'Things are changing every hour': Immigrant business owners in the Twin Cities grapple with coronavirus restrictions

After recent announcements by state regulators curtailing the operations of many local businesses to slow the spread of COVID-19, restaurant and shop owners consider their financial futures.
Francois Vo, who runs Vo’s Vietnamese Restaurant on Lyndale Avenue in south Minneapolis, may have to be flexible with his business hours while forced to sell only take-out meals. Dymanh Chhoun | Sahan Journal

At 11:00 on Wednesday morning, Francois Vo opened the doors of his Lyndale Avenue restaurant for the first time since statewide restrictions on restaurants went into effect to blunt the spread of COVID-19.


Restaurants, coffee shops, and bars were required to stop serving dine-in customers as of 5:00 pm on Tuesday, though they are still allowed to sell and deliver to-go items. The closures expire on March 27, but will likely be extended.


Not able to invite in the public, Vo doesn’t know what to expect for the future of Vo’s Vietnamese Restaurant, which opened at its current location in 2013. (Previously, it had existed on Broadway Street in Northeast Minneapolis.) One hour into business for the day, Vo’s had just one online order, to be delivered by Bite Squad. 


Vo, who fled Vietnam after the Vietnam War, first to France and then to the U.S., runs the restaurant with his sister. They employ just two people part time. “I’ll try to keep them so they have a job and money to spend, but you never know what’s going to happen,” he said. 


He said he’s hoping for 20 take-out orders per day while the dining room is closed. He plans to be flexible with his restaurant’s hours. “If there is no business, we’ll just close out and go home,” he said. 


Vo and other owners of immigrant-run businesses across the Twin Cities are adjusting to a new normal thrust upon them by the novel coronavirus pandemic. State officials frequently update restrictions on businesses as new cases of infection increase by the day. On Tuesday night, for example, state regulators added hair and nail salons, spas, and similar businesses to the list of operations that must shut their doors temporarily.


Many immigrant-run small businesses don’t have the luxury of offering delivery. 

Foot traffic at Mercado Central in Minneapolis was minimal late Wednesday afternoon. Several businesses here have temporarily closed during the COVID-19 pandemic. Dymanh Chhoun | Sahan Journal

In shopping markets like Mercado Central on Lake Street in Minneapolis, vendors not explicitly included in the ban are deciding for themselves how to proceed. Ayde Vasquez, who owns Creaciones Jhoale y Mat, which sells clothing, said she made the decision to shut her business “for the benefit of myself, my family, my children, and the community” until the crisis is over. 


Customer traffic had significantly slowed over the past two weeks, she said. 

She was uncertain how she would get by financially over the next several weeks, or even months, if her shop stays closed. “I don’t know [what I’m going to do] right now,” Vasquez said. “I need to provide for my family.”


Eduardo Barrera, the general manager of Mercado Central on Lake Street in Minneapolis, said the marketplace was in a grey area because some of its vendors are restaurants, which are included in the statewide ban, and some are retail shops like Vasquez’s, which are not. As of Wednesday, some shops not explicitly included in the ban were choosing to stay open and others were not. 


Barrera said he was focused on keeping up with the rapidly-changing guidelines from the state and city and passing the information along to vendors “so they can make their own decisions.” 


“Things are changing every hour,” he said.


Barrera said he’s been in touch with his city council member and that he expects to be on a Friday morning conference call with Mayor Jacob Frey to get more guidelines. Businesses that are forced to close will need government aid “so that they can come back” when the pandemic is over, Barrera said.


“We don’t have any assurances yet that the government at the city or the state or the federal level have definitely set a plan to assist small businesses,” he added. 


Grocery stores like Valerie’s Carniceria on Nicollet Avenue in Minneapolis have not yet seen a drop in business. That’s because people are stockpiling goods like canned food, bread, and meat for their freezers, according to owner Jaqueline Reyes. But her food supply is running low, and she said her supplier in Chicago is currently closed.


If she can’t fully restock her shelves, she’ll have to scale back hours. “Pretty soon we’re not going to have anything to sell,” Reyes said.

Joey Peters is a reporter for Sahan Journal. His work has appeared in Reuters, Public Radio International, Columbia Journalism Review, KFAI Radio, the Pioneer Press, City Pages, MinnPost and more. He previously served as staff writer for the Santa Fe Reporter and senior reporter for NM Political Report, both based in New Mexico.

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