REGIONAL ― As part of her annual visits with constituents in each of Minnesota's 87 counties, U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar met via Zoom Monday with local leaders from McLeod, Swift, Nobles and Becker counties to discuss the impact of COVID-19 on small businesses and manufacturing and get feedback on how she can support the area through the pandemic.

Representing Nobles County was Dr. Randy Simonson, chief strategy officer of Worthington-based Cambridge Technologies, and discussing southwest Minnesota was Diana Anderson, president/ CEO of Southwest Initiative Foundation (SWIF). Also participating were Tyler Stilson, owner of 3D CNC in Hutchinson; Jessica Wrobleski, owner of Stony Ridge Foods in Benson; and Michelle Dagget, president of Lakeshirts in Detroit Lakes.

"We have a really pressing issue right now ― getting pandemic relief done by the end of the year," Klobuchar told the business leaders.

She expressed concern about small towns, rural hospitals and the hardest hit industries, such as manufacturing and restaurants.

"There is a light at the end of the tunnel," Klobuchar continued, "and that is that these vaccines have a higher efficacy rate than anyone thought possible."

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She stressed a three-fold plan for taking care of Minnesota throughout the pandemic: 1) Everyone needs to wear masks, social distance and follow all other guidelines, 2) Rapid testing needs to become more widely available and 3) The Senate needs to get a relief bill passed quickly.

For the remainder of the hour-long Zoom discussion, Klobuchar asked each business leader where they are most concerned about their companies and communities.

Anderson shared that SWIF has distributed $7.7 million in grants and loans since March 1, a lot of which has gone toward child care relief funds. Even before COVID-19, Greater Minnesota has had a long-term childcare crisis, she noted, and COVID-19 has effectively erased all the progress made in the last two years.

Through a partnership with the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, SWIF has also given out an additional $6 million in relief to small businesses. One limitation while everyone tries to stay at home is insufficient internet access, Anderson said.

Naming the communities of Willmar and Worthington specifically, Anderson pointed out that it's fairly common in immigrant households for multiple families to live together in one house. In such cases, it can be extremely difficult for a COVID patient to quarantine from others, virtually guaranteeing the spread of the virus within the house. To help alleviate this problem, SWIF has been using hotels in both communities to give people a place to quarantine, as well as for temporary housing for the homeless.

SWIF is also aware that COVID-19 is a catalyst for the widening of racial disparities and the achievement gap., said Anderson, adding that the foundation is paying attention to the pandemic's impact on the academic performance and mental health of school-aged children.

Klobuchar assured Anderson that housing relief is included in the proposed legislation that the senator favors. She suggested that rapid testing could help lift some stress from the school system, because anyone who tests negative would know their results faster and therefore be able to return to school sooner.

Simonson thanked Klobuchar for her support of rural Minnesota and the ag industry. He noted that for Cambridge Technologies, the paycheck protection program helped keep employees working without having to furlough or reduce wages.

He also explained that one focus of the company throughout the pandemic has been screening animals for COVID-19, in an effort to prevent spread.

Klobuchar noted that while the paycheck protection program ended Aug. 8, it might be helpful to look at a second round of funding for that. She also promised to push for widespread rapid testing ― "not just for NFL players" ― and focus on local institutions first.