U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minnesota, held a “community conference call” with local leaders Tuesday and hailed Alexandria for its resiliency in recovering from a devastating downtown fire and a paralyzing pandemic.
“I’ve been following everything you’ve been doing in Alexandria, from the horror of the downtown fire … followed by the national and global crisis of the pandemic,” Klobuchar said. “It’s amazing and inspiring to read what you’ve been doing.”
Klobuchar conducted calls in a handful of other communities as well, including Moorhead, Rochester, Duluth and Mankato. She said her goal was to get updates about what’s happening “on the ground” during the coronavirus outbreak.
Alexandria, she said, was different than the others because it’s also dealing with the aftermath of the Feb. 25 fire. “It happened at places I’ve been to and walked through,” she said. “I wish I could be visiting you personally but this is the next best way.”
Klobuchar knew there has been one confirmed coronavirus case in Douglas County and noted that other small communities have also reported cases – including in tiny Martin County near the Iowa border, where four people have died from the virus.
“It can happen fast and it can happen anywhere,” she said.
Klobuchar asked local leaders to talk about how they’re handling the virus and the fire.
Small businesses need help
With regard to the coronavirus, Alexandria Mayor Sara Carlson and City Administrator Marty Schultz told Klobuchar that the city is fortunate to have great collaboration among emergency management, Alomere Health, Douglas County, the Alexandria Technical and Community College, School District 206, Alexandria Area Economic Development Commission, the faith community, law enforcement, local media and others.
“We bounce ideas off each other and we’re proud of the work being done locally,” Schultz said. “After this crisis is over, the relationships we’ve built up will help us going forward.”
One of the city’s biggest concerns, Schultz said, is how the pandemic is impacting local businesses. He said there were technical glitches with the federal rollout of the Small Business Administration loan application program, which is supposed to provide $350 billion in government-backed loans.
Schultz added he’s also heard that businesses have had trouble accessing the SBA’s Paycheck Protection Program.
“Small business owners are trying to be as positive as they can but they can’t go on forever in this situation,” Schultz told Klobuchar. “Anything we could do as a city to make things easier, we’re open to that.”
Klobuchar later responded by saying that the SBA programs are not where they need to be and she will keep pushing for improvements.
Nicole Fernholz, director of the AAEDC, said that small businesses want to receive information on a timely basis about the assistance that is available and the steps they need to take to get it. “They fear that they are missing out on something,” she said.
Klobuchar asked Carlson for an update on the rebuilding effort at the downtown fire site.
Carlson said the city is trying to meet with fire inspectors and insurance investigators through Zoom, a video-conferencing program, or through a phone conference. The city is also looking into gap financing to help businesses fill the difference between what the insurance companies will pay and the cost of tearing down the buildings, hauling away the debris and burying the rubble in a lined landfill.
“We’re hoping to get the buildings all torn down and the site leveled in the next month or so,” Carlson said.
Coronavirus has big financing impact on hospital
When Alomore Health shut down its elective procedures to combat the spread of the coronavirus, it reduced their surgical volumes by 85 percent, said CEO Carl Vaagenes.
The hospital’s financial projections for April, the first full month since the elective procedures were dropped, show a loss of between $4.3 to $6 million, according to Vaagenes.
Fortunately, the hospital has enough cash on hand reserves for six months.
“That is strong in the industry,” he said. “A lot of facilities have only 40 or 30 days cash on hand. I would suspect a lot of facilities right now are really struggling to meet payroll. We are not in that position. We are OK to weather the storm.”
Revenues, Vaagenes said, are down 56 percent.
“At the same time, we have no ability to adjust our expenses,” he said. “We need all the staff when it comes to taking care of COVID-19 patients.”
Vaagenes added that Alomere is trying to balance the unpredictability of the situation. He said it’s not like a tornado, where the hospital can move to crisis mode and then get back to normal.
“This is the biggest unknown we’ve ever had,” he said. “We don’t know what business as usual will look like on the back end of this. We’re in a grey zone right now.”
Vaagenes told Klobuchar that the $2 trillion federal economic stimulus package, which includes billions of dollars to bolster the healthcare system, will be helpful. It also suspends the Medicare sequester to boost provider payments for an additional year, which will also help, he said.
Tests and masks
Big issues facing Alomere are having enough personal protective equipment, such as masks and gloves, and COVID-19 tests.
In the last five weeks, Dr. Deb Dittberner, chief medical officer at Alomere, said she’s been counting how many swabs Alomere has left to do the testing.
Dittberner said community volunteers from Helping Hands of Alexandria have stepped forward to provide between 6,000 to 8,000 more masks for Alomere, even using bandanas to make some of them.
Resorts in limbo
The Alexandria Area Chamber of Commerce has fielded a lot of phone calls from businesses fearful of the pandemic’s impact now and six months from now, according to Tara Bitzan, executive director.
The local resort industry is especially on edge, wondering if they will be able to continue serving families that have made vacationing in Alexandria a summer tradition, Bitzan said.
The chamber is partnering with Explore Alexandria Tourism and holding Zoom meetings with resort owners about resources to help them, best practices and refunding and rebooking strategies, Bitzan said.
“There’s a lot of unknowns right now and a lot of fear about what it will mean,” Bitzan told Klobuchar. “The fire was devastating for our downtown, which had been thriving the last few years.”
She added the Chamber is thankful for the collaborations and partnerships that help support local businesses.
Kelsi Timm with Helping Hands of Alexandria said that the number of volunteers that have stepped forward to help fill needs during the pandemic has been amazing.
“It’s been a story of hope,” she said. “Seeing the community rally together is so much bigger than we could have imagined. It’s a blessing for essential workers.”
A bright ending
As the 50-minute phone conference was wrapping up, Mayor Carlson asked Dr. Dittberner to repeat the advice she’s given at other recent meetings: “Be calm, be wise, be brave, be kind to each other and remember, this is more about we and less of me.”