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Businesses reel in face of pandemic fears, closures

Businesses with large gathering potential are facing closures taking effect by 5 p.m. Tuesday, March 17 and continue through March 27 at 5 p.m.

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Homelines department manager Pam Gerdes stocks condiments Monday morning in at the Wadena Walmart. Michael Johnson/Pioneer Journal

"People are nervous," Shelly Salge said Monday at the Boondocks in Wadena. The restaurant owner said she and her husband Dale had been weighing the decision to close heavily most of the day over concerns of the COVID-19 pandemic. They were leaning towards closure now with the hope of putting a stop to the spread of the virus. At the same time, they recognized how much the community depends on their ability to serve meals.

"It's a tough call," she continued. "It's been our discussion all day. We're running short staff, bringing in only essential people."

Salge was hopeful the state health department or Governor Tim Walz would step up and make recommendations for restaurants like theirs, which can't distance themselves from their customers like some others.

"In our hearts we know we should shut down," Salge said

A Monday evening executive order by Governor Walz gave them an answer. Walz called for the closure of bars and restaurants for dine-in customers in the state in an effort to curb the spread of the coronavirus. Walz signed an executive order also closing theaters, museums, gyms, community clubs and other areas where community transmission could occur. The closures are to take effect by 5 p.m. Tuesday, March 17 and continue through March 27 at 5 p.m.

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At the movies

The changes could be too much for the small-town movie theatre businesses to weather, according to Cozy Theatre owner Dave Quincer. He said the smaller theatres have had a harder time already thanks to the efforts of Hollywood to promote streaming of movies shortly after they hit the big screen. That's a push that's driving people from the theaters and away from social interaction. That's a bad road to go down, according to Quincer. The movies are place to engage with others.

"We're just waiting to basically be closed," Quincer said moments before the governor made the announcement.

Quincer said he saw it coming as it had already started in Michigan and Ohio. Since running a movie theatre is the Quincer family legacy and livelihood, he's very concerned about how they can survive if the new normal is social distancing.

"This could be very ruinous to my business right now," Quincer said. He's heard recommendations of no groups over 250, then 100 and the U.S. President Donald Trump is even saying groups of 10 should be avoided.

Quincer contends that Wadena County is still very low risk at this time and fears that the actual impact of the virus is far less worrisome than what the fears of the virus are doing to the economy as a whole.

Grocery stores reeling from panic buying

The consumer response to the pandemic was immediately seen in the community's two grocery stores, Super One Foods and Walmart.

At Walmart Sunday, the toilet paper aisle was emptied.

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Walmart officials gave stores the OK to put limits on products in an effort to spread out sales among customers. Placing limits on products tends to cause friction with customers, according to Wadena Walmart General Manager John Wakeman. Michael Johnson/Pioneer Journal

"We receive toilet paper virtually every day," Wadena Walmart General Manager John Wakeman said. "It will go out and it's gone pretty much like that (snapping his fingers)."

Other essential cleaning supplies and non perishable food items quickly sold out. Eggs were gone aside from a couple cartons of organic. Ramen noodle options were limited to "sriracha chicken" or "lime shrimp." The buying practices brought Wadena Mayor George Deiss to put out a call on social media asking residences to be considerate of their neighbors.

"Hoarding cleaning products and toilet paper is not necessary," Deiss said. "Let's shine in our treatment of others during this time."

Wakeman said the sales have been unprecedented and that staffing has been shifted around to accommodate the changing buying patterns. The store shifted their hours temporarily starting March 15 from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m., down an hour, in order to allow an overnight crew to handle the cleaning and restocking efforts in the store. He insisted that there is not a shortage of products, they've just never sold out so quickly before the next shipment can come to replenish supplies.

"There's a lot of concern, a lot of stress," Wakeman said of customers conversations with him. "For the most part they have been understanding that we are working our tails off to make sure we put as much out there as possible for them."

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Walking the aisles, Monday, most every grocery aisle had two staff members stocking products. One staff member, Nancy Baxter, said she hadn't seen buying like this since her time at a store in the Twin Cities during Christmas. Wakeman said the staff are responding to changes to keep customers' needs met.

"It's about our community," Wakeman said of the store's response to meet the needs. That response involves an increase in products now being shipped to the store, more cleaning, and continuing to have fair pricing. Wakeman adds that there is added emphasis on the health of their employees.

"How we run the store is different from what it was last week," Wakeman said. That could continue to change as daily life continues to change for everyone.

"Just don't forget we have people in our community that are on very fixed incomes and maybe only get a chance to come to our stores once a week," Wakeman said. "It's heartbreaking when we don't have the stuff they live on."

Wakeman and another staff member said the team is working to deal through the stress. "This too shall pass," they both said.

As a public service, we’ve opened this article to everyone regardless of subscription status. This story is developing and will be updated as more information is available.

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