ST. PAUL — Many businesses are raking in COVID cash, even as the disease spreads into their workforce.

“I feel a little guilty about it,” said Sunny Bowman, owner of Dakota County Lumber in Farmington, Minn. Sales this year have surged 40%, she said, because of the pandemic.

The coronavirus has taken its toll, with more than 5,000 Minnesotans infected having since died. It has also forced the doors closed of many businesses as health officials stressed keeping us far enough from each other to stop its spread; bars and restaurants have been hit especially hard. But it has also spurred innovation. Companies have had to re-envision the office and how we connect. Others have retool to provide protective equipment and the basic essentials in the middle of a pandemic.

Home remodeling and construction is one industry that is thriving, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Others include businesses that handle groceries, liquor, hardware, in-home exercise equipment, cleaning services, used cars, deliveries, tutoring and garden supplies.

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Mary Beth Stevens knows why cleaning businesses are on the list. She owns MB’s Cleaning Services, which moved into a larger office in West St. Paul in the midst of the pandemic. “We are getting new customers every week,” she said.

Like the virus itself, her business is quickly evolving. She added a “High Touch Point” service — sanitizing doorknobs, TV remotes, toilet handles — “or anywhere hands can go.” She pared down her schedule when customers started to ask for only one cleaner at a time instead of the normal two-person crews. And the business evolved — instantly — when three workers came down with COVID-19 after exposure from their families.

“Now we take temperatures every day,” Stevens said. “If you have any kind of a sniffle, you stay home.”

Business is good, she said, but not as good as what she expects next year.

“I feel that business will absolutely explode,” she said. “We are all so much more conscious of being clean.”

'Not missed a beat'

Jim Neumann, manager of Beisswenger’s Hardware in New Brighton, Minn., said that sales in 2020 will be roughly the same as last year.

“We have not missed a beat,” he said.

The first half of the year was stronger, said Neumann, because of COVID relief checks to families. “Now, people are not assured that they will have jobs,” Neumann said.

Sales for December had been down because of a lack of snow early on — with all the salt, shovels and snow-blowers sitting in the store. But Christmas tree sales are strong, said Neumann, as home-bound workers try to make their surroundings more cozy.

Matt Powers loads a pallet of building materials onto a flatbed trailer at Dakota County Lumber in Farmington, Minn., on Thursday, Dec. 17, 2020. (John Autey / Pioneer Press)
Matt Powers loads a pallet of building materials onto a flatbed trailer at Dakota County Lumber in Farmington, Minn., on Thursday, Dec. 17, 2020. (John Autey / Pioneer Press)

When several workers at Dakota County Lumber came down with COVID, Bowman quickly identified the culprit.

It was her. “I caught it from my toddler,” she said, sheepishly.

She immediately shut down the office, sent everyone home, and was able to re-open later with no hint of COVID.

In spite of the attack on her workforce, business is booming. It surged in April, when home-bound workers decided to start building decks. They then decided to fix their interiors, refinishing basements and adding home offices.

New construction kept business humming, too. She has seen customers who sold their homes in the core cities, then moved to the exurbs for a lower-stress lifestyle.

The business thrived despite COVID spreading to her husband, another child, herself and her co-workers. The originator of all that illness – her son — didn’t get sick himself other than a rash.