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With social distancing cutting into in-person theater, FHS troupe moves online
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If there’s one thing Faribault High School Theatre Troupe members have learned in preparing for their fall production, it’s adaptability.

That, and how to say their lines loud enough so Director Paul Johnson can hear them through their masks.

After changing the format of the production a few times and dealing with rescheduled rehearsals, the troupe is ready to release a recording of “These are the Days” The show, set for a Wednesday, Nov. 25 release, offers an inside look at the teenage world post COVID-19. It will be available to livestream at faribault.k12.mn.us and the Faribault Public Schools YouTube channel.

“These are the Days” will be the first production of the FHS Theatre Troupe since its Children’s Theatre production in January, and considering the coronavirus has led to a suspension of in-person high school activities starting this week until Jan. 4, the troupe is lucky to have a fall show at all. In the spring, the troupe’s 2020 musical was cancelled due to COVID-19.

“We’re so excited we get to be on stage again,” said FHS junior Caroline Drenth, who plays the part of Jennifer. “I’m very happy with theater this year.”

In the Faribault High School fall play “These are the Days,” Caroline Drenth, center, gives Luke Weng, right, advice on talking to Taylor Sterling. (Misty Schwab/southernminn.com)

Johnson, who wrote the script, said students have been “wonderfully patient” in adapting to the changes throughout rehearsals. Originally, Johnson planned to shoot the show entirely like a short film with FHS serving as the set. Protocols eventually changed to allow for an in-person audience, so the students shifted to stage rehearsals.

Johnson even added more scenes to the script to make it longer. Following last week’s announcement that the school is moving to distance learning, the show will be pre-recorded for the community.

In his office, Johnson said he keeps a manila envelope filled with the comical things teenagers have said throughout his years of teaching and directing. He used these quotes and anecdotes as inspiration for “These are the Days” and also used a couple scenes from a script he previously published.

“Most every time I sit down to write, I write with teenagers in mind because that’s what I know,” Johnson said.

Student actors in “These are the Days” take turns sharing their concerns about a new school year. Pictured from right: Jessica Agiss, Caroline Drenth, Jordyn Tesch, Kayla Schultz, Roman Howells, Jadon Kittlesen, Jonathan Tutewohl and Eli Howells. (Misty Schwab/southernminn.com)

Given the unpredictable nature of the pandemic, Johnson also knew the fall play required some flexibility. In April, he began thinking, “How are we going to do this?” Realizing the pandemic would last more than a couple months, contrary to what many people originally assumed, he considered a number of ways to put on a show.

“These are the Days” features 18 high school actors as well as cameos from FHS teachers and pre-recorded announcements from FHS Assistant Principal Shawn Peck. Some of the characters include Eric, played by FHS senior Jadon Kittlesen, who films everything. Chuck, played by freshman Jonathan Tutewohl, is very focused on getting a date and carries around a notebook to record his analytical discoveries. Sharon, played by junior Jordyn Tesch, is a tough tomboy who likes working on cars, and Drenth’s character, Jennifer, is a popular girl who tells it like it is.

Students are required to wear masks during all rehearsals, which has challenged them to not only talk louder, but to “show expressions with the upper half of the face” as Tutewohl said.

In “These are the Days,” Jonathan Tutewohl, left, isn’t quite sure the best photo to show Allison Norton on his phone. (Misty Schwab/southernminn.com)

During the recording itself, students take off their masks on stage only. To meet the requirement, Johnson needed to make sure each actor’s “non-mask” time, while in close proximity to other actors, will be under the 15 minute threshold. Actors also sanitize their hands upon arriving at rehearsals and wipe down the props and sets after every use.

Looking ahead, Johnson said he has two one-act scripts that can be done via Zoom. He anticipates filming the next children’s theater production and sending the recording to the local elementary schools. He has a musical picked out for spring, but he doesn’t want students to get their hopes up high in case it needs to be cancelled again.

“We haven’t spent hardly anything from the [theater] budget the past two years, so when this [pandemic] is over, it’s going to be a celebration,” Johnson said.

In the meantime, actors encourage the community to tune in to “These are the Days.”

“It’s really funny,” Kittlesen said. “… It might be a nice cathartic experience to watch.”

Morristown agrees to regulate pollinator gardens
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After a months long dispute between neighbors, a divided Morristown City Council passed an ordinance on Monday night that will regulate pollinator gardens for the first time.

Passed over the objections of Councilor Jake Golombeski, the new ordinance will require those interested in having a pollinator garden to seek a permit from the city. Several Morristown residents currently maintain such gardens, which had previously been unregulated. Under the new ordinance, no property owner or occupant is currently allowed to grow vegetation or grass exceeding 6 inches. A special exemption is reserved for vacant and unoccupied land, where grass or vegetation can be cut as infrequently as twice a year.

