled, almost tripled, our sales. We had to double our orders for weekly truck deliveries. We almost sold out of toilet paper, usually slowly moving."

Worrisome, on the invoice, the supplier noted "limited supply." Other fast sellers include liquid soap, disinfecting wipes, and bath tissues. Unless you're Target, you don't get "just in time" supplies, although the co-op's supplier delivers twice a week.

I asked Bury about what happens next.

"I'm playing it by ear," he said. "Yesterday, we completely ran out of milk and eggs. Just two weeks ago, I was pitching outdated milk."

Now he's trying to be proactive, anticipating how - with kids home from school - families will need extra food.

"It's a big guessing game. You hope your suppliers can meet your needs. But they are serving six states, and who knows?"

Because grocery stores are considered essential, they stay open. And his employees are disinfecting door knobs and cart handles frequently.

It's tough for cafés and restaurants, too, such as Minette's Village Pump Saloon in Tamarack. Gov. Tim Walz ordered bars, restaurants, coffee houses, theaters, museums and places of public amusement (bowling alleys, gyms) to close until at least March 27. As part of the measure, bars and restaurants cannot serve liquor or food inside. They can offer "curbside" services.

"We will accept phone orders and have to carry the food out to their cars," said Village Pump owner Minette Juhl. The closures do not include grocery stores, convenience stores and pharmacies.

A broadening of unemployment insurance is expected, making payments in a timely fashion and ending surcharges on employers. It is not clear whether proprietors of small businesses hurt by closures will be included. Unemployment compensation will also be available for workers who must stay home to care for children if their schools or child care centers have closed.

Oddly, I'm enjoying this disruption of my normal habits. I'm staying home, cooking and serving nutritious meals while listening to high-quality public radio updates. I'm moved by the way people of all ages are rising to the occasion, vigorously washing hands, tuning into people they love, especially the vulnerable, and hoping that this will end, soon.

Margaret Webster and Ann Markusen enjoy the last lunch (dine-in) at Minette's Village Pump Saloon in Tamarack on Tuesday

Ann Markusen is an economist and professor emerita at University of Minnesota. A Pine Knot board member, she lives in Red Clover Township with her husband, Rod Walli.


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