How well are local businesses recovering from COVID-19?
Will there be more funding or extended deadlines for them to get financial help?
When will a vaccine be ready?
Those questions and more popped up when U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., stopped in Alexandria on Wednesday to talk to city leaders. It was a free-wheeling, hour long discussion held outside City Hall with everyone wearing masks and practicing social distancing.
Klobuchar has been visiting several cities in the state, including Moorhead, St. Cloud, Duluth, Worthington and Rochester, to get a better feel on how they are coping with the pandemic.
Alexandria Mayor Sara Carlson asked the senator if the deadline for cities to spend money from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, or CARES, Act could be extended. Right now, the deadline is Nov. 15.
The city, which received just over $1 million, needs more time to allocate the funds, Carlson said. It wants to provide more grants to local businesses and nonprofits impacted by the pandemic, and to pay for more COVID-19 precautionary measures, such as installing plexiglass shields in the council chambers, Carlson said.
Klobuchar said Congress is working on extending the deadline until the end of the year. She added that other legislation is also in the works, including the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions or HEROES Act – a $3 trillion stimulus package that would supplement the CARES Act.
Nicole Fernholz, director of the Alexandria Area Economic Development Commission, told Klobuchar that more than 100 local businesses and nonprofits have applied for grants the county and city established with CARES Act money.
Requests ranged from $1,000 up to $500,000, which shows the breadth of Alexandria’s job industry, Fernholz said. She added that local manufacturers, many in the packaging industry, can’t keep up with the packaging demands from the pandemic.
The deadline for applying for the grants is Sept. 4. Fernholz expects the demand will outstrip the $3.2 million that’s available.
Klobuchar asked how Alexandria’s tourism was faring during COVID-19. Carlson said June was quiet but it picked up in July and August. Fernholz added that March is typically a busy month with hockey and bowling tournaments but those events didn’t happen this year because of the virus.
Lawmakers are working on bipartisan measures that would help the tourism industry and tourism-related activities, Klobuchar said, such as the Restart Act and the Save Our Stages Act that would assist the live-entertainment industry.
Klobuchar said it was crucial to help businesses with immediate, short-term help so they will be able to keep their doors open.
“We can’t jump-start the economy if too many businesses go under,” she said. “We have to be in a good position once a vaccine comes out.”
When Carlson asked when a vaccine will be available, Klobuchar said there is an “all-out effort” to develop not only one vaccine but several. She said the situation is complicated because vaccines must not only be created and tested, but also rolled out across the world, en masse.
Klobuchar added that the vaccine distribution must be fair and should make sure that front-line workers are protected first. Even if there is a breakthrough soon, predicting when vaccines will be available is difficult, Klobuchar said, because it hinges on how long it will take to manufacture and distribute.
Klobuchar stressed the importance of people getting their flu vaccines to stay out of the hospital and for children to be vaccinated for the measles.
Klobuchar, who talked to Alexandria city leaders in a conference call in April about a downtown fire that destroyed six businesses, asked for an update on the recovery.
City Administrator Marty Schultz said the property owners were able to demolish the site, place gravel down and paint one open wall. He noted a restaurant (Raapers Eatery and Ale) owns two of the parcels and has been so busy with its catering business that it hasn’t been pursuing the possibility of redeveloping the site. He said the city is hopeful that something will happen at the site next spring.