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People look at the names on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall, May 26, 2019, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)


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Area farmers markets take different approaches to dealing with COVID-19

As Minnesotans continue to wait for an update from the governor’s office and health official related to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, farmers markets are on the list of events trying to stay ahead of the unknown.

Local

The Le Sueur Farmers Market is taking safety precautions for its planned market fest. While initially planning to open by May 13, the Le Sueur Farmers Market pushed back that opening to July 10 with a number of new rules.

Seniors, health care workers and people with underlying health conditions will be invited to shop at the market during the first half hour, which starts at 4 p.m. Vendor booths will feature hand sanitizer, be spaced farther apart, use table coverings and will not offer free samples, and many will have electronic payment options to allow customers prepay online.

Joyce Bailey, left, has been coming to the Le Sueur Farmers Market since its inception in 1990. Here, Bailey is selling goods at the tail end of the 2016 market. This year’s Le Sueur Farmers Market won’t start until summer, and it will feature some new social distancing rules. (County News file photo)

Shopping will be a different experience, too, with shoppers encouraged to shop with their eyes. Eating at the Farmers Market will also not be allowed, and families are encouraged to send a “designated shopper” to the market.

One thing that will not be returning is live music and programming, like the Power of Produce. The Le Sueur Farmers Market has told customers that this year’s market will be a shopping experience rather than a social one.

The St. Peter Farmers Market opening is scheduled for June 6, and the market’s plans haven’t been disrupted too much by COVID-19. This year’s farmer’s market promises to have all the usual vendors plus a few more including beef seller from Stormy Creek Farms by New Ulm, a goat milk soap maker and a chocolatier from Sleepy Eye. But there will be some changes.

“It will look a little different this year, as is everything right now, but we are still going to have all the same vendors,” said St. Peter Farmer’s Market Manager Nicole Jensen. “We’re just going to be taking extra precautions, per our farmers market guidelines from the state level.”

“The Pickle Guy” Jerry Harty, of St. Peter, and his son, Nick Harty, bag a bunch of pickles for a customer at the St. Peter Farmers Market on the last day of the market in 2019. The 2020 market will feature some new social distancing rules. (Herald file photo)

The new precautions are meant to ensure the market isn’t a place the virus can easily be spread.

The St. Peter Farmers Market will open with signs reminding shoppers to keep six feet apart and a one-way loop of traffic. Rather than picking up what they want, customers will be asked to shop with their eyes and tell vendors what they want. Vendors themselves will come to the market wearing face masks and will utilize no-contact payment options, such as phone or electronic-based payment. Some vendors may even bring plexiglass barriers to limit contact with customers.

While a lot will be different, Jensen hopes that the sight of familiar faces at the market will help people feel more at home.

“We’re trying to make it as familiar as possible as far as what we’re selling and hopefully people will come down,” she said

Regional

The Owatonna Farmers Market, which was set to kickoff in May in Central Park, announced earlier that it would push back the start date to the first Saturday in June. John Meixner, owner of Little Professors Bookshop in downtown Owatonna and farmers market organizer, said that this decision gives everyone time make appropriate adjustments and prepare for a potentially different looking type of market.

The Owatonna Farmers Market, held in Central Park in downtown Owatonna, has postponed its start due to COVID-19. Originally scheduled to kick off the season Saturday, but will wait until the first weekend in June. (Press file photo)

“When we made the decision we really didn’t know what the situation was going to be like, but we thought it would be best to be safe than sorry and wait until June,” Meixner said. “If situations change drastically, we could always open up early.”

In Faribault, the farmers market starts in June, as scheduled, while the Medford market, now without an organizer, won’t open at all.

Owatonna’s Meixner said that they were lucky in that none of the vendors seemed upset or concerned with the decision to delay the opening, adding that the public will likely be more upset about not being able to spend their Saturday mornings at the market for another month.

