Nonessential Minnesota businesses gradually reopen

A pedestrian walks down a quiet street.
A quiet view of Hennepin Avenue in Uptown Saturday, March 28, 2020. Monday was the first day thousands of businesses were able to reopen, as long as they follow a set of safety measures.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

The decision to allow some nonessential Minnesota businesses to bring back employees this week caught Dan Siskind, owner of Brickmania, by surprise. Siskind had been planning to reopen his Minneapolis company in early May, when Gov. Tim Walz’s stay-at-home order is set to expire.

“We were thinking, 'yeah, we've got time to get this ready,'“ he said. “And then, it just happened all of a sudden. We're like, oh well, time to accelerate plans — try to get as many people back in as we could."

Brickmania makes specialized building kits with Lego blocks. They use printers to customize the plastic bricks for customers. Employees count and sort thousands of Lego pieces, and during the shutdown, they had to do that remotely, said Siskind.

"What we've basically been doing is having people come in to the warehouse, pick up things and go home. What was once a kind of centralized factory operation became a totally decentralized — everybody work at home situation," he said.

Under the state's guidelines, companies that reopen need to have a plan to enforce social distancing and good hygiene to prevent the introduction and spread of the virus in the workplace.

With 30 employees in a 30,000-square-foot warehouse, keeping workers properly spaced is not a problem for Brickmania, said Siskind. And if situations arise where employees cannot stay farther than 6 feet apart, they will have access to protective masks, he said. Any employee who has health concerns will be allowed to continue working from home.

In New Ulm, Minn., Beacon Promotions also reopened this week. The business prints logos and company names on promotional items. Beacon is taking a more gradual approach to reopening, said Dawn Schapekahm, a senior production manager.

"We're just starting to get ramped back up. So, we're bringing in our staff slowly to make sure we don't overstaff at this time," she said

The company has more than 100 employees who will return to work in stages, starting with production staff. Office employees who are currently working from home will continue to do so.

Worker safety is a priority, said Schapekahm. Employees will have their temperatures taken daily. They will also be given protective gear and hand sanitizer and asked a series of health questions to make sure they’re not sick.

“If any of our employees don't feel well, then we need to send them home," she said.

The state is relying on employers to police themselves to a certain extent, since it does not have the resources to conduct compliance checks to make sure companies are enforcing safety guidelines, said Labor and Industry Commissioner Nancy Leppink. Instead, the state will investigate employee complaints.

"But also addressing them based on where we see potential spikes or incidents of workers testing positive," she said

State or local health departments can respond to outbreaks with advisories or enforcement actions, she added.