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State offers some pandemic salve


December 18, 2020

Jana Peterson

A Covid relief bill passed by the state legislature Monday includes grants for businesses hit hardest by the pandemic, such as the movie theaters in Cloquet and Moose Lake. Premiere Theatres is not showing movies now because of the latest state mandate, but they are open from noon to 4 p.m. daily to sell gift cards and concessions through Christmas. Movie theaters must remain closed until Jan. 11.

Minnesota lawmakers passed new Covid-19 assistance legislation for Minnesota workers and businesses Monday night in a special session, and Governor Tim Walz signed the package into law on Wednesday. The small business relief package includes a 13-week extension of unemployment benefits for workers and grants for businesses most impacted by the pandemic.

"The Covid-19 pandemic has caused unthinkable economic pain for our small businesses and the workers who staff bars, restaurants, and so many other establishments that are barely hanging on," said Rep. Mike Sundin (DFL–Esko), who voted in favor of the measure. "They all need help, and they need it now. I'm proud we could work together to advance this bipartisan assistance package, but I recognize that it doesn't solve the whole problem for many folks. I'd urge the federal government to follow our lead and immediately deliver a significant economic recovery package.

To help workers displaced as a result of the pandemic, the bill provides a 13-week extension of unemployment benefits. Without action from the Legislature, over 100,000 Minnesota workers could lose benefits on Dec. 26 when funding under the federal CARES Act is set to expire.

The legislation also delivers a $216 million package of economic assistance to small businesses. Of this, $88 million comes in the form of direct financial aid to businesses experiencing economic harm due to the pandemic. Those eligible businesses include restaurants, bars, coffee shops, breweries, wineries and distilleries with taprooms or tasting rooms, caterers, bowling alleys, and some gyms and fitness centers. The bill also includes $14 million worth of grants to movie theaters and large convention centers. The remaining $114.8 million will be made available to counties for grants to other affected businesses, including hotels, museums, arcades and live theater venues.

Premiere Theatres owner Rick Stowell was very happy with the legislative news out of St. Paul earlier this week.

"The state has come through big time for theaters," Stowell told the Pine Knot News on Tuesday. "And they're extending unemployment for our staff. And we have been awarded the Carlton County grant."

In a Facebook post almost a month ago, Stowell pointed out that the Cloquet movie theater had been closed 230 out of the previous 276 days, while still paying $27,726 in property taxes.

"We have no issue being closed if it's for the greater good, but we (and our staff) need financial assistance - and now they are finally providing it," Stowell said Tuesday.

Gov. Tim Walz said Wednesday that movie theaters must remain closed until Jan. 11.

Walz acknowledged the "enormous sacrifices" small businesses have made in a statement applauding passage of the relief bill.

"This is a critical lifeline for those businesses, and for the Minnesotans whose livelihoods depend on them," Walz said. "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."

The Minnesota bill also waives or delays a series of fees for the hospitality industry, including 2 a.m. liquor licenses for bars, caterers that serve alcohol, wastewater permitting fees for small breweries, and certain late payment penalties for food related businesses. Finally, the legislation extends the deadline for families to apply for free and reduced-price lunch.

Items that did not make it into the bill, according to Minnesota Public Radio included a DFL proposal for $500 payments to low-income families, homeless aid and child care support. Also left out was a proposal to allow establishments to sell more beer and hard liquor as takeout items.

Earlier Monday, the House passed a bill with various technical changes and other measures to provide flexibility during the pandemic. This legislation included a section authored by Rep. Sundin to adopt recommendations of the Workers Compensation Advisory Council. These measures - advanced with the support of both labor and business representatives on the council - include changes related to financial requirements for businesses that self-insure, the state's workers comp case management system, the list of occupations that could be covered under certain criteria, and estates of workers who have died.


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