It’s only 3 p.m., but Canterbury Park’s Card Casino is already packed.
“Nothing else to do during a snowstorm,” laughed a player as he slid his chips under the Plexiglas barrier.
After Gov. Tim Walz’s restrictions on indoor dining and entertainment venues were lifted in early January, local southwest metro attractions have begun reopening for the 2021 season.
But with an ever-changing pandemic and a history of emergency closures with just days notice, it’s difficult to plan for an uncertain future.
“That’s the biggest challenge of these big venues; the uncertainty of what to plan for, how to plan for it, and the short amount of time we have to react. We’re all hopeful that there's a mass vaccine roll out, but will there still be restrictions this summer? How do we plan a calendar without knowing? It’s very hard to pivot that quickly,” said Canterbury Park Marketing Vice President John Groen.
Canterbury Park’s parking lot alone holds 10,000 cars — so when capacity restrictions during the pandemic only allowed less than a thousand people, “it was a substantially different feel,” said Groen.
Canterbury has a year-round casino and race book, where players can bet on tracks around the country, and live racing every summer. Throughout the year, they host large conventions and events. But all were shut from March to June, then had to close again in November. Instead of the 450,000 fans they normally saw each year, they had around 50,000, he added.
“It was a very challenging year. Financially was only one aspect, it was also emotionally taxing. It’s hard to not have our team members working, not putting out that excitement and energy and atmosphere,” he said.
During the summer, they started catering to a national audience by offering what Groen said is the lowest takeout in the country — the amount of money Canterbury makes on each wager. And since you can’t bet online in Minnesota, they set up a drive-thru where people can pull up, place wages and go back home to watch the races.
Each floor of the now reopened casino can only hold 150 people, so there are wait lists for those looking for a seat. The number of people has also shrunk from six to four per table, and there are Plexiglas barriers between and in front of the seats — chips and cards are slid through a gap underneath.
Dining has also been forced to modify. Though the casino is open 24/7, dining is restricted after 10 p.m., leading to a reduced menu.
But while it’s hard to solidify much, there are some plans on the horizon. In mid-December, the Park’s live horse racing season was approved, with 65 races between May 18 and Sept. 16. The week the casino opened, it hit capacity every day.
“You have to make some assumptions about what could happen. They could be right, they could be wrong. The short time to learn what the next rule is going to be is really challenging for large entertainment venues like ours,” Groen said. “But we’re hoping to welcome back more fans and our whole team someday.”
Not every attraction was able to open last year. Though it petitioned the state to allow reopening with extra safety precautions, Valleyfair in Shakopee stayed closed for its entire 2020 season.
Under Minnesota’s restrictions, theme parks couldn’t hold more than 250 people — a tiny percentage of Valleyfair’s capacity. With such a small number, it just wasn’t worth it to try and reopen, said Communications Manager Kelsey Megard, though its sister parks in other states like Ohio and Missouri could operate.
From May to October, the grounds were eerily quiet as everything was pushed back or canceled. Though full-time staff didn’t have layoffs or furloughs, the closure meant the amusement park couldn’t bring back its 1,500 seasonal employees, leaving the park almost entirely empty.
“Especially early on in 2020, our staff were really focusing on how we could prepare the park to open if we did get the green light. But when we decided to close for the season in August, we started focusing on 2021; what are the costs, what are the capacity restrictions, what can we do to stay open this year,” she said. “We want to bring things back.”
One of those events would have been their Grand Carnivale, Valleyfair’s largest event yet. For 23 days, the grounds would host 150 costumed performers, daily parades, street parties and other entertainment celebrating cultures from around the world. It’s now been rescheduled, as was the Peanuts celebration and long-standing tradition Corn Feast. All 2020 season tickets have also been extended.
It’s hard to plan for the future — “We can’t even go into details on what we’d need to reopen, because everything is so up in the air,” Megard said — but if all goes well, the smell of pronto pups and excited screams will return once again in May.
“We’re in full swing preparing for 2021. I think our Minnesota community is going to absolutely love it,” she said.
The last year has been a series of ups and downs for Chanhassen Dinner Theatres. The Main Stage show The Music Man closed just a few days after its debut, the summer concert series was able to temporarily return, kids camps were forced online, Brindisi’s Pub had to close for two months — but a sense of normalcy may return by the beginning of summer.
The theater is currently working with last year’s ticket holders to rebook with priority after last year’s shows were canceled, and will announce new dates for its Main Stage shows in early February, said Communications Manager Kris Howland. The theater also announced concert series dates through May.
“When we announced the reopenings, the box office was so busy that we could bring back five employees to manage calls,” Howland said.
Kids and teens summer camps will also return in person from July 5 to Aug. 9, added Camp Coordinator Brennen Thomas. One youth camp has campers learning classic musicals, while a teen camp teaches Broadway. They’ll also begin streaming its end of camp performances so friends and family can watch from home.
“There’s just something special about being in person, especially for our younger campers. That socialization aspect is so important,” Thomas said. “It brings joy to see kids feel that energy in the theater and really get into it.”
After the dinner theater's adjacent bar/restaurant Brindisi’s Pub was closed for indoor dining from November to early January, its tables have been filled since last week (at the required 50% capacity), Howland said. Happy hour is back, there is live music on Thursday nights, and people seem excited to return.
