Local restaurant and museum owners are thankful they’re now able to open — even at 50% capacity — after months of dropping revenue and associated shutdowns public health officials say are needed to control the spread of COVID-19.
Gov. Tim Walz announced Wednesday that he’d loosen restrictions on restaurants, bars and other entertainment venues. Among other things, he announced that indoor dining would be allowed at 50% capacity with a maximum of 150 people, and bars can again have customers, but are limited to parties of six who are seated at properly spaced tables and parties of two at bar seating. Venues like bowling alleys, movie theaters and museums can reopen at 25% capacity.
In easing the restrictions, Walz said coronavirus positivity rates were lower than they were when the restrictions were imposed, and the strain on hospitals had lessened. The DFL governor said he would feel comfortable eating at a restaurant once indoor table service returns. Walz, however, cautioned that a return to normal operations for the hospitality industry, with full bars and restaurants, without any masks or restrictions, is still a ways off.
‘I am so happy’
The news was especially welcome for Jose Herrera, owner and president of Plaza Morena Campestre Grill in Owatonna. During the nealry 10-month long pandemic, some businesses closed permanently while others struggle to survive. He said remaining open has been “very, very tough,” for his restaurant.
The original state shutdown last spring reduced sales to between 65% and 70% of normal levels, but the latest closure of in-person dining from November on left Plaza with only about 50% of its revenue for the remainder of the year. He said he became nervous with the extended shutdown and wondered whether Plaza Morena would receive any outside funding to help ease the burden it caused.
“I am so happy,” he said.
Herrera believes the restaurant had enough staffing to ensure safe operations during the last shutdown, adding he was concerned that unemployment checks his employees then received wasn’t enough to support their families.
Still, Herrera thanked the community for its support, adding that he hopes another shutdown is not needed.
“We don’t want to close,” he said.
‘I am very grateful’
Lonsdale-based restaurant and catering service Smoke, which opened in August 2020, still has not yet operated at full capacity. However, Smoke has already catered 35 events, from weddings to small corporate events.
Owner Andrew Rasmussen also said the second shutdown caused business to become “pretty slow,” while electric bills piled up and profit margins were slim. Though Walz’s extension of the order last month allowed for outdoor dining, he said that option didn’t work for Smoke as it did for breweries throughout the state.
“I am very grateful that we are able to open up at 50%,” he said.
Rasmussen added his restaurant has a strong COVID-19 plan, including contactless to-go orders that includes customers scanning their credit cards. He noted staff is taking every precaution to ensure the well-being of their guests.
To Rasmussen, the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, and Walz undoubtedly have more information on the pandemic than he has, adding business owners such as himself must trust that the government has their best interests in mind.
Faribault restaurant owner: Protocols in place to protect staff, customers
Michael Tupa, owner of Faribault-based Joe’s Sports Cafe, said he and his staff are “excited that we are getting the opportunity to serve the public.” He acknowledged how challenging COVID-19 and the associated impacts have been on the restaurant industry during some of what’s typically the busiest stretches of the year, and noted he is following all state and local health guidelines in reopening. Staff members noticing any cold or flu-like symptoms are not allowed to enter the building. They’re also regularly sanitizing tables, menus and all other touch points.
“We’re excited that we are getting the opportunity to serve the public,” Tupa said.
Rice County Historical Society Executive Director Susan Garwood said though the shutdowns last spring and in November impacted revenue, she understood that the decision to do so came from a public health perspective. The shutdowns came at relatively non-busy times of the year for the Historical Society, but the facility still wasn’t able to host any large events last year.
“We’re thrilled,” she said of opening again. “We understood completely why we needed to close.”
Garwood said the Historical Society has recovered lost revenue this year through the Paycheck Protection Program, grants offered through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, and individual donations. The Historical Society’s exhibits this week include Native American history, sports, military, a main street exhibit and other historic pieces. Next week, a traveling exhibit made available through the League of Women Voters will be available.
Garwood noted the safety precautions the Historical Society is working with include instituting one-way traffic, asking everyone to wear a mask, and starting a contactless in-house payment system. Staff is washing hands and using hand sanitizer, and only 10 people are allowed in the museum gallery at a time. The society’s research facility still hasn’t opened, something Garwood attributed to staff not being able to accommodate social distancing while making the resource available. Instead, it’s encouraging remote research when possible.
The Somali American Cultural Society of Owatonna has provided after school tutoring to Somali families since 2011, but when the pandemic hit and schools closed, Executive Director Ibrahim Hussein recognized a significant disadvantage for bilingual students.
“We saw a big need because the kids are working at home, their mom and dad can’t help them, (expectations are) the same as kids born and raised here,” Hussein said. “I had to do something.”
For Hussein, “doing something” meant applying for funding through the Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation Early Care and Education Wrap Around Grant program. “Wrap around services” applies to resources that families may need in order to care for the child and family as a whole, such as food access programs.
