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Retail reset: Businesses re-open cautiously


May 22, 2020

It wasn't exactly "business as usual" in Carlton County Monday.

Still, shoppers could choose from a wider variety of businesses, after the latest stay-at-home order issued by Gov. Tim Walz expired Monday, replaced by an order allowing nonessential retail businesses to open at 50-percent capacity provided they have a coronavirus safety plan.

In Cloquet, those plans ran the gamut from basic sanitizing to three-step plans for customers.

John and Joanne Buskala say they're following New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo's guidelines closely. The front door at the jewelry store on Cloquet Avenue outlines a two-phase approach. In Phase 1, they ask that customers call for appointments and/or wear a mask when they come to the store. If they don't have a mask, the store will provide one. "If you do not wish to wear a mask, we offer curbside service," the sign states, adding that the store will close for cleaning for a half-hour every two hours. Phase 2 of the Buskala plan will be implemented when Carlton County has a 14-day decline in cases. Buskala's Phase 3 has yet to be determined.

"I'm maybe a little too careful but, like I've told others, I've dodged a bullet twice and I don't want to push my luck," said John, adding that he might allow a walk-in customer, if they were willing to wear a mask. "I'm older," he said "and a lot of my customers are older too. I want to protect them as much as I want to protect myself."

Plastic sheets hanging above the display cases, and two new sheets of plexiglass dangling between John's main workspace and the store floor physically illustrate his point.

Closing allowed him to catch up on a lot of busywork and jewelry repairs. The Buskalas bought the 139-year-old family business from John's father in 1980.

They've survived the government-mandated closure so far on savings, but "I need to start working on some cash flow or I won't be here," he said.

Steve Grove, Department of Employment and Economic Development commissioner, said ensuring the health and safety of workers and customers is "the top priority" as the state gradually reopens.

"Safety first" appears to be the general philosophy of many of the smaller businesses around town. Even the much-busier Fond du Lac Gas & Grocery has also implemented a policy requiring all customers to wear a mask inside the store.

Although the store has been open throughout the stay-at-home order implemented in mid-March, the mask requirement took effect Monday. Customers also can help themselves to a squirt of hand sanitizer upon arrival, and clerks stand on the other side of a very large plexiglass shield.

"Our managers have been discussing [safety measures]. We know there will be a lot of cases again," said cashier Michael Biskey, explaining that they expect the number of people infected with COVID-19 to rise because the stay-at-home order was lifted.

Gov. Walz is hoping people will continue to follow social distancing and other guidelines, with the hope that numbers won't jump.

"This is not the time for sudden movements," Walz said in the press conference May 13 when he announced that he would continue to reopen the economy. "We are not flipping a switch and going back to normal all at once. We are slowly moving a dial and introducing more interaction between people over time. As we take cautious steps forward, it is more important than ever that we protect those most at risk, support workers, and all do our part to slow the spread of the virus."

The reaction to a different shopping experience has been mixed so far, according to social media and anecdotal evidence.

Biskey said many customers agree with the new mask policy, and agree that they should try to reduce transmission on the Fond du Lac Reservation.

"We have a lot of elders on the reservation, and it could be fatal to them," Biskey said. "A lot of people shop here."

Another customer told him wearing masks was pointless. At least two others vowed on Facebook that they wouldn't shop at the store anymore if they had to wear masks.

"The point of a mask is to stop you from breathing out (germs)," Biskey said. "Sure, they're not as good as an N95 (mask), but it's better than nothing, especially with regular handwashing and sanitizing.

Again, the range of "COVID-19 plans" is pretty wide, even locally. Most of the larger stores are having staff wear masks, but don't require that customers do. The Menards stores in Duluth are one exception to that. Many larger stores, but not all, have made aisles one-way, to lessen congestion.

In downtown Cloquet, the Lakeshore tobacco store isn't requiring customers to do anything differently, but staff are spraying the door and counters with disinfectant every hour, said clerk Ethan Lundeen, who said most of the customers are not wearing masks. Neither is he.

"I'm somewhat worried, but not too much yet," he said.

A block away but on the other end of the spectrum in terms of preparedness is Northern Minnesota Eye Care, where they opened to regular customers last week. Staff there are all wearing masks, and they ask that customers do the same. They are also taking customer temperatures electronically before each appointment. They're also asking people to pre-register before coming in to minimize time at the office.

"People understand," said optical manager Rhonda Martinson. "They've been awesome."

Things are not so different on the other side of town at Bergquist Imports. There, a posted list of guidelines suggests that customers wear masks, sanitize their hands, stay 6 feet apart and use credit cards when possible, and asserts the store will impose a limit of 10 customers at a time. Blue tape on the floor indicates how far apart customers should stand to comply with social distancing requirements.

Bergquist employee Diane Takkunen said she'd had three customers all day, all three buying gifts, all three in masks. It is a little unnerving being back at work, she admitted.

"But we all have to get back into our normal patterns," she said. "Luckily I'm healthy and we haven't had that many positive cases here."

And with that, she finishes wrapping a "Cream of Lutefisk" mug for a customer.

"Thanks for stopping in," she said.

Despite pandemic worries, she really means it.

"I'm a people person," she said.


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