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Janesville Bowl would normally close, for the most part, during the summer, anyway, but losing the end of spring still is a sting to the business. (File photo)

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Pandemic challenges child care providers, working parents

Childcare providers and working parents have dealt with unprecedented conflicts the past couple of weeks with COVID-19 at the root of their challenges.

Ironically, the pandemic has left some childcare providers serving fewer families while some families need childcare more than ever.

“This time is frightening,” said Renee Wrolson, a Faribault childcare provider. She’s lost some families because parents aren’t able to work at this time, but she’s also accepted the children of nurses, prison staff and healthcare staff for as long as these families need her.

“We’re opening our homes and selves up to potential contamination, but if I can help these families who are on the front lines continue to work, and give their children a sense of normalcy, and continued love and fun, it is all worth it,” said Wrolson.

Like Wrolson, Nichole Miller, another Faribault childcare provider, says some of her families no longer need child care with parents out of work. In particular, she mentioned children whose parents work in schools, which are now closed.

“It’s hard on finances, but at the same time it’s scary to let people potentially bring it right through your front door,” said Miller. “It’s a tough spot to be in especially with a person in the home being compromised.”

Childcare at school

For some working parents, their children’s schools have met their childcare needs.

Under the governor’s executive order to provide free school-age childcare for children of emergency workers, the Faribault school district began offering childcare to workers considered by the state to be Tier One (essential and emergency services) from 6:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. starting March 17 at Roosevelt Elementary School.

Faribault Community Education Director Anne Marie Leland hopes to send out surveys to Tier Two workers by the end of this week. She’s been working with the Chamber of Commerce to acquire emails of workers in that category, per the governor’s executive order. These include educators, substance disorder treatment workers, child care workers, and many more.

Leland reported two children of emergency workers attended the district’s child care on the first day, March 17; turnout steadily increased to 12 by Tuesday.

Starting next week, when students begin using distance learning, the childcare schedule will take a new form. From 6:30 to 8 a.m., students will take part in an activity club. Between 8 a.m. and 3 p.m., three students per staff member will implement distance learning and develop a normal learning routine in a smaller, safe and hygienic setting. After 3 p.m., children at Roosevelt will participate in Community School club activities.

Taking precautions, Leland said providers constantly wash supplies with bleach solution and follow intense hygienic practices. If enrollment reaches larger numbers, she said the program may expand to a different building to keep everyone safe and at a distance.

Open and closed

Two daycare centers operate out of the St. Peter Community Center, leasing space and operating as private businesses. One of them, SP3C (St. Peter Community Child Care Center), shut down with no definite reopening date. Executive Director Sadi Laidlaw said with four staff members out sick March 20, the board decided to close the center as a preventative measure. Attendance had dropped before the SP3C closure, she said, with seven out of 25 or 30 school-aged children at the center last week, and 30 out of 60 infant-to-preschool children in attendance.

“This is a devastating blow not only financially, but emotionally too,” said Laidlaw in an email. “We have 27 dedicated employees that are without work, over 85 families that are without care. It’s an extremely difficult time for all childcare providers, especially nonprofits, small family-owned centers and family based. I’ve been in early childhood education for 18 years, and I have never experienced anything like this. I pray this is something all providers are able to bounce back from.”

The other daycare center in the St. Peter Community Center, Kids’ Corner Child Care Center, remains open.

“Our board can make that decision [to close] if something arises, such as illness, but as of right now we’ve been healthy so we continue to take it day by day,” said Kids’ Corner Director Cassie Frey.

While enrollment is down, Frey said families are still charged even if their children don’t attend. Staff remains consistent, she said, and the children in attendance have parents who are still working. Many teachers and college professors, she said, choose to keep their children at home for the time being.

Since COVID-19 became a concern in Minnesota, Frey said she’s met with staff weekly rather than monthly and has given families until Friday to decide their long-term plans for childcare. The daycare remains fully staffed.

With the library and the rest of the St. Peter Community Center closed, Frey said some of the amenities in the building are only open to Kids’ Corner for now. She and staff have developed a system of sanitizing things twice a day, she said, and cleaning areas after using them.

Although Kids’ Corner is not accepting new families right now, she said families with children 6 weeks to 12 years may call in case the board decides to open enrollment to additional families soon.

“It’s something that we’re looking into,” Clack said of reopening enrollment.

Parent perspectives

Families have also needed to make adjustments, whether it’s because children are out of school while parents continue working or because childcare centers are closing.

Working Northfield parent Annie Clack said she took her 4-year-old son out of daycare once COVID-19 became a serious issue in Minnesota. He now stays with his grandma Monday through Friday. Clack’s 2-year-old son continues going to an in-home daycare in Faribault.

