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Chamber explores reopening plans for local businesses

Michael Looft

NEW ULM — As some small retailers planned to reopen on Monday, the New Ulm Area Chamber of Commerce hosted a Zoom video conference to help them prepare.

All retail stores, malls and other businesses that sell, rent, maintain and repair goods can reopen for in-person sales on May 18 with two conditions. First, the business may allow no more than 50% of the establishment’s occupant capacity inside at any time. Second, the business must adopt and implement a COVID-19 Preparedness Plan, including social distancing guidelines for workers and customers.

New Ulm Chamber President Michael Looft said he has received numerous questions about the business preparedness plan and he used the conference to address concerns and questions.

Information on the plan is available on the Minnesota Department of Employment Economic Development (DEED) website. The plan needs to document how the business will keep employees and customers safe. The completed business preparedness plan is not required to be submitted for approval, but needs to be made available upon request.

Looft said he did not know who would be checking the plan, but the Health Department and Sheriff’s Department is authorized to request the plan.

In drafting a preparedness plan, Looft warned against being too specific. Detailing how every door knob or touch surface in the business will be sanitized and the frequency of sanitization is too much and will make it impossible to follow the plan.

Another suggestion for businesses is to create a social media response plan. Looft said it was likely certain customers will not agree with the businesses COVID-19 response. As example, he cited how certain individuals are upset when employees are not wearing masks and others are upset when employees are wearing masks.

“There are two sides to this story and you are not going to please everyone,” Looft said. “It is really about how you respond to it. That is the most important.”

The overall goal was to avoid a conflict from customers turning into a public relations issue. Looft advised employers to train staff on how to respond to customers concerned about masks or other procedures to avoid conflict and alienating potential customers.

In general, the Chamber advised business owners to train and orient employees on the new plans and protocols before opening.

The video conference also featured a presentation from Lime Valley Advertising president Brian Maciej on E-commerce.

Looft introduced Maciej with some statistics about online sales. E-commerce sales continue to be on the rise. He compared a business’ online presence to GPS. He said years ago every driver had an Atlas in their car, but now everyone has a digital version. Today, nearly all businesses have an online presence and during COVID-19 online business has been vital.

Maciej said the big takeaway from this presentation was “selling online is not just for box stores.” Online sales allow businesses to sell when the physical store is closed or reach a wider customer base. Online sales are also important for customers who cannot physically access the store or do not feel comfortable entering a business yet.

“More retail stores are able to be open, but that doesn’t mean customers are going to flock,” Maciej said. “Maybe they are still a little timid. E-commerce can help with that.”

Investment in e-commerce platforms have become more affordable for small businesses and most offer trial runs allowing owners to pick the platform that is right for their business.

Lime Valley’s business listings are available on the New Ulm Chamber’s website and can be reached at limevalley.co

It was announced the New Ulm EDA is awarding $2,500 to $10,000 loans to small businesses at 1% interest. The loan is for a five year term with payments deferred until January 2021. To qualify the business must have a commercial or industrial address in New Ulm and have 20 or less full-time employees.

Assistant City Manager Audra Shaneman said application will be available on the city’s website by Monday. The loan will be available going forward for businesses after the COVID-19 crisis has passed.

The New Ulm Chamber will send out a survey on Monday to determine which businesses are reopening and the hours of operations.

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