Gov. Walz announces loosened restrictions to begin Monday

The next phase of Minnesota’s COVID-19 restrictions was announced Wednesday by Governor Tim Walz. The new restrictions will begin Monday, Jan. 11. Local restaurant owner Tia Starks, shared how UnWined Up North in Grand Rapids has navigated the shifting restrictions over the past year and how the community has stepped up to show their support for the small town business.

“Owning a small restaurant during COVID has been daunting,” Starks said. “During the initial shutdown, there was quick federal financial support which allowed me to keep most of my staff working even with greatly reduced sales. I took our Tuesday night trivia online and we continue to do it on Facebook Live every Tuesday to this day. We kept our spirits up and focused on the positive.”

Further restrictions were put in place by Gov. Walz this summer in response to a rising number of COVID-19 cases. Restaurants were able to open with limited indoor dining, plus outdoor dining. 

“When we were allowed to open again, we were blessed by amazing weather during the time of outside only dining and great weather all summer which helped us do well, even with 50% occupancy,” Stark explained. “The health restrictions were no problem, we built planters to put between outside tables, washed and sanitized tables and menus between use. Used masks always as staff and for customers unless seating. It was practical and doable and we were able to do our jobs and keep our business open.”

Many of the tighter restrictions set in November were made to limit interactions during the usually busy holiday season. Restaurants and bars were limited to takeout only and limited outdoor dining. 

“This last closing hit us hard,” Starks stated. “Take-out never keeps you going. I decided that we were all in this together and became creative.”

Some of the creative approaches taken by UnWined Up North this fall included gift certificate promotions, a Shop Small contest and raffle, and Facebook Live wine tastings where people could pick up wine kits at the restaurant and go over them together on Friday nights. 

“This has been amazing. It has also kept our doors open and many of my staff employed,” said Starks. She continued, “This shutdown, because of loopholes, we received no Minnesota aid to small businesses and it looks like federal help is out of reach. Again, we kept trying to be positive, but it was often difficult.”

UnWined Up North experienced their smallest day of sales ever on Monday, Jan. 4. Starks decided to put up outdoor igloos for guests to sit in outside. They had the igloos set up in October but decided to not use them after hearing more governor directives that stated two sides needed to be open on structures for outdoor dining. 

“Six weeks in, we kept getting calls, watched others with igloos and pop up fish houses, and I was worried about losing my business and my house, which is on the loans,” Starks said. “I decided why not? I am going to open the igloos or lose everything. I knew it was a calculated risk but what do you do? Also, I knew only family and close friends would be in them. They are the size of one table.”

The restaurant advertised the igloos Monday night and opened them Tuesday at noon. By 3:30 p.m. Tuesday, UnWined Up North had been cited by the Health Department. Starks shared their story on Facebook, including that they had been fined $5,000. The outpouring of support from the community was immediate. 

“The community response was amazing,” Starks stated. “The post had 41,000 interactions, 308 shares and 791 comments. People came in with donations and love. Yesterday, they gave us our busiest day ever and were patient.”

Starks shared on Jan. 6 through the UnWined Facebook page that the Health Department had waived the $5,000 fine. 

“I can't say enough about our community,” Starks shared. “It is really a story about love. About one person's dream and the community support helping her keep her dream going under awful circumstances. I could not stop crying and am still teary. The community support was unprecedented and I will forever be grateful.”

After a turbulent last few weeks, Starks and her staff are looking forward to the loosened restrictions that will begin Monday. Restaurants and bars will be able to open for indoor dining again at 50% capacity with no more than 150 people at a time. Groups will be limited to six people, reservations will be required and tables must be six-feet apart. Bars seating will be limited to groups of two and all in-person services must end at 10 p.m.

“I am so excited for the loosened restrictions on Monday. We will have our restaurant sparking and the igloos ready,” Starks added. “I am beyond thrilled to be allowed to do what we love to do. I am not alone. So many restaurants have been struggling. I firmly believe we are all in this together.”

Further COVID-19 guidelines

Many other sectors will be affected by the new regulations beginning Monday. Gyms and fitness centers can remain open at 25% for individual exercise and class sizes have been raised to no more than 25 people. Masks will still be required and guests must have 9-feet of social distancing in a space. Pools opened on Jan. 4 and will now be able to be at 25% capacity. 

Other indoor venues such as bowling alleys, theaters, and museums can also reopen at 25% capacity and no more than 150 people. Outdoor venues can reopen at 25% capacity and no more than 250 people. 

Sports fans can celebrate as youth and adult sports can now resume with spectators. Practice for sports teams started again on Jan. 4 with restrictions in place. Spectators will be allowed at games again beginning Jan. 14 and will follow the guidelines for indoor and outdoor venues. 

Lastly, private gatherings can resume, but they still have tight restrictions. Indoor weddings, parties, funerals and other gatherings with food or beverages served must have no more than 10 people or two households. The same gatherings can have 15 people or three households if they are held outside. If no food is served, gatherings can follow the guidelines given to event venues. Places of worship are allowed to function at 50% capacity and no maximum number. 

For more information on the current COVID-19 regulations in Minnesota, visit https://www.health.state.mn.us/diseases/coronavirus/

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