“Our home daycare provider has set up amazing procedures for when children arrive and what her family does behind the scenes to make sure that her home is safe and clean for all of her kiddos,” said Clack in an email.

If Clack’s 2-year-old’s daycare closes, Clack will have a real challenge. She works at a local credit union, and her fiancé works at a local bank.

“We are essential employees that can’t easily step away from our jobs as the community needs us,” said Clack. “In the event daycares close down, we will have to figure out who will take our 2-year-old as our jobs will continue on.”

Rachell Hatfield received a notice of her child’s daycare center closing earlier this week, and that put her in a difficult position.

“My husband and I both work, and now I have to figure out what to do with my 2-year-old last minute so I can make my shifts at the hospital,” said Hatfield. “My husband may have to quit working because it’s important I make my shifts at the hospital.”

For some parents now working from home, taking their child out of daycare is an option. With schools closed, Michelle Martindale, a teacher in Faribault Public Schools, made that decision.

“Even though we completely trust our provider to take all the possible measures, there is always that risk,” said Martindale. “We decided to keep our children at home for the time being, but we continue to pay our provider because we are still getting a paycheck, and it is the right thing to do. It has been a different type of adjustment with so many uncertainties, parents trying to work from home or split schedules, kids away from friends and their own routines. This is a whole new world to navigate.”

Local governments get creative to adhere to open meeting laws amid COVID-19

Walking into a typical local government meeting, there’s a high chance that the scene will look more or less the same: a row of elected officials sitting in the front of a room along a table, with government staff and an attorney placed as their book ends.

You might see a camera, a couple bystanders, but you will always see someone posted up in a chair off to the side with a camera and notepad, diligently taking notes throughout the entire process.

That person is your local journalist, and they are there to represent the people and report the facts on the decisions made that will impact taxpayer dollars and countless aspects of residents’ lives.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has health officials and government leaders across the nation — Minnesota included — urging people to stay home, practice social distancing and keep group gatherings at a minimum, local governments are exploring any and all options on how they can go about their business serving their communities. One of those seriously obstacles they must overcome is the rules and regulations surrounding the Open Meeting Law.

“Government bodies should absolutely always allow the news media, which would be our journalists, to the meetings because they are the eyes and ears of the people,” said attorney Mark Anfinson, an expert on public access laws who represents the Minnesota Newspaper Association. “It might sound cliché, but it’s true. One journalist can get the word out to hundreds of thousands of people.”

‘No precedent’

In the last two weeks, governmental bodies throughout southern Minnesota have started implementing a plethora of different alternatives to their regular meetings. Small communities, such as Medford and Le Center, have held their meetings as is, but have limited the number of people from the public who could attend to adhere by the 10 people per gathering or 6 feet of separation guidelines put forward by the Minnesota Department of Health.

Many government bodies, including Steele and Nicollet County boards of commissioners, and the Faribault and Le Sueur City councils have all moved to some form of teleconferencing or livestreaming of meetings that allow the public to view the meetings at home without creating a large gathering of people.

“We were looking certainly at the legal aspect and what the statutes would allow us to do. That was one part of it,” said Scott Golberg, the Steele County administrator, regarding their decision to move to a livestreaming form of their public meetings with only members of the press invited. “The other was logistics based on the resources that we had available as far as how we might be able to conduct a meeting, protect public health, and allow monitoring of our meetings.”

“A lot of public officials are trying to determine how meetings around the state should be conducted with no guidance or precedent for how this should look,” Anfinson said, stating that he has been receiving calls from many newspapers in the last two weeks with questions about the legality of the different meeting options. “The statute is pretty straightforward in a very detailed way that only applies is a pandemic is declared.”

In section 13D.021 of the Open Meeting Law, which covers meetings by telephone or other electronic means, the conditions state that a governing body can hold a meeting so long as a presiding officer or legal counsel determines that an in-person meeting is not practical or prudent because of a health pandemic or an emergency declared, that all members of the body participating in the meeting — wherever their physical location — can hear one another as well as all discussion and testimony, that members of the public present at the regular meeting location can hear all discussion and votes of the members of the body, at least one member of the body is physically present at the regular meeting location, and that all votes are conducted by roll call so that each member’s vote on each issue can be identified and recorded.

One concern that has popped up among members of the public is that the opportunity for public comment has become limited. The catch, however, is that a public comment period is not addressed in statute.

“A public comment period is purely voluntary by the body and is not a requirement by law that it be conducted,” Anfinson explained. “A governing body that wants to eliminate that during the duration of the emergency certainly can do so and don’t have to worry about violating the Open Meeting Law.”