“Whenever we open, I think it’s going to have a nice big draw,” Meixner said. “We don’t know if there will be any state restrictions moving forward — or city ones — but I’m not too worried about it because I do think most people are pretty socially conscious about what’s going on.”

Meixner said that this is the first time in the history of the downtown farmers market that it has been postponed, stating that even inclement weather there always seems to be a couple of vendors and a handful of shoppers who make their way to the park.

“If there’s a snowstorm and someone wants to come down and sell banana bread, that’s up to them,” he said. “Sometimes bad weather will mean not so many people will show up, but there are a few diehards here who will show up for anything.”

Diehards could be one way to describe the vendors and shoppers of the Faribault Winter Farmers Market, which held its last event as scheduled on April 11 at the Rice County Fairgrounds, but vendor Theresa Bentz of Get Bentz Farm said that she believes they simply did it right.

“Tiffany Tripp who does the winter market just really did a fantastic job,” said Bentz, who sells lamb meat, fiver products, and handcrafted soaps and lotions at both the Faribault Winter Market and the Riverwalk Market Fair in downtown Northfield. “Before we even arrived, she had taped out where every table would go to accommodate appropriate social distancing.”

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, the farmers market in Faribault has moved forward as usual, including hosting a winter market on April 11. The summer market is scheduled to open June 6, and measures are already being put in place to accommodate appropriate social distancing. (Daily News file photo)

Bentz said multiple hand washing stations were set up throughout the market, as well as signs that reminded visitors to both wash their hands and to not touch anything unless they intended to purchase it. She added that the distance between each vendor was roughly 12 feet, and that the vendors were asked to bring two tables to help distance themselves from the shoppers.

“It was really smooth. The people that came all kept their distance from each other and from the vendors, which was great because as a vendor you are putting yourself at risk trying to sell your products,” Bentz said, noting that every vendor wore a mask.

While the winter market normally brings out about 300-350 people, Bentz said there was probably only 150 people who attended that final Saturday, likely due to COVID-19. She believed that was OK, though, as everyone is still determining their level of comfort as they try to remain safe.

“I feel safe, and I’m not in the age range of people who are at higher risk of getting it, but I am definitely in that age range of people who can spread it,” Bentz said. “It is important to me to make sure customers who came that were elderly and at risk knew that steps were taken so that they wouldn’t be infected or possibly take something home with them.”

The summer farmers market in Faribault is scheduled to begin June 6, as planned. According to Bentz, Tripp has been working with the organizer of the summer market to help them navigate through COVID-19.

Cancellations

Not all farmers markets have survived the pandemic – including the Medford Farmers Market and The North Market that took place at Grace Baptist Church in Owatonna. Former organizer for both markets Jennifer Kath said that after deciding this winter to step away from the markets that she was unable to find anyone to take on that role.

“In hindsight, that was probably a good decision because I can’t even visualize what the market would look like,” Kath said. “There is so much social interaction between vendors and customers.”

Kath said that many of the larger farmers markets have been organizing pre-orders and pick-up only style markets, but that those markets are typically ones that have paid staff, such as the Rochester Farmers Market. She said she is uncertain, however, how the local residents would respond to that kind of setup.

For now, there will be no farmers market in Medford or at Grace Baptist Church until someone chooses to take over the organization. But as Meixner likes to point out, things continue to change day-by-day.

“We’re five weeks away yet, so a lot could change,” he said. “For the good or the bad.”to as it was.”


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Le Center hopes to open pool for summer, but state guidance unknown

Coronavirus has interrupted many summer plans but the city of Le Center is still holding out hope that it will be able to open the municipal pool. Mayor Frederickson says that as long as it is safe to open the pool, the city will open it, even if it’s just for a couple weeks. (County News file photo)

The summer season is fast approaching, but the COVID-19 pandemic has put many Minnesotans’ hopes for summer fun on pause. With daily lab-confirmed cases of coronavirus on the rise, families, as well as state and local leaders, are uncertain about what summer activities will be safe to enjoy.