While pollinator gardens are located throughout the city, one residential pollinator garden took up a much larger share of the property than pollinator gardens in other parts of the city, startling some neighbors who believed it looked unsightly or unkempt.

However, the property owners maintained they were doing their part to support the environment in a crucial way. Faribault environmental activist Liz Hartmann noted that by helping bees and other vulnerable pollinators, pollinator gardens play a crucial role in the life cycle of many plants. According to the U.S. Forestry Service, “Pollinators are responsible for assisting over 80% of the world’s flowering plants to reproduce.”

“I’m glad to see any attention given to pollinators,” Hartmann said. “They’re such an important part of our environment.”

Additionally, the council reserves the right to designate private or publicly owned lands as natural habitat, excluding it from the lawn maintenance requirement. Now, the Native Vegetation Permit provides an avenue for residents to easily secure such an exemption.

Joining the new program will not come without effort, and residents who already have pollinator gardens won’t be grandfathered in. Permits are limited to five years and are non-transferable, so new property owners would be required to reapply if they wish to keep an existing garden.

Residents will be expected to contract with a professional landscaping company for maintenance, and will have to provide a comprehensive maintenance plan including state of intent and purpose, a detailed site plan and the exact plants to be grown.

City Administrator Michael Mueller is currently assigned responsibility for enforcing the ordinance. The ordinance notes that the administrator may “regularly” inspect gardens and has the power to revoke a permit in the event of noncompliance.

Councilors Lisa Karsten and Tim Flaten helped to mediate the dispute and draft the ordinance. Karsten, whose term expires in January, noted that the dispute centered around one garden in particular, which is located near to the city’s ballfield along Second Street.

Karsten was invited to the property to see the lawn and learn more about the importance of pollinator gardens. She appreciated the experience and said she values the role played by pollinator gardens, but believed that regulation was important.

“I’m not a big fan of yards where people dump chemicals into the earth to make it look like a golf course,” she said. “I’m in favor of pollinator gardens, but I just think it’s important to have guidelines.”

Without an ordinance, Flaten said he was concerned that other city residents might feel free to let their grass and weeds grow as they like, to the frustration of others. With the enactment of the new ordinance, that risk is likely to be much less.

Drafted by City Attorney Mark Rahrick, the ordinance is virtually identical to those in other cities. Karsten said that she didn’t push for any particular changes to the draft, arguing there’s no reason to “reinvent the wheel.”

“Other cities have always been perfectly willing to share their ideas with us,” she said.

Virus 'moving faster than we can control it,' says Rice County health director
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When Deb Purfeerst stood before the Rice County Board of Commissioners a mere four weeks ago, Rice County had registered nine COVID-19 related deaths.

On Tuesday, that number was 25, with 10 of them coming in the last week. Since Purfeerst, Rice County’s Public Health director, last updated the board Oct. 20, the number of Rice County residents testing positive for the coronavirus has risen by 83% to 2,874.

From Friday through Monday, Rice County alone registered 401 cases. When the Department of Public Health gave its daily briefing at 11 a.m. Tuesday, it announced 80 more Rice County residents among its numbers, for a total of 2,954 positive cases. Rice County’s first case was reported March 18.

In all, MDH reported another 5,945 newly confirmed or probable cases of the disease, another high count following three days with nearly 24,000 newly reported cases; 26 more Minnesotans were reported to have died.

“None of this is easy,” Gove. Tim Walz told reporters as he made clear that on Wednesday the state will announce plans to “pause” the current high school sports season and to curb winter youth sports.

He implored Minnesotans to do all they can to stem the disease’s spread.

The overall numbers continue to paint a troubling picture of a rapidly worsening outbreak in Minnesota not limited to just one region or demographic group, like earlier in the pandemic.

Hospitalizations shot up, with 343 new admissions. That’s more than the previous two days combined and nearly 20 percent higher than the previous daily record set last week.

Locally, Purfeerst said the increasing numbers show “widespread community spread” and later added that it’s clear the virus is “moving faster than (we) can control it.”

Weddings, family gatherings and other social events are the biggest contributor, she said, noting that while early on in the pandemic workplace outbreaks, family members who live in close quarters and a number of cases at the state prison in Faribault were the main culprit, contact tracing show those are no longer the main source.

Like the governor, Purfeerst implored residents to fight off COVID fatigue and continue to be vigilant about social distancing, wearing masks, hand washing and staying home, especially for those feeling sick.

“We all have a part to play in this,” she said.

‘A challenging time’

The seven-day trend in hospital admissions is at a new high. Hospitalizations have more than doubled in the past two weeks, placing more pressure on the state’s already stressed hospital systems.

More than 1,600 people are in Minnesota hospitals now because of COVID-19, with more than 300 needing intensive care.

“It’s going to be a difficult four weeks,” Walz said as hospitals brace for waves of patients that will be coming soon.

