By Scott Carlson and Maja Beckstrom
For the past 50 years, the St. Anthony Park Arts Festival has been a signature event in early June, drawing hundreds of spectators to the neighborhood to see dozens of artists and vendors in a fundraiser that also benefits the local community library.
But the COVID-19 pandemic has painted a jarring picture for this year’s arts festival: Organizers in mid-April canceled the 2020 event. They blamed uncertainty over whether Minnesota’s “shelter-in-place” restrictions aimed at thwarting the spread of the COVID-19 virus still would be in effect on June 6, the planned date for the festival.
“The permits and planning required to hold the Festival on June 6 are quickly becoming difficult to predict,” organizers said. “This event is organized by volunteers and benefits the summer programs of our St. Anthony Park Library, as well as the work of nearly 70 artists. Because of the density of the artists, booths and the great crowd the Festival draws, it is safer for all to cancel.”
The festival cancellation comes as scores of community organizations and businesses come to grips with the impact of COVID-19 on their activities and events. From restaurants to realtors, local businesses have been scrambling to devise workarounds and survival tactics in the face of the state of Minnesota’s general coronavirus quarantine measures.
“As more familiar annual events are canceled this year and potentially next year, the community will continue to feel the loss as a free fall from life as we knew it,” said Alison Schaub, executive director of the St. Anthony Park Community Foundation. “The Saint Anthony Park Community Foundation has heard from a number of local organizations whose futures are tenuous at best and worse, completely unsure of the next steps forward when so many things are up in the air—funding, community events/programs resuming, public participation and support.
“The SAP Arts Festival is one of those events the community looks forward to and will be missed as Minnesota returns to whatever our normal lives will look like in the next few months,” Schaub added.
Among many events cancelled is the annual Spring Carnival at St. Anthony Park Elementary School. The carnival was originally planned for May 1. But it along with the Adult Social and Silent Auction, Scholastic Book Fair and Plant Sale all have been scrapped.
“We are hopeful to pick up where we left off in the fall,” said SAP School Association President Lauren Renner.
Meanwhile, local businesses are suffering in the wake of the state’s shutdown.
“Unfortunately, during this crisis, Milton Square is not able to schedule for any events in the upcoming months,” said Heather O’Malley, owner of Milton Square, which is in the heart of St. Anthony Park’s retail district along Como Avenue. “All of our tenants have been hit extremely hard. Many are closed and don’t have an option of opening up in the near future.
She added that Winding Trail Books, Scarborough Fair and Nico’s Tacos are among those businesses trying to hang on using online sales, with curbside or delivery options.
Here is a snapshot of what was happening in mid-April with some other St. Anthony Park-area businesses in the midst of COVID-19.
The lobby at Sunrise Banks closed on March 16, but many of its 250 employees are busier than ever. The community bank was one of the banks processing loans through the Small Business Administration’s new Paycheck Protection Program.
“We’re getting an overwhelming volume of calls and applications,” said bank vice president Terri Banaszewski. “To qualify, a business has to show it’s been impacted by the COVID-19 virus. And, as you can guess, there are very few businesses that haven’t been impacted.”
The loans are forgiven by the SBA if all employees are kept on the payroll for eight weeks and the money is used for payroll, rent, mortgage interest or utilities. The loans are also available to nonprofit organizations, including churches and self-employed people,
“We just want to make sure that all the little businesses around us are there when we all get back up,” Banaszewski said.
Sunrise bankers are working remotely from home to review and verify documentation and submit applications to the SBA as quickly as possible, Banaszewski said.
“We’re working 12-hour days, rotating staff in to cover the shifts,” she said. “There’s just that much work to do. It’s unprecedented.”
Meanwhile, most regular banking services continue despite the closed lobbies. Drive through business has been “crazy busy,” since Sunrise consolidated drive through banking at two locations, including the Como Avenue branch. Tellers from all locations are being rotated through shifts so work is spread around, Banaszewski said.
“It can be stressful as far as they’re dealing with cash which is dirty,” she said. “So they’re all suited up and are wearing gloves and have all the sanitizing and cleaning products back there.”
Restaurants have been hard hit by the shutdown order, but most neighborhood eateries are still offering takeout, including Colossal Cafe. During the first week after the shutdown, owner Elizabeth Tinucci experimented with offering pre-orders for chicken pot pies.
“The response was so amazing that we had to call in three people to help us in the kitchen,” she said. “We thought we’d sell 100. And we sold something like 400. This neighborhood has given us nothing but immense support.”
Colossal now offers a small, changing menu of items that can be picked up cold on Thursday and Saturday and heated up at home. Still, takeout orders have only replaced a tiny fraction of the restaurant’s revenue. Of the 47 people Tinucci used to employ at the Como Avenue and Grand Avenue locations, she’s only hired back three people full time and three people part time.
Tinucci was approved for a small business loan through Sunrise Banks and is sorting out how she can use it to keep the restaurant afloat. The loan is only forgiven if she is still fully staffed at the end of eight weeks and if at least 75 percent of the borrowed money has been spent on payroll. The remaining 25 percent can be spent on other specified expenses, including rent and utilities, but not, for example, on restocking food.
Tinucci is paying employees’ health insurance through May. But even if she could dramatically expand takeout, she can’t safely squeeze more people into the kitchen.
Meanwhile, summer and fall remain complete unknowns. Even if restaurant restrictions are lifted in May, she said she won’t reopen at full capacity overnight and it’s unlikely customers will feel comfortable dining in close quarters with strangers in the near future.
“I am confident we’ll make it through the crisis,” she said. “But what we’ll look like might be different. It’s hard to imagine having a crowded bar or counter again. Will people want our servers wearing masks? Will that be most safe? Will handling paper menus be safe?
“We just don’t know what will be the ‘most safe’ for people in the future, even when we’re craving time together and the bustle of a restaurant.”
Frattallone’s Ace Hardware
While most storefronts along Como Avenue are closed, those considered essential businesses remain open, like Frattallone’s Ace Hardware.
“We’re saying ‘Welcome to Frattalone’s how can we help you from 6 feet away?’” said co-owner Mike Frattalone. Staff are regularly wiping down surfaces and door handles with a bleach solution and have the option of wearing gloves and masks, he said. The store also installed a plastic shield between customers and the cash register.
“We never thought we’d do that, but the moment we put the sneeze guards up we had people saying, ‘thank you,’” he said.
Sales are relatively good, he said. Customers are buying out bleach, alcohol, disinfecting wipes and masks. There are temporary shortages, but new supplies arrive four times a week.
“Some masks are appropriate for health care workers, and we’re giving them the first run on them,” he said.
The store also has seen an “uptick” in paint sales and lawn and garden supplies as people stuck at home take on house projects. He encourages shoppers to come into the store singly rather than in pairs or groups and to take advantage of the online ordering and new curbside pickup.
“When things reopen, I think people are going to feel much more comfortable shopping close to home,” he added. “I think this is an area where people really want to support their local businesses.”
Scott Carlson is managing editor of the Bugle; Maja Beckstrom is a journalist/writer and a resident of St. Anthony Park.