That uncertainty was present at the Le Center City Council meeting on Tuesday when questions arose about whether the municipal pool could be opened this summer. Local leaders have still not received any guidance from Gov. Tim Walz or the Minnesota Department of Health on whether pools will be able to open, but Mayor Josh Frederickson said that if the city is allowed to open the pool, it will.

“I think we all, as a council, want to see that pool opened as long as it’s safe to do so,” said Frederickson. “Even if we have to wait. Even if we can only have it open for one month, it will give those kids something to look forward to.”

In the event the pool would be allowed to open, it would likely look very different this year. Dorothy Dinwiddle speculated that new measures would need to be put in place. These measures could include checking temperatures at the door, restricting bathroom and shower access to one person at a time, hiring a person to monitor the locker rooms, halting food sales and water sports, like basketball, preventing congestion around the diving board and closing off the baby pool.

“The baby pool, there’s way too many people in that, especially when families come,” said Dinwiddle. “It could be mother, father, three kids, grandma and grandpa all sitting together in the baby pool, so if we open, I would suggest not opening the baby pool at all.”

But opening the pool would come with its own set of complications beyond just implementing safety measures. If the pool has to delay opening, Dinwiddle pointed out that many of the lifeguards on staff could find other jobs instead. Some might have their licenses expire in the time it takes for the pool to reopen.

The pool could also lose some large streams of revenue. Dinwiddle estimated that the pool would lose $5,000 from not being able to do food sales and an additional $2,000 from reduced traffic from surrounding communities, like Cleveland and Waterville.

She speculated that the pool could also see a slump in season pass sales and that the facility may need to reevaluate having Red Cross swimming lessons. Lessons between instructors and young children often require close contact, so Dinwiddle was uncertain how they would fit into state guidelines. Losing the lessons could cost the pool $10,000.

“[Red Cross’] recommendation is a lesson that could be within 3 feet of the person teaching at all times so it would have to be one on one or three persons per one guard,” said Dinwiddle. “That could be an issue, so there’s a possibility we would just do open swim with no lessons, and that would eliminate some of the congestion, but we would be losing that revenue.”

Closing the pool could actually save the city money according to Dinwiddle’s estimates. The facility manger suggested that if the pool were forced to close, the money saved could be used to fund pool infrastructure.

“In hindsight, if we don’t open or can’t open — if the governor says you can’t open, you can’t open — we will save over $100,000 this year that we could save and use toward some of last year’s wish list,” said Dinwiddle.

Frederickson believed that the costs of opening the pool shouldn’t weigh in on the city’s decision since the municipal pool isn’t profitable as it is.

“We lose money on it every year anyways, so it’s kind of a moot point,” said Frederickson. “Waseca closed theirs because that’s a moneymaking revenue for them. They had to make a decision, but we’re in a position where we don’t make money off of it, so we can make a decision based on what the governor says.”

“There will be water in the pool ready to open June 1, whether or not we’ll be able to,” Frederickson added. “The best bet right now is to wait and see what guidelines there are and see if we can work within those guidelines,”Reach Reporter Carson Hughes at 507-931-8575. ©Copyright 2020 APG Media of Southern Minnesota. All Rights Reserved.


Matt Collins coaches on the sidelines of a Tri-City United football game. (Photo courtesy of Chad Johnson)


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First COVID-19 related death reported in Le Sueur County

The COVID-19 pandemic has recorded its first death in Le Sueur County. On Tuesday, Le Sueur County Public Health announced that an individual in their 50s died after being diagnosed with COVID-19.

No other information about the victim is available. The case was one of 35 lab confirmed cases in Le Sueur County, as of May 18, and it was the first reported death. Of the 35 cases, at least 23 have recovered and no longer need isolation. Cases have been reported in people ranging from 9 years old to 86, with the average being 41-42 years.

