St. Paul awards first grants to families and businesses impacted by coronavirus

By Jane McClure

St. Paul officials are scrambling to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic with an array of measures intended to ease the financial burden on citizens, shore up household and business budgets, and create new opportunities for recreation while maintaining social distancing.

Mayor Melvin Carter has closed the southbound lane of Mississippi River Boulevard to motor vehicle traffic between Franklin Avenue and Ford Parkway to provide more space for pedestrians and bicyclists to recreate and still practice social distancing. The closing took effect on April 23 and will remain in place through May 3. The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board has closed the northbound lane of West River Parkway between 46th Avenue South and 11th Avenue South for the same reason.

“Supporting opportunities for healthy activities during this pandemic is vital,” Carter said. “Expanding access for pedestrian and bicycle traffic on Mississippi River Boulevard creates a safe, socially distant way to enjoy our riverfront.” 

   

According to Paul Kurtz, St. Paul’s interim director of Public Works, the cost for closing part of Mississippi River Boulevard is between $350 and $400 per day for barricades and maintenance. That measure follows similar restrictions put in place around Cherokee Park and lakes Como and Phalen.

St. Paul’s municipal golf courses opened for the season on April 18 after Governor Tim Walz relaxed some of the state’s stay-at-home restrictions. That move took some local residents by surprise, according to Ward 3 City Council member Chris Tolbert. They had grown accustomed to freely strolling around the Highland 18- and 9-hole courses this spring.

The city is now exploring how to reopen its recreation centers to the public. Currently, park visitors may use the fields and trails, but are prohibited from using sports courts, skate parks and playground equipment. One idea is to appoint volunteer “park ambassadors” to assist in keeping the parks accessible but safe.

 

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The first grants from St. Paul’s recently announced $3.3 million Bridge Fund were distributed last week to families and businesses that have been adversely affected by the pandemic. More than 5,200 families and 2,100 small businesses applied for the grants before the April 19 cutoff date. The fund initially had enough money for 1,000 families to receive $1,000 grants and 300 small businesses to receive $7,500 grants. However, more than $747,000 in additional funds have been made available, and that should help an additional 230 families and 69 small businesses.

With many more applicants than available grants, recipients are being chosen by lottery. About 85 percent of the small-business applicants have been closed by order of the state, and 98 percent of them are independently owned. About 80 percent of family applicants and 71 percent of small-business applicants are from areas of the city with a high concentration of poverty, according to Mayor Melvin Carter. They have reported layoffs, furloughs, reduced hours and other reasons for a loss in income related to COVID-19.

To provide additional relief, the city has reduced by 25 percent the cost of business license fees and fines. If a business’ 2020 license fees have already been paid, the discount will be applied in 2021, Carter said. The city has also waived the towing and impound fees for motor vehicles through June 30. That is intended to help low-income people who may need a vehicle to get to work.

Like local governments across Minnesota, the city is facing dwindling revenue from fees and taxes and is seeking financial assistance from the state. At this point, it is not clear how many city employees may have to be laid off. Carter’s administration has indicated it wants to avoid layoffs if possible. While many city employees are working remotely online, others have been shifted to different tasks.

For example, employees from several departments have been working on the review and approval of St. Paul Bridge Fund applications. Two dozen members of the St. Paul Public Libraries staff are sewing masks for city employees. Some are making the masks at home and others are working at closed libraries with the libraries’ supply of fabrics and sewing machines.

This Post Has One Comment

  1. ilovesaintpaul

    I support what the city is doing to cut costs and mitigate financial hardship for those affected the most. Simply a question I have is whether or not budgeting will affect current street-improvement projects already slated for the summer of 2020. As much as I hate to mention it (my alley between Mount Curve Boulevard and Cretin avenue is a mess—would love to see it fixed), but foregoing such projects could allay earmarked funds into places where they’re most needed. I’m probably off base, though, and it doesn’t work this way.

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