ST. PAUL — Minnesota business leaders are headed into uncertainty this weekend as the number of confirmed coronavirus infections continues to climb.
A day after colleges and sporting events were shut down across the state, local chambers of commerce held a joint conference call to discuss their next steps. Member businesses are looking at how they can continue operating should their employees be quarantined and their customer traffic reduced.
"It is a balancing act between preparing and then mitigating, and making sure that the economy doesn’t suffer unnecessary downturns," said Minnesota Chamber President Doug Loon in a Friday, March 13, interview.
What makes preparation difficult, Loon said, is the dynamic nature of the outbreak. New cases of COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by coronavirus, are being announced daily in Minnesota and abroad.
Fourteen people tested positive for the disease by Friday, and a further 550 have been tested. According to the World Health Organization, more than 130,000 cases have been confirmed globally in a pandemic that has killed almost 5,000 people.
While a majority of cases and deaths reported occurred in China, where the coronavirus broke out late last year, more than 1,600 cases have been confirmed in the U.S., according to the federal Centers for Disease Control. It has spread to 47 states plus Washington, D.C., and killed 41 people.
With some planning to stay indoors to limit the spread of the disease, others worry about losing business. Loon said that chamber members are planning for a brief downturn from which they hope to bounce back quickly.
Layoffs appear unlikely, he said, as do temporary closures.
"As far as I know, nobody is shutting down businesses," he said.
At a Minnesota Capital press conference Friday, Center of the American Experiment economist John Phelan said that bulk buying — which has stripped bare many market shelves — may actually provide a short-term boost to grocers and superstores. But stockpiling might also be a sign that consumers won't head back to the store anytime soon, he said.
While many Minnesotan's retirement plans have likely taken a beating as a result of coranavirus-related stock market turbulence, Phelan said that younger savers should be able to recover.
For the most part, he said that Minnesota's sector-rich economy leaves it well-equipped for crisis.
"When we’re faced with these kinds of unpredictable, black swan, insane events," Phelan said, "it really does drive home the fact that you want to be a rich, well-off, wealthy country."
Tourism and hospitality may be hit hard throughout the state, meanwhile, as fear of exposure forces more and more people to cancel their travel plans. However John Edman, head of the state tourism department Explore Minnesota, said in a Friday phone call that it's too soon to quantify what effect the outbreak could have on the $16 billion industry.
But if travel dips, he said, so too could spending on hotels, restaurants and shops.
"It’s impacting travel both by air, travel to events and travel to communities all throughout the globe and Minnesota is no exception," Edman said.
In his declaration of a state of "peacetime" emergency on Friday, Gov. Tim Walz stopped short of ordering businesses to close but recommended private-sector employees be granted paid sick leave should they take time off work amid the outbreak.
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