Restaurants, bars, other small businesses to receive COVID-19 relief; jobless benefits extended

Legislature passes $216 million package to aid businesses, unemployed Minnesotans

Restaurants, bars, breweries and other small businesses affected by COVID-19 closures who lost revenue will be eligible for state grants.

The Minnesota Legislature on Monday passed a $216 million COVID-19 economic relief package for small businesses, as well as authorizing a 13-week extension of unemployment insurance for jobless Minnesotans. 

Lawmakers returned to St. Paul for their seventh special legislative session of the year, called back by Democratic-Farmer-Labor Gov. Tim Walz, who issued a 30-day extension of his peacetime emergency declaration to deal with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. 

The deal was weeks in the making, with calls for aid for small businesses first issued last month when Walz ordered new public health restrictions closing indoor restaurant dining, gyms and indoor entertainment venues. The four-week closure of those businesses is expected to expire Friday unless Walz extends his executive order.

The Senate passed the legislation on a 62-to-4 vote, while the House voted 117-13.

Restaurants, bars, coffee shops, breweries, wineries, distilleries, bowling alleys and some gyms and fitness centers will receive automatic grants ranging from $10,000 to $45,000 depending on the number of workers they employ given some requirements are first met. Among them: Businesses would need to show a 30% drop in revenue from 2019 and be in good standing with the state’s tax agency. 

Movie theaters will also receive grants on a per-screen basis, with a maximum grant of $150,000 to Lakeville’s Emagine theater, which has 21 screens. Convention centers will also receive grants, with a maximum of $500,000.

The largest component of the bill will send nearly $115 million to counties that will dole out cash aid to local businesses that did not qualify for state grants from the Department of Revenue dor Department of Employment and Economic Development. The package will also waive certain fees in the hospitality industry. 

It also extends a deadline for families to apply for free or reduced school lunches.About 100,000 unemployed Minnesotans are expected to be eligible for the extension of jobless benefits once they exhaust all other federal and state benefits available between Dec. 19 and April 10.

Despite the bipartisan support for the aid package, Republicans broke the political détente that arose following a November surge of COVID-19 deaths, hospitalizations and infections, holding a vote to end his emergency powers.

Senate Republicans last month forgoed a vote to terminate the governor’s emergency powers, an acknowledgement of the gravity of the pandemic, but that appears to have changed despite a recent COVID-19 outbreak among Senate Republicans. 

State Sen. Eric Pratt, R-Prior Lake, blamed Walz, saying he was responsible for not doing more to protect businesses and prepare for a fall surge of infections. He also expressed frustration that Walz delayed a decision to Wednesday on extending the four-week closure of businesses after previously saying he’d decide last week.

“We knew the spike was coming,” Pratt said. “We should have been ready for this without shutting down our local economies again.”

Pratt and his Republican colleagues have repeatedly resisted state efforts to stifle the pandemic, however, including mandatory mask orders, for instance. 

The seventh special session of the year lasted only just a day, with expedited votes on the legislation. It was largely unremarkable, but it was the first since a COVID-19 outbreak sickened at least four Senate GOP lawmakers, including Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, who has recovered.

Gazelka on Monday disclosed that his mother-in-law died after contracting the virus; he said his father-in-law is still battling the disease.

Ricardo Lopez
Ricardo Lopez is the senior political reporter for the Reformer. Ricardo is not new to Minnesota politics, previously reporting on the Dayton administration and statehouse for The Star Tribune from 2014 to 2017, and the Republican National Convention in 2016. Previously, he was a staff writer at The Los Angeles Times covering the California economy. He's a Las Vegas native who has adopted Minnesota as his home state. In his spare time, he likes to run, cook and volunteer with Save-a-Bull, a Minneapolis dog rescue group.