WASHINGTON — As U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar looks toward providing continued COVID-19 relief to Americans through proposed legislation, she sought feedback Friday from four Minnesota mayors — including three from southwest Minnesota.
Worthington's Mike Kuhle, Luverne's Pat Baustian and Pipestone's Myron Koets all participated in a call with the senator, during which she asked them to outline their communities' economic and public health needs. Also in attendance was Marshall Mayor Bob Byrnes.
Klobuchar told the mayors that "the real work" is in the day-to-day operations of local government, which is why she hopes to partner with them as she assesses what language to support in upcoming bills. She also noted that the distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine is wildly different in rural America — she keeps telling news outlets that "You can't just parachute it into the middle of Luverne" — so input from rural leaders with eyes on the ground is invaluable in drafting the next relief package.
She wanted to know what her constituents need in order to recover economically and to keep the public safe.
"I'm so worried about our small businesses," Kuhle told the senator. "In communities our size, we depend on them so much for services."
He explained that grants are a lot more helpful than loans, and it makes sense for grant money to be distributed by the county board or the city council, whose members are familiar with the businesses requesting funds and therefore better able to make fair decisions.
Baustian and Koets agreed. Baustian noted that throughout the last year of the pandemic, big box stores have seen double-digit increases in revenue, while Main Street businesses have experienced double-digit losses. Koets pointed out that businesses considered "essential" have kept their heads above water, but those forced to close or limit operations have been struggling.
"Getting the vaccine quicker has to happen," Baustian added. "They're failing miserably. They've had plenty enough time to devise a plan."
He explained that the Minnesota Veterans Home in Luverne just started getting the first round of vaccines the previous week.
"That's just not acceptable," he said.
Klobuchar also wanted to know how receptive the mayors think their community members will be when the vaccine becomes available to the general public.
While seeing national political leaders like Vice President Mike Pence get the COVID-19 vaccine has been effective in convincing some circles to participate, a similar strategy would likely not be effective in Worthington, Kuhle said. Many people's community ties are rooted in their religious practices, he said, so it would be a lot more helpful to have various faith leaders get the vaccine in a public way.
In addition to aid for small businesses and greater vaccine access, other community needs include help acquiring technology for education and broadband expansion, Kuhle told the senator.
Baustian added that Rock County was the first Minnesota county to secure border-to-border broadband, and that move has proven to be an asset during pandemic distance learning.
Klobuchar noted that any infrastructure bill that doesn't include broadband is unlikely to pass.