Legislature passes COVID aid bill for businesses, workers

People sit apart from each other while working at desks.
As some lawmakers work remotely, the ones who are present on the House floor social distance as they work Monday. Lawmakers returned for the year's seventh special session to consider relief for businesses and others in financial peril due to the pandemic.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

Updated: 7:57 a.m.

Minnesota lawmakers passed legislation Monday night designed to help businesses and workers hurt by the COVID-19 pandemic. The measure approved in a special session includes grants to struggling small businesses and an extension of unemployment benefits for out-of-work Minnesotans. 

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle pushed for the COVID-19 relief, but Republicans made it clear that DFL Gov. Tim Walz is the one who put businesses in financial peril with his executive orders that restricted their ability to operate for the past three weeks.

“This is a very important bill,” said Sen. Eric Pratt, R- Prior Lake. “A very important bill for our communities, a very important bill for our small business owners that have been impacted by the latest executive order and important for the employees that work in those industries.”

The business relief totals about $216 million. It includes $88 million that would be distributed through the Department of Revenue to restaurants, bars and other eligible firms that have seen a 30 percent drop in business. 

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Pratt said gyms, bowling alleys and breweries, wineries and distilleries are also on the list.

“These are the businesses, these are the small business owners and employees that have been most hurt by the executive order,” he said.

The bill provides $14 million through the Department of Employment and Economic Development to specifically help movie theaters and convention centers. The remaining $114 million would go to counties for them to distribute to businesses in need.

Sen John Marty, DFL-Roseville, supported the bill and took exception with the Republican criticism of Walz over the closures.

"He's been doing a better job than a lot of governors have,” Marty said. “He's been working very hard listening to public health experts trying to save lives."  

Even businesses that have reopened in defiance of the governor’s closure order would be able to receive some state aid. House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, doesn’t like that wrinkle in the bill, but he said it couldn’t be avoided.

“If we create a program where all these verifications and checks have to take place, the money will get out the door much later and frankly too late for all the businesses that are following the rules,” Winkler said.

In a statement lauding passage of the relief bill, Walz acknowledged the “enormous sacrifices” small businesses have made.

“This is a critical lifeline for those businesses, and for the Minnesotans whose livelihoods depend on them,” Walz said. “This bipartisan bill will provide direct, targeted aid to keep our small businesses afloat, support workers struggling to get by, and help families put food on the table while we work to get the virus under control.”

The deal on unemployment extends benefits by 13 weeks to those Minnesotans who lost jobs this year due to the pandemic. Many of those workers are facing a cutoff of benefits later this month.

House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, said the state help hinges on what the federal government ends up doing for unemployment.

“If the federal government passes something that’s essentially the same as what we’ve done, the federal program will just replace what we have done and the federal money will pay for that," Hortman said.

Some lawmakers stressed that a better solution would be for the governor to allow businesses to reopen. 

Rep. Barb Haley, R-Red Wing, said she wants to see gyms in particular operating again.

“We believe that the gyms and the fitness centers are really part of the solution to helping us all manage COVID and are not part of the problem,” she said.   

Other items did not make it into the bill, including a DFL proposal for $500 payments to low-income families, homeless aid and child care support. Also left out was a proposal to allow establishments to sell more beer and hard liquor as takeout items.