Anfinson said that while he understands that this could be a frustration in many parts of the state, governing bodies simply are not required to accept public comment or input during their meetings. During the Steele County Board of Commissioners meeting Tuesday, the commissioners invited the public to reach out via phone or email to them or to Golberg to have comments included in upcoming meetings — a measure that many governing bodies are trying to include as a means to encourage interaction with their local government.

Some, however, are doing whatever they can to keep their meetings as regular as possible, including the public comment period.

“We are not trying, we are doing,” said Todd Prafke, St. Peter city administrator. “It’s just like our regular council meetings, this portion that we have been doing for the last 30 years that allows the public to come and comment on specific agenda items or items not on an agenda, whether through telephone or video chat.”

As of now, the St. Peter City Council meetings have remained the same as always, including allowing people from the public to attend. During their most recent meeting this month, they did implement an option for people to dial-in via telephone or with a video teleconference software to watch a livestream of the meeting. Prafke said that in upcoming meetings they may consider going to an all-virtual platform.

“We are not concerned about it, because we’re following the state statutes,” Prafke explained regarding the restrictions COVID-19 could be putting on public meetings. “As long as we follow the state statutes and make sure that [the meetings] are open and available for everyone, I think we’re doing a great job.”

Top of mind

The Northfield City Council also continued their meetings as usual, though that was largely to do with the timing of their regular meetings happening shortly before the pandemic was declared. Northfield City Administrator Ben Martig stated that all other meetings have been cancelled until the end of April, with the exception of the council meeting which may be video teleconference.

“In response to COVID-19, one of the immediate things we did was try to prioritize what was the most important procedures we needed to get done,” Martig said regarding the decision to cancel all other committee and board meetings. “The amount of changes that we are taking in from the state and federal government takes a lot of time and energy, so we felt it was really prudent at this time to prioritize work and put a few things on hold.”

Moving forward, governing bodies are continuing to take guidelines and recommendations from health officials as well as state and federal leaders as they wade through the unprecedented territory that is the COVID-19 pandemic. As things continue to develop and change, Anfinson said that they will all need to keep the Open Meeting Law at top of mind.

“Government bodies do have some limited ability to exclude the public in a pandemic situation,” Anfinson added. “But the pandemic and declarations of emergency don’t suddenly give them the authority to make up legal rules as they go along.

“Some members of the public should be allowed in, and journalists should always be allowed in because of their function,” he said. “I do think on the positive side of this, while there have been some issues, for the most part public officials have been recognizing the benefit of having journalists in the room. There’s a lot of positive legitimate efforts by public officials to do the best they can to try to strike the best balance between transparency and protecting the public form the virus.”

Gov. Walz to Minnesotans: Stay at home for 2 weeks

Gov. Tim Walz on Wednesday announced a stay-at-home order set to go into effect Friday night.

The order, which brings Minnesota into uncharted territory when it comes to restrictions on daily life, is part of the state’s ongoing efforts to control the spread of COVID-19, which was first declared a global pandemic by the World Health Organization on March 11.

“It’s too late to flatten the curve like we’ve talked about,” Walz said during his message that was broadcasted via Facebook live. “The testing regime was not in place soon enough for us to be able to do that, so what our objective is now is to move the infection rate out, slow it down, and buy time so that the resources of ICU and hospitals can be stood up to address that.”

The stay at home order for Minnesotans take seffect at 11:59 p.m. Friday and ends at 5 p.m. Friday, April 10.

Modeling released today by the Minnesota Department of Health and University of Minnesota, as presented by Walz in his announcement, showed 74,000 Minnesotans could die from COVID-19 if the state were to take no mitigation action.

The data also showed that with zero mitigation efforts, Minnesota would have seen a peak in COVID-19 cases within nine weeks from Sunday, March 22.

“The terrifying part — and the thing that we cannot allow to happen — is we would have reached peak ICU capacity in six weeks,” Walz said. “The 235 available beds is not a misprint — that is what we have available today. That is what is really pressing on us and has to change.”

Walz added that the data shows that up to 2.4 million Minnesotans would be infected without any mitigation efforts, leading to 6,000 people needing ICU treatment. The governor also stated that those who become sick with COVID-19 and need hospitalization have a 10-times greater chance of survival if they can access an ICU and a ventilator, according to the data.

The two-week order to stay home is forecast to significantly slow the spread of COVID-19 and allow the state time to make key preparations for the pandemic — specifically building hospital capacity, increasing testing, and access to ventilators and personal protective equipment; planning for how to care for vulnerable populations and assessing public health data to determine which community mitigation strategies are most effective. Walz said that this significant mitigation effort should move Minnesota’s peak in COVID-19 cases back an additional five weeks.