Of the 236,949 confirmed or probable cases identified in the pandemic to date, about 79 percent have recovered to the point they no longer need to be isolated.

The deaths reported Tuesday raised Minnesota’s toll to 2,943. Among those who’ve died, about 68 percent had been living in long-term care or assisted living facilities; most had underlying health problems. In Rice County, 10 people living in a long-term care facility have died, 13 lived in a private residence, 2 were Minnesota Correctional Facility-Faribault inmates.

Rice County Commissioner Jeff Docken spoke Tuesday morning of the challenges of continuing to follow health professionals’ recommendations over such a long period of time, but advocated for remaining vigilant. He shared the heartache of his 91-year-old mother who had to miss the funeral of a longtime friend, saying how difficult it was for her not to be able to say goodbye.

“It’s a challenging time,” he said, “and people don’t like to be told what to do. It’s hard work. But people are dying.”

Give to the Max Day takes on special meaning during pandemic
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Minnesota nonprofits are seeing an increase in demand as the COVID-19 pandemic has caused uncertainty, job losses and food insecurity while traditional in-person fundraising efforts are curbed by the pandemic.

Give to the Max Day is taking on a special meaning this year because of that and Jake Blumberg, executive director of GiveMN, said he hopes Minnesotans will be able to dig deep this year to support their local nonprofits.

“The need in our communities this year is really so much more significant than a typical year or any year any one of us has lived through,” Blumberg said.

Minnesotans can participate in Give to the Max Day all day Thursday by donating on GiveMN.org, although the website is already open for early donations. Donors can search for organizations by name, keyword or ZIP code.

Erica Staab-Absher, executive director of the HOPE Center in Faribault, said they’re excited about the day every year. The center typically receives $2,000-5,000 from 15-45 donors on Give to the Max Day. This year, she said they’re hoping to receive at least $5,000 from 40 donors. The center, which helps residents who have experienced domestic violence and sexual assault, has had an increase in demand for its services this year, she said. Many of their clients have lost their jobs and are food insecure, and don’t want to leave their abusive situation because their significant other is the one who has a job, she said. At the same time, the pandemic has meant that the HOPE Center can’t hold its in-person fundraisers. They did an online fundraiser and recently did a mailer explaining the need for additional funding, she said.

Give to the Max Day is nice because it provides a trusted platform for donations and an easy way for the organization to get the word out, she said.

“And for a day, we can focus on the good,” she said.

Nonprofits who receive donations on Thursday will be eligible to receive additional money throughout the day via “Golden Tickets.” A nonprofit will be chosen every 15 minutes to have $500 added to a donation and a nonprofit will be chosen every hour to have $1,000 added to a donation. One nonprofit will also be chosen to receive $10,000.

This year’s Give to the Max Day theme is “Give Where You Live.” Blumberg called the day the “Great Minnesota Give Together” and said Minnesotans donating to organizations collectively on one day creates a sense of community connection.

While the need in Minnesota is great this year, GiveMN has already had $20 million donated to Minnesota organizations through its website during the first nine months of 2020, which is three times the amount donated during that time last year.

“We can’t stop now,” Blumberg said.

The Kenyon Area Historical Society typically sees a few donations from Give to the Max Day that help fund its programs and events at the Gunderson House, such as the Christmas Cookie Walk.

Historical Society Board member Kevin Anderson said there are so many needs in the local community and it’s especially important to donate this year because the needs are great during the pandemic.

“The local organizations work hard and the members donate a lot of time and it’s nice to see the community support them,” he said.

Donations to Rice County Area United Way make their way into communities in many different ways, but without the donations, they wouldn’t be able to help with a lot of needs, said Executive Director Penny Hillemann.

Many of the organizations United Way partners with have seen an increase in demand for their services, such as food support and financial assistance, during the pandemic while they haven’t been able to fundraise like normal, she said.

While some residents may be feeling the financial burden of the pandemic with furloughs or struggling businesses, she encourages residents who feel financially stable to help on Give to the Max Day.

“There’s satisfaction in supporting the local community and helping your neighbors get through the toughest of times,” she said.

Jennifer Nelson, vice president of external relations at Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation, based in Owatonna, said its hoping to raise money on Give to the Max Day for their COVID-19 relief efforts and overall efforts in the 20-county region it serves. Residents often overlook the needs in their own communities, but the pandemic has brought those needs to the forefront, she said.

“There’s a lot more need and we are all a lot more aware of the opportunities to invest in our communities,” she said.

SMIF has 11 community foundations participating separately in Give to the Max Day and donations to SMIF will benefit all 30 community foundations in its area. It’s important for people to donate locally because they are the agencies that are there in the communities in both the good and bad years that will support the longevity in the community and the region, she said.

“These are the organizations that do the work in times of crisis,” she said.