Loosening of restrictions brings hope end is close

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Tim Krohn, The Free Press, Mankato, Minn.
·5 min read
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Mar. 15—As COVID restrictions eased on businesses and gatherings Monday, business owners are grateful but are more focused on the coming of warm weather, more progress on vaccines and a final end to the pandemic.

"It's getting better, moving in the right direction," said Joe Frederick of Pub 500 in downtown Mankato.

But he and owners of other bars, restaurants and fitness centers that are limited on space, say increasing capacity to 75% for bars and 50% for gyms only helps some as social distancing is still required. And, they say, many people are still reluctant to go out until they are vaccinated.

"It probably helps those who have bigger places, caterers and event venues," Frederick said. "Which is good, everyone needs some help."

Steve Wegman, who owns Weggy's, the 507 and other food-related businesses, said that up until the big snowfall Monday, many bars and restaurants were more buoyed by the hope of nice weather returning.

"Up until today everyone was looking forward to getting back outside where you can have more seating and bring in more business."

He said Gov. Tim Walz's move to increase capacity from 50% to 75% at many businesses is good to see but won't significantly increase seating availability at small- and mid-size businesses.

Both Wegman and Frederick said they were also hoping bars would be allowed to stay open later under the governor's recent order. Bars had to close at 10 p.m., but now can stay open until 11 p.m.

State officials said the closing time was tied to data about when restaurant and bar outbreaks are likely to occur.

"People are still kind of baffled why we have to close at 11. I thought maybe it'd at least change to midnight," Wegman said.

Still Wegman said he finally sees a finish line. "Everyone has their eye on the prize. I think we're halfway through the fourth quarter."

He said the fact Walz is soon allowing 10,000 spectators for outside Twins games and 3,000 for inside Wild hockey games is an indication it won't be long before businesses are allowed to open fully.

Frederick said that because of the size of Pub 500, going from 50% to 75% capacity will gain him about eight seats. "You just have to look at it as a positive."

He said it would be nice if business owners had some idea of when and what restrictions will be further eased.

"Easter and Mother's Day are coming. Will we be able to have more people at a table? Those are big things; it'd be nice to know."

He said he's glad to see more people are starting to go out once they've been vaccinated. "The coronavirus is real and we have to do what we can to get past it. I'm starting to see more people forgetting their masks, though. We have to stay with the masking until this is over."

Fitness centers slow

Eric Sash, owner of Snap Fitness in upper North Mankato, said they rarely had 25% occupancy recently so moving to 50% won't make much difference until more people are comfortable returning to gyms. Pools are also now allowed to operate at 50% capacity.

"It's still super slow. It's picking up but the mask mandate — no one wants to work out with a mask," Sash said. "Hopefully with the vaccine it'll help, but people are still worried."

Jake Schrom, owner of Hometown Fitness in Eagle Lake, also has a smaller venue that won't benefit from the higher capacity levels.

"We're a little different than the bigger places. We don't see the volume of the bigger gyms. We have some people who aren't comfortable coming in yet, which is understandable."

But he's glad restrictions are rolling back. "It's nice to see it eased up to support businesses."

Happier Chef

With a large restaurant and attached banquet room, Happy Chef on Highway 169 has more room to take in more customers and still adhere to distancing rules.

"I think it will help considerably," said owner Adrian Swales. "And I think it helps ease people's minds that they can go out to eat, especially with the vaccines coming out. It's a good sign that we're getting back to normal."

Swales was worried low capacity and event-gathering restrictions might stretch into the summer.

"People don't realize how a softball game or dance competition or concert really helps. Once events start coming back and Caswell (Park) opens up and traffic increases and people get vaccinated, it will have a ripple effect throughout the community."

Other changes

The recent order affects many businesses and groups. The latest order:

—Permits social gatherings of 15 people indoors or 50 people outdoors with no limit on the number of households.

—Starting April 1 seated indoor events such as concerts will be allowed up to 3,000 people, and unseated indoor events will be allowed for up to 1,500 people.

—Churches no longer have a capacity cap but must still follow masking and social distancing requirements.

—The state's work-from-home order for applicable businesses is lifted April 15, but employers will be encouraged to allow workers to continue the practice if desired.

—Hair salons and barber shops can now be open at full capacity.

—Entertainment venues, such as concerts, will now operate at up to 50%. Starting April 1 restrictions on many indoor and outdoor venues are to be loosened further.

—Wedding receptions, funerals and other private events already have resumed but must follow the capacity guidelines based on the size of the venue.