The case count is now growing more rapidly across all of south central Minnesota.

The number of confirmed cases in Rice County has shot upward, now at 260, including two deaths. Steele County is next with 111 confirmed and no deaths, while Blue Earth County has 87 confirmed and no deaths. Le Sueur County has 35 confirmed and one death; Nicollet County 39 confirmed and four deaths; Waseca County 20 confirmed and no deaths; Goodhue County 34 confirmed and no deaths; Brown County 10 confirmed and two deaths; and Sibley County 10 confirmed and no deaths.

Public Health officials in Rice County noted that at least part of the recent spike in cases in the area can be attributed to a higher rate of testing. Area businesses who are screening employees each time they arrive for work is also contributing to the higher number of confirmed cases, officials said.

In Steele County, a business had a cluster of employees test positive for COVID-19, according to a recent release from Public Health.

Statewide, Minnesota’s COVID-19 toll climbed again Monday, as state health officials reported 731 Minnesotans have died from the disease, up 9 from Sunday; 488 people were currently hospitalized, with 229 in intensive care, counts that have stayed roughly stable over the past few days.

Deaths continue

It was the first day in two weeks that reported daily deaths came in at single digits. However, the total number of cases in the pandemic continued to rise, jumping to 16,372. The state agency also continued to report nine probable deaths in Minnesota from COVID-19. Those are cases where COVID-19 is listed on a death certificate but a positive test was not documented.

Congregate living facilities have been reported as the likely source of exposure for 20% of coronavirus cases in Minnesota. At least 16% of cases have likely come from communities with a confirmed case of COVID-19, while 14% have likely been contracted from communities with no reported cases. In 40% of statewide cases, the likely source of infection is unknown.

The Monday numbers came on the same day Minnesota’s stay-at-home order ended. Retailers are now able to reopen with limited capacity, and group gatherings of 10 or fewer people, including at places of worship, will be permitted once again.

Health officials say they’re watching several key metrics to gauge if the disease is accelerating as restrictions are lowered. Among them: the number of days it takes for cases to double, the amount of daily testing, the proportion of positive tests and the level of community spread that can’t be traced to specific contacts — an indication the disease might be more widespread.

State leaders said they hope Minnesotans continue practicing social distancing, wearing masks and avoiding unnecessary travel.

“There absolutely is a need for vigilance. This is not going back to the way things were before the pandemic,” Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said last week.

Curbs continue on large group venues

Restrictions on restaurants, bars, theaters, bowling alleys and venues that attract large crowds will remain even as restrictions ease starting Monday.

The DFL governor won’t permit restaurants to legally resume dine-in service for now, keeping them takeout-only. He said he’s instructed his agencies to assemble a plan over the next week for a “limited and safe” reopening of bars, restaurants and other places of public accommodation June 1.

On Thursday, the Mall of America said it would begin a limited reopening of stores on June 1. Rosedale Center in Roseville announced similar plans to open stores on Monday and restaurants on June 1 following the government guidelines. Ridgedale Center and Burnsville Center are among other malls planning to reopen on Monday, along with Apache Mall in Rochester.

When they do come back, restaurants, bars and theaters are likely to face capacity limits. Walz also said he signed an executive order ensuring that people can raise safety concerns about their workplaces without discrimination or retaliation.

It’s a similar situation for hair salons and barber shops, gyms and other currently restricted activities that haven’t been able to serve customers since March. Salons and barbershops are allowed to sell products for curbside pickup but aren’t allowed to provide services in-shop.

On Friday, Ehresmann, the state’s infectious disease director, said the restrictions on visitors to long-term care facilities would also continue after Monday.Reach Reporter Carson Hughes at 507-931-8575. ©Copyright 2020 APG Media of Southern Minnesota. All Rights Reserved.


As they move worship services and other programming online, churches throughout the region are struggling to balance declining contributions with increased community needs. (Metro Creative Images)