Andy Smith, owner of the Gray Duck Theater & Coffeehouse, sees a correlation nearly as immutable as the law of gravity between business activity and fears of the coronavirus pandemic.
When people are confident they can go out without catching the virus, attendance surges at the Gray Duck. When virus outbreaks occur (it can happen in Olmsted County, or in Florida or Arizona), consumer confidence sags and so does business at the theater.
"We've definitely seen that business and how we're doing here is directly tied to consumers' comfort with going out," Smith said.
The inability to reach consensus on the best approach to defeating the virus, as evidenced by what he considers the "irresponsible" debate over masks, has hurt his business, he said.
Smith was sharing his insights on the pandemic's impact on the Gray Duck to a coterie of mask-wearing DFL lawmakers and candidates, including Sen. Tina Smith, 1st Congress candidate Dan Feehan, state Senate candidate Aleta Borrud and state House candidates Randy Brock and Liz Boldon.
Feehan said the public was given a false choice between public health and economy. Public health had to be restored with the taming of the virus first before the economy could bounce back.
Later, Smith said she was confident about the development of a vaccine, but she cautioned that it was "not going to be around the corner." A robust federal program of testing and contract tracing is key to keeping the virus at bay.
"That has been the great failing of the Trump administration, that they have not used the full force of the federal government to bring that forward," Smith said. "You deal with the public health crisis, so the economy can thrive."
Smith and his wife, Anna, opened the Gray Duck, a converted Culligan Water facility, in May of last year. After a bumpy start, the business began to grow. The theater got a big break in October when it premiered in Rochester the Academy Award winner "Parasite." Each month after that, sales got better than the last.
"We were energized because 'Parasite' was a big film," Smith said.
Then the pandemic struck. Businesses like the Gray Duck were forced to close.
To Smith, it was clear that the polarizing debate over face masks helped undermine public health efforts. When the small theater in Northwest Rochester was allowed to reopen in June under Gov. Tim Walz's executive order, business started to rebound.
It helped that the Gray Duck was able to show two classic films, "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial" and "Back to the Future." Regulars were returning to the theater. Then the rancorous debate around face coverings erupted. Reports of virus outbreaks around the country multiplied. And fears began to rise of an uncontained virus.
"In late July and early August, we dried up completely," Smith said.
Specific numbers are hard to come by, but by some accounts, small businesses are disappearing by the thousands amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Yelp Inc., the online reviewer, has data showing more than 80,000 businesses have permanently shuttered from March 1 to July 25. About 60,000 were local businesses with fewer than five locations. About 800 small businesses filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy from mid-February to July 31, according to the American Bankruptcy Institute. The trade group expects the 2020 total could be up 36% from last year.
Smith said he and his wife have been able to keep their business afloat with the help of a Small Business Administration loan. The owners have also benefited from the building owner's willingness to cut their rent by half. But paying back the government loan will require business to be better than it is now.
Smith attributes an uptick in business at the Gray Duck within the past two weeks to the mandatory mask policy that Walz imposed a month ago. The theater has room for 66 patrons, but is limited to 15 per show under the state's rules.
"We're not really staying above water. But we're trying to stay as close to the surface as we can for when things turn a little greener," Smith said.