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‘The hardest time we have ever experienced’

Albert Lea restaurant, bar and gym owners share frustrations with pace of reopening

When B&B Cafe co-owner Holly Miller heard Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz’s announcement Wednesday that restaurants would only be able to reopen June 1 for outdoor seating, within minutes she said she broke down crying.

The popular Albert Lea diner on Sibley Street, known for its pancakes and breakfast foods, does not have room for outdoor seating, and Miller said she was heartbroken.

“Sadly, our business location and model doesn’t allow anything like that,” she said. “Also business insurance policies are based somewhat on risk. Our little cement parking area is very close to a street people drive very fast down. It’s just not a viable solution. We worry for the safety of our customers and staff.”

If they were to move forward with the outdoor dining, she said the area would only allow room for two tables.

“Our business wouldn’t survive,” she said.

Miller and her husband, Clint, had expected Walz to announce restaurants could reopen with limited indoor seating capacity and had made a plan for that in their limited space only to find out otherwise.

They are one of several restaurant and bar owners in the area who said they are frustrated with the pace of reopening after being closed for two months due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

From the beginning, Miller said they have made the choice not to do carryout orders — she said if they were to open for carryout, they could not do it alone but cannot afford to bring back their staff just for those types of orders.

So they have made other adjustments to stay afloat, including stopping their garbage service, turning off all heating and air conditioning, not running water and not ordering food so that their bills are payable.

“There are so many business variables that come into play when making decisions,” she said.

They are confident they have the ability to reopen once the state allows 50% indoor capacity and at that time are considering being open Sundays and cutting back hours to only serve breakfast the first few weeks to see how things come together.

She described the experience as “the hardest time we have ever experienced in almost 18 years of ownership.”

She thanked the community for their support and said without that support their business would not be possible.

Jason Hoiseth and James Hagen opened Bleachers Sports Bar and Grill in the former Knights of Columbus building in September. – Colleen Harrison/Albert Lea Tribune

James Hagen, co-owner of Bleachers Sports Bar & Grill, at 1002 S. Broadway, said he and co-owner Jason Hoiseth were also planning on opening June 1 and were disappointed to hear that date was pushed back.

“When it came out that it was basically outside only, we knew we were kind of in trouble because we did not have any space for a patio,” Hagen said. “All we have is that parking that’s basically on the street.”

The sports bar and grill first opened in September, and business been going well until COVID-19 came along and shut everything down, he said.

Having a start-up and buying an older building, he said there are a few projects that still need to be completed in the near future.

“The bills keep coming even though we shut down,” he said.

Though they have been able to defer some of their payments, eventually those payments will come due.

“We went into this thinking we would probably get through May,” he said. “Now we’re in June and looking into July. The longer this goes on, the worse it will be.”

Hagen said they did their due diligence and applied for stimulus funding available for small business owners but did not receive any money.

They also considered doing carryout early on, but did not want to sacrifice their reputation to do so as he was afraid by the time people got their food home it would not be fresh like it would be right out of the kitchen at the bar.

He is also worried about how things will go once they do get the green light to reopen and whether their employees will be receptive to coming back. The business has four full-time employees and 10 more part-time workers.

“We figured if we could make it through the first year, we might have a chance of staying open,” Hagen said. “Things were looking good, and then this happened.”

He questioned the decision to allow larger places such as Walmart to be opened and filled with people while not allowing 25 to 30 people be in his business.

“To me it just doesn’t add up,” he said.

Albert Lea Anytime Fitness co-owner Shawn Bromeland cleans equipment. Bromeland and her husband, Bill, have been busy cleaning the gym from top to bottom and have also done some other work in the gym as well. Provided

Bill and Shawn Bromeland, owners of Albert Lea’s Anytime Fitness, said they, too, are looking for answers as they had been looking to reopen in June 1 but have now found out gyms have been moved to a different phase of the governor’s reopening plan.

Bill Bromeland said Anytime Fitness had joined a coalition of other fitness brands in Minnesota to develop a reopening plan with safety measures and had submitted that plan to the governor’s office. They had received every indication that the guidelines were generally accepted.

“It kind of came out of the blue for us, really,” he said of the Wednesday announcement.

Some of the safety measures they had planned included roping off every other machine in the gym, spreading out cardio machines, placing hand sanitizing dispensers throughout the gym, enchanced cleaning and even closing the gym’s showers and drinking fountains if requested.

“We’re confident we can open in a safe way, and we’re not contributing to the spread of this virus,” he said.

The couple talked about the importance of their industry — not only for the physical health of their patrons, but for mental health, as well.

“I can’t even go on to tell how important it is for people’s mental health,” Shawn Bromeland said. “They need a healthy stress relief.”

She said their facility, in particular, serves many people in recovery.

“There’s so much more than just the physical aspect of it,” she said. “We’ve had a lot of members reach to us, basically just going crazy right now begging us to open our doors.”

What is even more frustrating, they said, is not having a timeline for when the business can reopen.

Bill Bromeland said while they think they can get through the closure financially — the owners of the Northbridge Mall have deferred rent payments to 2021 in increments — many others around the state may not be as lucky.

“We’ll reopen, but I would say half of the independently owned gyms in Minnesota may never,” he said.