SMIF received $18,000 in funding from the Minnesota Department of Education on behalf of the Governor’s Emergency Relief program, which provides emergency assistance to agencies impacted by the pandemic. SMIF awarded 18 organizations grant funding, including SACSO and three others from Rice County.
“Each Initiative Foundation got this pool of money, and as part of this pool of money, for over two years we’re doing a couple different grant cycles to organizations dealing with the effects of COVID on young children,” said Rae Jean Hansen, vice president of Early Childhood at SMIF. “... We put out proposals to organizations for applying to up to $10,000 to address this particular need to underserved communities, either because they’re really rural, or dealing with a diverse population or like the YMCA, does after school programming.”
SACSO is using the grant to support the success of Somali American children in kindergarten through third grade. The $10,000 will help it provide computer access and homework supplies to families as well as homework support services like one-on-one reading and math tutoring. Hussein said SACSO volunteers will track students’ reading progress virtually by using the same books as the students.
Additionally, it will use the grant funding to continue providing adult education classes to Somali families, so they can become more skilled in their own education and advocate for their children’s success. In particular, Hussein said these classes help parents learn to log onto their children’s school pages and hold them accountable for completing homework assignments. If students miss assignments, parents can call or video chat with SACSO staff for further instruction.
“It’s very helpful,” Hussein said of the grant. “We’re thankful to SMIF for giving us this opportunity; we are very appreciative. We can’t wait to present our progress by the end of the year, what we have achieved and what we have accomplished.”
Another local organization to benefit from the Early Care and Education Wrap Around grant is A Child’s Delight Too, Inc. in Faribault. Director Caren Hoffman said 53% of children enrolled receive free and reduced-price lunch, 30% are Hispanic or children of color, 30% live in single-parent households and 18% are in foster care or live with a relative.
“Our grant that received funding is ‘Stay Afloat and Give Back,’” Hoffman said. “The goals of the grants are to provide training for staff on social/emotional issues around stress and trauma as it applies to children. We will provide additional income for staff who have worked tirelessly to assure safety and routine for children allowing parents/caregivers to work or attend school.”
Those families that “fall through the cracks” will also receive scholarship money from A Child’s Delight Too thanks to the SMIF funding. This, according to Hoffman, will help these parents provide a safer and more stable home experience.
A Child’s Delight Too will also use the funding to provide space for school-aged children not only after school but during the summer and in the event of school closures.
Early childhood assistance
Rice County ParentChild+, a program of Growing Up Healthy, also received $10,000 from SMIF. Through this program, trained early childhood specialists make at-home visits or virtual calls to families to prepare young children for school with books, toys and other resources. The program focuses on multilingual and low-income households and also provides access to additional family services.
Sandy Malecha, Healthy Community Initiative senior director, said 51 children are already enrolled in year two of the program, which began in 2019. State funding supports the program, but Malecha said the ParentChild+ team sought funding from SMIF in case the state allocates that funding elsewhere. The $10,000, she said, will keep the program running as is and allow more families to benefit from the at-home visits.
Another program of Growing Up Healthy, a new initiative called Parents and Policy: Voices Influencing a Better Education System, received $10,000 in SMIF funding. This program empowers Latinx, and immigrant parents and caregivers to advocate for their children’s education at the local and state level. Through training and workshops, parents learn how to share their own experiences in a way that inspires action and change.
VIBES participants will attend a four-part workshop series that focuses on storytelling, public governance and advocacy. They will apply the skills they learn to train others in the community to do similar work of writing letters to the state legislature and advocating for policy changes at the state level.
Locally, Malecha said Growing Up Healthy is using the grant funding to provide stipends to parents who want to attend school board meetings but work the night shift. Malecha said Faribault Superintendent Todd Sesker and Northfield Superintendent Matt Hillmann have given their support for the VIBES program by writing letters for the grant proposal, and they have already engaged in policy making at their level.
“I think parents now more than ever need a positive outlet to share their frustration and also know that leaders care …” Malecha said. “Giving them the support they need to make that change, I just think it’s what we needed right now … I just can’t say enough good things about SMIF. Without their support would have needed to limit the amount of support given to parents to allow them to participate.”
Local law enforcement are investigating the weekend deaths of two Faribault residents believed to have overdosed on counterfeit painkillers.
Faribault Police Chief Andy Bohlen, who called the deaths “tragic,” said investigators believe they’re related to another overdose, also last weekend, in Apple Valley.
In a Monday afternoon release, Faribault Police said the bodies of the two, Luis Carrillo, 28, and Amber Low, 33, were discovered Saturday when a woman arrived at a home in the 200 block of Second Street NE to pick up her child. When she entered the residence, she reportedly found Carrillo and Low dead on the floor.
The woman and her child then left the residence and she called police.
