Battle for business: Owners tell council to lift ordinance amid financial struggles
Local business owners who have been forced to close their doors or drastically alter operations under the city shutdown united Monday at City Hall, urging the City Council to lift the ordinance.
It’s been nearly a month since the Mitchell City Council unanimously approved the emergency ordinance that mandated specific businesses either close or drastically implement operational changes in an effort to reduce the potential spreading of the COVID-19 virus, but several local business owners feel the shutdown ordinance has gone on too long. While Davison County was among the first counties in the state of South Dakota to see a positive case of the virus, the number of confirmed cases have remained low with a total of four as of Tuesday afternoon, according to the state’s Department of Health.
Stephanie Moen, co-owner of Overtime Steakhouse and Sports Bar, gave the council a glimpse of the economic struggles her restaurant and bar has been suffering since the shutdown, which led to roughly 20 employees going without work and income for nearly the entire month of April. In addition, Moen said Overtime Steakhouse has experienced a 70% loss in revenue this past month compared to the previous year.
“I’m very concerned about the number of people and businesses that may go bankrupt if this goes on much longer,” Moen said. “I hope you understand the impact this is having on us and businesses.”
Mitchell’s shutdown specifically closed the following business: restaurants, bars, coffeehouses, clubs, cafes, similar places that offer on-site food or beverage sales; movie theaters and recreational facilities including pools, health clubs, athletic facilities and theaters; also included bowling alleys, and casinos, along with hookah lounges, vaping lounges and other similar locations. Among the primary businesses that are allowed to remain open under the ordinance are grocery stores, pharmacies, food pantries, churches, hair salons, health care and emergency facilities to remain open during the shutdown.
Moen pitched an idea to the council which entails fining an individual for knowingly exposing community members to the novel coronavirus, alleging one of the four individuals who was infected with the virus in Davison County acted in a careless manner and went out in public with the virus.
“Those are the people who are endangering us, and in my eyes, they should be fined, not the businesses,” Moen said.
Jason Bates, owner of Big Dummy’s Bar, provided a picture to the council of a packed Menards parking lot several days ago in Mitchell, using it as a reference to emphasize his belief that the council’s shutdown ordinance was discriminatory against certain businesses.
“I’ve seen roughly 50 to 60 people in businesses like Menards in roughly the same square footage of what my bar is. How can you in good conscience allow that, but you can shut businesses like mine down?” Bates said. “You must have a uniform application of an ordinance that applies to all individuals and businesses. You’re not allowed to discriminate, and by closing certain small businesses and not others you are discriminating.”
For Bates, he viewed the shutdown as an unnecessary overstep with how low the case numbers are. While Davison County saw its first positive COVID-19 case on March 10, there have been three additional cases since then, equating to four cases thus far.
Despite the business owners' opposition to the shutdown, Tom Clark, CEO of Avera Queen of Peace, expressed his support for the council’s decision to enact the measures to reduce the spread of the virus. Clark said there is a likelihood of people living in the community who may have the virus and show no symptoms, which he noted could lead to spreading.
“Completely lifting the restrictions now is like not finishing your antibiotics prescription because you’re feeling a little better,” Clark said. “Make no mistake, there is no one in the medical community who doesn’t believe we have positive, non-symptomatic and symptomatic cases in our community. We have cared for positive cases at Avera Queen of Peace but they were attributed to their home counties, not Davison County.”
With the ongoing virus outbreak the city of Sioux Falls has faced over the past several weeks, largely due to a pork processing plant known as Smithfield Foods, which saw around 700 positive cases at the facility, representing a large amount of the state’s 1,685 total positive cases, according to the state Department of Health’s updated figures, Clark said the 65 miles of separation from Mitchell to Sioux Falls is an area of concern.
Council member Steve Rice referenced medical information provided by Sanford Health professionals that emphasized the social distancing efforts were measures used to flatten the curve or peak of infections, driving home his point that social distancing doesn’t eliminate the overall number of infections, rather it slows the peak to reduce overwhelming hospitals.
In the scenario that Davison County sees another positive case in the future, Rice said people in the community of Mitchell would be financially devastated if the council waited to lift the shutdown until the case numbers leveled off and saw no new cases.
“It’s not a matter of whether the number stays at three or goes up, because the number will go up. But if we wait for the number of infections to be back at zero, everyone will be bankrupt,” Rice said. “We can’t expect the number of people who get sick with this to be zero. If we think that number will go to zero before we open up, we won’t be here.”
Emily Hohn, owner of Anytime Fitness in Mitchell, emphasized the importance of recreation activity and fitness during a pandemic when many people are being asked to self isolate. Hohn questioned whether mental health was considered before adopting the shutdown ordinance, as she pointed to how mental health and exercise go hand in hand.
“Several members of mine have approached me and expressed their concerns for their mental health because they don’t have their gyms to go to,” Hohn said. “For many folks, exercise is medicine, and it is a way to cope with stress. We just want to help the community of Mitchell get healthy, but we can’t do that when we are forced to close.”
Rough timeline for considering lifting shutdown
Mitchell Mayor Bob Everson is targeting May 4 to consider beginning the process of lifting the shutdown through a first and second reading of an ordinance.
“We watch the numbers every day for Davison County and the surrounding area, and we will continue to watch them very closely,” Everson said. “If we continue to see the numbers stay where they are, we will bring an ordinance reading on May 4.”
However, Everson said he has been considering methods to slowly lift the shutdown restrictions for businesses affected by the ordinance, which could entail limiting the number of people who can occupy an establishment or restaurant at one time, along with including language that would reopen businesses in phases similar to President Donald Trump’s three-phase reopening plan.
Council member Jeff Smith pointed to President Trump’s three-phase approach to reopen states' economies as a solid road map that could help guide the council’s new ordinance to lift the shutdown.
“I’m not saying that three-phase system has to be exactly what our plan to reopen things looks like, but it does make some sense to take that into serious consideration, because it does identify specific businesses and gives us what the rest of the country will like instead of us trying to invent what businesses should and should not be able to do,” Smith said.
Under the Trump administration’s three-phase plan, phase one calls for the reopening of restaurants, movie theaters, sporting venues, places of worship and gyms, as long as they adhere to social distancing. In addition, elective surgeries can resume when appropriate on an outpatient basis under phase one, but schools and bars should remain closed and visits to senior living facilities and hospitals should be prohibited. High-risk individuals are also asked to stay home under phase one.
Phases two calls for the reopening of schools and organized youth activities like sports programs and camps. Nonessential travel may resume, and people can start circulating in parks, outdoor recreational areas and shopping centers, while avoiding gatherings of more than 50 individuals unless unspecified precautionary measures are taken, according to the three-phase plan found on www.whitehouse.gov.
But that would require additional first and second readings for each phase, which is an aspect councilman Marty Barington would like to avoid, noting it could tack on more time and ultimately slow the process of reopening businesses down.
“I would personally like to see if we could get a first reading of an ordinance sooner than later, which could be as quickly as next week with a special meeting, so when we are ready to make that next step and vote on the ordinance to lift the restrictions all we need to do is the second reading,” Barington said, noting it would help expedite the process.