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Wright County News

Posted on: May 13, 2020

Sheriff Discusses the Plight Facing Small Businesses During the COVID-19 Closure Order

Wright County Sheriff Sean Deringer has found himself in an unenviable position in recent weeks. He has heard heartbreaking stories from small business owners asking him to allow businesses to open up while Gov. Tim Walz’s stay-at-home order and decision to close most small business has taken a toll.

Walz declared March 17 that bars, restaurants and other businesses close. On March 27, he issued a stay-at-home order, which has since been extended three times. It is set to expire at midnight on the morning of Monday, May 18, but many are speculating that the order will be extended when Walz carries a live press conference at 6 p.m. tonight.

While Walz has heard the complaints and pleas from small business owners to allow them to reopen, Deringer said meeting with the people who are losing everything is a tragic consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s been non-stop with people asking to open up businesses,” Deringer said. “What’s so frustrating for me is that they don’t want to defy the governor’s order, but it’s either ‘I am going to defy the governor’s order of I am going to lose everything I have – my home, my business, my property, my cars. I can’t feed my family.’ Those are the circumstances our small business owners are facing right now. That’s what is so frustrating for me. They don’t want to be in defiance. They don’t want to be seen as a criminal element. They want to abide by it.”

In recent days, several small businesses throughout the state and even some cities in northern Minnesota have said they’re going to reopen next week even if Walz decides to extend the current Executive Order prohibiting it.

For many of them, Deringer said, getting back to work isn’t merely a request. It’s a matter of survival.

“Many people have considered the 18th as their breaking point,” Deringer said “For most of them, it will have been eight or nine weeks by that time that they’ve been closed up. They’re at the tipping point or the breaking point where they believe they either have to open up or lock their doors forever, put the property up for sale and, most likely, lose everything they’ve worked for. That’s where they’re at.”

At a time when small businesses were struggling to survive to begin with as large megastores have made their way into just about every town or city, choking off many small family businesses were feeling the stress already, COVID-19 has made a bad situation much worse. Deringer said these business owners have been the fabric of many communities for years – in some cases from one generation of a family to the next.

He shares their frustration of needing to open, but fearing that doing so will be in violation of the law.

“You’ve seen compliance with the governor’s Executive Order,” Deringer said. “These people are the bread and butter of our communities. The small business owners are the people that are doing a good job raising their families. They’re the backbone of our communities. They don’t want to be criminalized or marginalized.”

Deringer and many other sheriff’s and city police chiefs have found themselves as the enforcers of the Executive Order. He hopes the governor will lift the restrictions because he is frustrated by the appearance of a lack of empathy for small business owners at the state level and that there are methods of opening businesses while maintaining social distancing protocol.

His mantra is simple – have a plan to follow the guidelines and learn what needs to be done to safely open businesses back up.

“If I can get my philosophy understood, it’s educate, educate, educate,” Deringer said. “It’s very difficult. I’m put in the middle. Local law enforcement is the enforcement arm of the governor’s mandate. It’s not my mandate. It’s my obligation to enforce and I think we’ve done what we can.”

Deringer shared a personal story about something he witnessed over the weekend. He needed to pick up some supplies at the Menard’s store in Buffalo and was appalled at what he saw. The store has a policy that everyone is required to wear a face covering or mask and employees were getting into verbal altercations with customers who wouldn’t comply. Adding to the problem was that there were so many people in the store, maintaining social distancing was virtually impossible.

Yet, at the same time, he drove by dozens of small businesses that remain closed. To him, it’s an issue of fairness as small businesses are slowly dying.

“You’ve got small businesses that are going broke because they can’t open their doors and you’ve got these big box stores that are busting at the seams and can’t keep up with supply and demand,” Deringer said. “You look at the shelves at Walmart or Menards. They’re half-empty. As long as they’re open, they’re full of people.”

Deringer applauded the compliance of Wright County businesses with the governor’s Executive Order and hopes tonight’s press conference will mark a change in direction moving forward. There was no way to plan for a pandemic, but Deringer said something has to give at some point.

“I think the people of Minnesota and the people of Wright County have abided by the governor’s wishes to this point,” Deringer said. “At what point does the government get out of people’s lives? They are dictating to us what we do and how we go about our day-to-day lives. At this point, it has been two months and people are tired of it. They want to be good stewards of the community and they want to do their part to keep people safe. They’ve seen what has gone on around the country and around the world. This is devastating our economy, bankrupting half of our small businesses and people have had enough.”

Deringer said he believes that people can be treated as adults to make their own informed decisions without direction from the governor.

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