Initial investigation indicates the two died from a narcotics overdose. Cannon River Drug and Violent Offender Task Force also responded to assist Faribault Police with the investigation. The Hennepin County Medical Examiners Office is conducting the autopsies.
Pills found at the residence are reportedly consistent with those found with other overdoses nationwide also under investigation. The pills are round, white and imprinted with an “M” on one side and “30” on the other.
They appear similar to legitimate prescription Oxycodone pills, which are blue.
The suspect pills often contain fentanyl, a powerful narcotic anywhere from 50 to 100 times more powerful than heroin.
Additionally, the pills were found in small plastic “gem bags” printed with black spades on them.
The overdoses are the latest in what’s become an all too common occurrence in southern Minnesota.
From August 2019 through December 2020, law enforcement in Steele and Rice counties responded to 43 overdoses linked to opioid abuse — nine were fatal. Access to naloxone, an over-the-counter anti-opioid medication makes it likely the number of nonfatal overdoses is far higher.
Anyone finding these pills are advised to not ingest them. They should be turned in to the Cannon River Drug and Violent Offender Task Force or disposed of in the dropbox at the Rice County Sheriff’s Office.
Bohlen warned residents not to take medication of any kind unless it’s prescribed by a doctor and comes from a pharmacy, noting that otherwise there’s no way to know what’s in it.
“Unless you know what it is and it was prescribed to you,” he said, “don’t take it.”
Anyone with information about these deaths or other overdoses is asked to contact Agent Jeff Burbank at 507-334-0945.
Though it was an unusually mild start to the winter, the temperatures have dropped just in time for activity to heat up in Owatonna.
The Bold & Cold winter festival is returning for its third year, packing the last weekend of the month with winter-themed activities. While the ever popular snow sculpture exhibition and family ice fishing events will return, new events have been scheduled to keep Owatonnans busy throughout the rest of the month.
“We are excited to offer something a little bit different this year,” said Jessica Abrahams with the Parks and Recreation Department, which will be heading up the bulk of the activities. “This last year has made us look at everything a bit differently, so it’s been a good time planning for different and new events instead of just sticking to things we’ve done in the past.”
During the month of January, people are invited to submit photos of their best snowman creations for a chance to win one of two prizes. The “Best in Snow” will be selected by a Bold & Cold panel of judges, while “People’s Choice” will be selected via a Facebook vote.
All entries must include a sign in the photo with the snowman that says “Owatonna Snowman Building Contest 2021.” Snowmen can be brought to life with accessories, colors, themes and wherever else imaginations may travel.
Entries may be submitted by email to firstname.lastname@example.org or posting it to the Parks and Rec Facebook page. Submission deadline is Jan. 30.
WHO MELTED FROSTY?
New this year, it’s a classic tale of whodunit as the public is asked to solve which Parks and Recreation employee finally snapped and melted Frosty the Snowman.
Miniature snowmen can be found at Mineral Springs, Morehouse and Fairgrounds parks with clues that will help lead the way to who the guilty individual may be, what weapon they used and where the crime took place.
“All of the potential weapons are things that could have melted Frosty, like a heater, a hot tub, and even hot chocolate,” Abrahams said. “And the locations all are specific to outdoor winter activities in Owatonna such as the West Hills sledding hill, the ice rinks at Morehouse Park, and the Kaplans Woods ski trail.”
Aided with the Snowman Clue Guide that can be found on the Parks and Rec website, the public can test their wit and see who can solve the mystery first by submitting their guesses online at or by sending a message to the Parks and Rec Facebook page.
Clues will be set up in the parks beginning Friday, Jan. 15 until the end of the month.
CARDBOARD SLED RACE
Calling on the summertime favorite cardboard boat race at the pool, the cardboard instead will be brought out to the West Hills sledding hill on Jan. 30 for a classic race.
Encouraging racers to get creative, “Top o’ the Hill” awards will be given to for not just the fastest sled, but the most attractive or spectacular sled as well. Races will be divided into two classes – ages 10 and under in one class and ages 11 and up in another – and each class will have two time slots with a maximum of 15 racers each.
Pre-registration is required through Parks and Rec.
FAMILY ICE FISHING
Ice fishing will return to Lake Kohlmier on Jan. 31. Parks and Rec will drill the holes and provide the poles and bait – all you need to do is catch the fish.
Everyone who registers will receive one ticket and each fish caught will earn them additional tickets for door prize drawings. A prize for the largest fish will also be awarded.
Pre-registration is required through Parks and Rec with a $5 per area fee. Areas will include two pre-drilled holes with a maximum of 25 areas per timeslot.
SNOW SCULPTURE EXHIBITION
The free community event that brings art in the form of snow sculptures is slated to begin on Jan. 22 in Central Park. Teams of friends, family, businesses and others can show off their sculpting skills with the blocks of snow provided for them.
Carvings will be finished by Jan. 28 and will remain standing for viewing purposes until they melt.