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Walz, House GOP, push for quick aid for hard-hit businesses

MINNEAPOLIS — Democratic Gov. Tim Walz and Minnesota House Republicans on Tuesday unveiled separate relief proposals for small businesses that have been hit the hardest by new restrictions to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

Walz said the package he developed with House Democratic leaders aims to keep businesses afloat, support workers struggling to get by and help families put food on the table. He expressed hope that lawmakers would pass it as early as next week.

“Now is the time for a package to go forward, and that the sacrifices they’re making can’t be for naught,” Walz said. “We’re actually saving lives (by) keeping people out of the hospital, but we need to make sure that we’re taking care of these folks.”

Highlights include grants for about 14,000 affected businesses, a 13-week extension of unemployment benefits and $500 one-time emergency payments for struggling families enrolled in the Minnesota Family Investment Program.

Walz last week ordered bars, restaurants, fitness clubs and other businesses to close for four weeks. Bars and restaurants will have to scrape by on takeout and delivery service, while holiday dinners, prep sports and other gatherings also fall under the partial shutdown, which is due to end Dec. 18.

Minnesota health officials reported 38 more COVID-19 deaths on Tuesday and 6,423 new confirmed infections, raising the state’s pandemic totals to 3,303 deaths and 282,916 cases. Minnesota ranks fifth in the nation for new cases per capita. Minnesota hospitals were treating around 1,800 COVID-19 patients, including around 380 in intensive care.

Walz told reporters he would call a special session to pass an aid package when there’s a deal, and expressed hope that lawmakers could have it ready by next Tuesday when a “materially better” state budget forecast will be released. He said it feels like there’s “bipartisan momentum” to take action.

Walz spoke outside Casper’s and Runyon’s Nook, a landmark family-owned St. Paul burger joint.

“The Nook’s been around since 1932,” co-owner Mike Runyon said. “We took this place over 20 years ago. It’s been our heart and soul. We’ve put everything into this place. And to see that a package is around the corner means so, so much to us. … It needs to happen. We’re on the brink of collapse in this industry.”

The governor’s plan also includes relief from licensing and other regulatory fees, and incentives for hospitality businesses that share surplus food with families in need. He said the cost has not been determined. Democratic House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler said it would cost roughly $350 million if 14,000 businesses hypothetically each received a $25,000 grant.

The House GOP proposal includes a $400 million grant fund for restaurants, bars, breweries, bowling alleys, gyms, and other establishments that suddenly had to close or scale back operations last week. Republican lawmakers want to tap the state’s rainy day fund and repay it with federal aid if Congress agrees on a relief package. Prospects in Washington for new virus aid this year remain uncertain.

Other elements include a three-month sales tax holiday for affected businesses, temporarily doubling the caps on takeout beer, wine and liquor sales, waiving license fees and allowing gyms to reopen. Rep. Dave Baker, of Willmar, said the Republicans are ready to compromise to help struggling businesses soon.

“If we can get this thing going by the end of the week, to have a bill written and drafted, which is going to be a challenge in a holiday week, but if we can get it swiftly moving … my hope would be we could have money in their pockets within 30 days,” Baker said.

A restaurant, bar and hospitality trade group welcomed the proposals and the bipartisan will to work fast.

“We are heartened that legislators and the administration are both moving in the right direction to provide swift emergency relief, as we all need to work together to save this industry and its workers,” Liz Rammer, president and CEO of Hospitality Minnesota, said in a statement.