“We will work with our world-renowned health care sector, cutting-edge manufacturers, innovative business community and strong-spirited Minnesotans across the state to tackle this virus head on,” Walz said. “These are trying times, but we are Minnesotans. We see challenges and we tackle them. No matter how daunting the challenge, no matter how dark the times, Minnesota has always risen up by coming together.”

Workers employed in critical sectors are exempt from the stay at home order. These exemptions are based on federal guidance from the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security with some Minnesota-specific additions. This includes, but is not limited to, jobs in healthcare, law enforcement, first responders, emergency shelters, child care, food and agriculture, news media, energy, water and wastewater and critical manufacturing.

“They’re stating that if you’re not an essential business – and that is open a little bit to interpretation – that you should not be doing business,” said Brad Meier, president of the Owatonna Area Chamber of Commerce and Tourism. “We are looking for more clarity on that, but the whole point of it is to try to continue to keep people as limited in their interactions in person as possible.”

According to the stay at home order, businesses such as grocery stores, funeral homes, pharmacies, gas stations, hardware stores, banks, post offices, liquor stores, and child care facilities may remain open at this time, but Meier stated that they are anticipating additional closures for various retail stores, which aren’t currently covered in existing executive orders.

“Everybody wants to do the right thing, and right now we are simply trying to figure out what that right thing is to do,” Meier added. “That’s going to continue to be the push and pull on this thing – how do we get through this without bankrupting our economy and keeping the public safe.”

Walz also issued executive orders extending the closure of bars, restaurants and other public accommodations set forth in a pair of executive orders until 5 p.m. May 1. He also authorized the Commissioner of Education to implement a distance learning period for Minnesota’s students beginning Monday and lasting through May 4.

“If we unite as One Minnesota, we will save lives,” Walz stated.

Grant program could boost Fire Department

Faribault’s City Council has taken a small first step toward possibly boosting its Fire Department, signing off on efforts to apply for a grant through the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The program, known as the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (S.A.F.E.R.) Grant, would cover 75% of the cost of hiring three new firefighters for two years, and 35% of the cost of a third year. First created in 2004, the SAFER Grant Program is designed to help local fire departments attain staffing levels needed to provide around-the-clock emergency protection. It was reauthorized in 2017 and will run through 2024.

The city’s grant funding request amounts to $390,000 over the three-year period. The city would be expected to cover the remainder of the cost for those three years, and the entire cost after the expiration of the grant.

Along with its sister program, Assistance to Firefighters Grants, which provides funding for training, equipment and wellness programs for firefighters, the SAFER Grant program has received approximately $700 million in funding over the last several fiscal years.

This is the first time the city has applied for a SAFER Grant, but a staffing increase has long been on the department’s wish list. In the Community Vision 2040 document approved by the council in 2015, a staffing increase at the Fire Department was identified as a key short-term need.

Fire Chief Dustin Dienst has said that since the last time the department staffing structure was significantly modified, he’s seen a 370% increase in calls. Now, fire department staff regularly find themselves receiving a second or third call when they are already out on a call.

The increased strain on the department has been driven by an increase in medical emergencies as baby boomers work their way into their golden years. As boomers continue to age, demand for the fire department’s emergency medical assistance services will continue to grow. The city’s recent growth has also led to increased strain on the Fire Department. Dienst has warned that call overload can significantly impact response times, potentially putting lives at risk.

However, City Administrator Tim Murray cautioned against reading too much into the city’s decision to apply for the grant. Murray said that even if the city does receive the grant, it might have a difficult time finding the funds to pay for that additional staffing.

In addition, Dienst noted that the grant application process itself is highly competitive. Dienst said that even if the city is awarded the grant, it might only happen after several years of applying.

During last year’s budget planning, the department requested additional personnel, and several councilors expressed interest in fulfilling that request. However, the city wound up facing a significant levy hike just to pay for existing services and expenses.

The levy hike came despite a strong economy, a significant increase in the city’s state aid and a more modest increase in health insurance costs than in years past. It was driven by rising personnel expenses locked in through agreements negotiated with public employee unions.

Despite the potential budgetary issues, Mayor Kevin Voracek expressed optimism that the grant could lead to the city adding more personnel. Voracek described the addition of staff to the Fire Department as a long overdue move to boost public safety.

“Our Fire Department has been run very lean over the years,” Voracek said. “It’s become hard for them to cover staffing issues, so it’s looking more and more like they need to add an extra person.”