STILLWATER, Minnesota (WCCO) — No industry was hit harder when COVID-19 swept through the United States than the hospitality industry. Stillwater, a top tourist town in Minnesota, felt the brunt of that blow.

But when Main Street businesses were left battered and bruised by the pandemic, competition fell by the way side and a community rallied together so this charming river town could weather the storm, people who live there said.

“Everyone was kind of like a rising tide and it’s going to lift all of our boats,” said Sara Jespersen, a local business owner and member of the town tourism board.

Jespersen, like so many others, was stunned and scared, unsure of how her business emerge from shutdowns, restrictions and fears of the disease that key people inside.

But she said local stores banded together to get creative and safely draw people to town—and people responded positively.

“It didn’t matter if you could be open or not or you could get business or not, you wanted to make sure whoever could be open that they’d be successful,” Jespersen said, who owns The Lumberjack in Stillwater and hosts a vacation rental.

On Friday, Main Street in the birthplace of Minnesota was bustling with people, some traveling in for the weekend. The scene was reminiscent of a pre-pandemic world.

That’s a stark contrast from a year and a half ago: Jespersen described the town as “crickets” when the shutdowns first happened in March. But residents did whatever they could to support local businesses, she said.

“It brought out the best in our local humanity,” she said. “I think the success of Stillwater really lies in the connectedness of the community.”

Chuck Dougherty had just renovated his Water Street Inn last December December and didn’t get to see the benefits of his investment before COVID-19 upended daily life. They saw 10-15%  the business they normally would, he said.

He compared the moment to it being “wintertime and having a blizzard that just went on forever.”

Now he says business is starting to rebound with people back to booking some weekend getaways, though they still have some ground to make up with weddings and corporate events.

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“It’s mixed bag but it feels good to have people coming and going,” he said.

Still, the impact of coronavirus still lingers. Organizers cancelled the annual Lumberjack Days festival — originally scheduled for this weekend — again this year, citing funding and not being able plan enough in advance due to “ever-changing COVID-19 restrictions.”

Community Support During COVID Keeps Local Distilling Alive

Andrew Mosiman didn’t even get to pour his first cocktail before the first wave of shutdowns forced his business, Forge and Foundry, to close—or never open in the first place.

They had just begin construction and demolition when the pandemic hit. Their business plan and hopes to open a taproom on Stillwater’s Main Street were now clouded in uncertainty.

“We didn’t even know if construction was allowed, [COVID] was that new,” Mosiman, a Stillwater native, recalls. “So we were painting walls ourselves. We were really worried.”

When COVID-19 first rocked the nation, distilleries across the country stepped up to the plate, diverting from cocktails and liquor to making hand sanitizer when there was a surge in demand and not enough supply.

At that time, initial funds were running dry for Forge and Foundry. By nature of the timing of its opening, the distillery fell through the cracks on eligibility for some federal rescue aid, he said.

So he delayed installing equipment and let hospitals, at the manufacturer’s request, use it to make hand sanitizer, too

“We called it our covid cuts,” Mosmian said. “We kept having to remove things from our business plans to make things stretch until we could finally open.”

Finally the chance to open on a limited basis came last summer just months before another winter shutdown.

Cocktail kits to go were a crowd favorite. That support is a main reason the business still stands on Main Street today, he said, now ready to scale up and hire more people to staff.

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“We were absolutely saved by that,” he said. “They came down for us when we really needed them.”

Caroline Cummings