“We’re optimistic with the new vaccines and that things are going to improve. We really, really want to get back to what we are so good at and what people are missing,” Howland said. “We’re very grateful for everyone sticking by us and trusting us.”
As of Monday, Jan. 11, statewide restrictions on indoor dining at restaurants and bars were loosened due to a decline in COVID-19 case numbers across Minnesota and some area restaurant owners said it's just the latest step in what's been a "rollercoaster" of a year.
Though outdoor dining was allowed in December, the late fall spike in virus cases caused Gov. Tim Walz to hold off opening up businesses like restaurants, bars, museums and bowling alleys until recently. Now, these venues are able to open under a set of revised rules — for indoor dining, restaurants are limited to 50% capacity, with up to six-person tables and two-person groups at the bar and a 10 p.m. curfew, according to an executive order from the governor.
For Ryan Lindquist, who owns the Brewhall tap room in Shakopee, navigating changing restrictions on how his restaurant can do business has gotten easier with time.
"In some respects I guess it's kind of a rinse and repeat situation," Lindquist said. "We were kind of able to leverage our past experiences on social distancing and healthy cleaning practices, making sure masks are around and sanitizing everything, so it's really just kind of refreshing our practices from summer and making sure we're ready to roll."
Lindquist said when the shutdowns of November and December rolled around, he wasn't "seething" about it — for him and other area restaurant owners, the second round was bound to happen at one point or another.
"Frustration was probably there back in the first wave in March and April," Lindquist said. "We weren't ready to be shut down and we didn't know what was going to happen. But in light of strong local support and just continuing to work as a team, and just working through the processes we have in place, it's been less painful because we've seen it before."
Like Lindquist, Joe Nowak, general manager of the Jordan Supper Club in Jordan, said the financial challenges of the first round of shutdowns last spring were certainly daunting between applying for loans and adjusting employee schedules. But for Nowak, the second round of shutdowns were more straightforward.
"We all kind of knew for a few weeks prior that (the shutdown) was going to come soon," Nowak said. "We had to start adjusting a whole lot sooner — it was a speech on Friday, had until Monday to close up shop kind of thing."
For Nowak, one of the biggest shifts amid the new restrictions on capacity in the last year has been configuring the physical layout of the restaurant.
The question used to be "how can I get as many people in here as possible?" Nowak said. Amid the pandemic, restaurant owners have had to take on a completely different perspective on seating diners.
"Now it's like, well, I have to have the tables six feet apart, I can't have booths that are back-to-back," said Nowak. "There are some things you can do like installing plexiglass dividers between tables, but that gets expensive, especially if you have a bigger restaurant."
D. Fong's owner David Fong had a small dining room at his Chinese restaurant in Savage before COVID-19 hit. Though they were able to reopen this week for indoor diners, it's been a little slow, Fong said.
"We've been extremely fortunate that our takeout has been pretty solid," Fong said. "But I think people are still cautious about going out."
Still, Fong said, he's been able to shift staff around to cover the dining room and curbside delivery, avoiding any major layoffs, which he's grateful for.
Not all area restaurants have been quite so lucky, Fong said.
Lindquist said a large portion of his staff is part-time, and he's worked hard to make sure employees get hours and have money in their pockets.
Now that the Brewhall is able to have customers inside, additional staff are needed to bus tables quickly and get diners in and out.
"There's some additional labor we need to do to satisfy the restrictions, even though we're not at 100% capacity," Lindquist said.
Rachel Sweere, who works at The Feed Mill Restaurant in Jordan, said the changing restrictions have been frustrating, but they've also caused a financial burden on restaurant employees.
"The most frustrating thing is going from being closed and opening and being closed and opening," Sweere said. "It's been a rollercoaster this year, just the financial burden and not knowing what's going to happen next."
Still, Sweere said she and the other Feed Mill staff are excited to be able to reopen and have many of their regular customers back.
"We're excited to get back to somewhat of a normal life," said Sweere.
Though Sweere, Fong, Nowak and Lindquist all said they and their staff are excited to see customers in their buildings again, Fong cautioned that amid the ongoing uncertainty, area restaurants are not out of the woods quite yet.
"Obviously we've seen many restaurants go out of business along with great businesses, and all those employees no longer have jobs," Fong said. "It's been extremely hard on the hospitality industry. The community is doing a great job of supporting local business, and we hope they continue to do that, but we're not out of the difficult zone quite yet."
On Jan. 7 dozens of volunteers from Hosanna Church, which has a location in Shakopee, bundled up and gathered in the parking lot across from Bill’s Toggery in Shakopee. A semi truck filled with pallets of food was backed into a parking spot, ready to feed every restaurant worker in the community.
HEART Ministries, a nonprofit organization under Hosanna Church, threw together a last-minute partnership with the Shakopee Chamber of Commerce to provide food for Shakopee’s restaurant workers — no questions asked.
The food came from Farmers to Families, a partner of Hosanna church. The organization donates excess perishable food from farmers that would otherwise go to waste, including milk, butter, produce and cheese.
Ashley Grotewold, the Main Street Director at the Shakopee Chamber of Commerce, said when HEART Ministries and Hosanna Church approached her about donating food to people in the community, the first people she thought of were restaurant workers.
Grotewold said she reached out to about 12 restaurants in Shakopee, accounting for about 265 employees.
“We brought enough food for all of them,” Grotewold said.
“Restrictions are lifting, but still, they will have less shifts, and it takes a while before their first paycheck will get here.”