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BBBS mentors find creative alternatives to in-person interactions

Rice County Sheriff Troy Dunn and his wife, Tara, cook meals with their “Little” Grayson, 15, as their weekly routine with Big Brothers Big Sisters (BBBS).

Even during shelter-in-place orders, the Dunns and Grayson have cooked quesadillas, homemade pizza and garlic avocado shrimp. The difference? They now cook these meals in their separate households and share their processes via FaceTime. Troy drops off the ingredients outside Grayson’s home, and after completing their meals, they eat “together” and talk like they always have. Next time, they plan to try virtual card games.

“I think it’s the next best thing to real life, but definitely when the stay at home order goes away, nothing can compare to face-to-face,” said Troy, the Rice County sheriff.

During COVID-19, Bigs throughout the entire Southern Minnesota BBBS program have fostered creativity as they maintain the bond with their Littles from a distance. Instead of meeting in person, they check in via phone, video chat and even handwritten letters. Some Bigs drop off care packages for their Littles and others participate in the activities BBBS staff host online. Matches already participated in a scavenger hunt BBBS prepared, and this week they have the option to play bingo. An online origami tutorial is still ahead.

Apart from inspiring Bigs with new ideas to stay connected to their Littles, BBBS staff check in with families to make sure their basic needs are being met and help them sift through the multitude of resources available for food, shelter and distance learning.

Michelle Redman, executive director of BBBS of Southern Minnesota, which serves Rice, Steele, Waseca and Dodge counties, said staff reaches out to families more than ever during COVID-19. Bigs reach out too, allowing their Littles to express their feelings or simply talk about their day.

“I think the Bigs are a big comfort,” said Redman. It is a scary situation … There’s a lot of different things going on in children’s lives right now that isn’t normal … Our bigs are very good at talking positively and bringing in the sunshine.”

Pat Delehanty, an Owatonna Big, was relieved to learn BBBS mental health specialists prioritized the well being of Littles and their families during the pandemic.

Delehanty set up Zoom meetings with his Little, Jason, after BBBS announced its policy on following social distance protocols with Littles. Delehanty described Jason, 10, as “a very active, social and competitive sports person,” so they typically play basketball or soccer whenever they get together in person. During the pandemic, they’ve instead played Battleship on an app and even tried truth or dare.

Delehanty said he’s missed going out to eat and getting ice cream with Jason, so he decided to put together a care package containing ingredients to make pizza, cream soda, and books to give him something to do on a rainy day. He also plans to send Jason a printable of the BBBS logo, shaped like a heart, so they can both display their support of BBBS in their separate windows.

“Now it’s certainly even more important to stay connected to [Littles], so they can have that good, solid stability in their life,” said Delehanty. “And it gives me something to look forward to on Mondays.”

A ‘Big’ difference

The need for BBBS mentors hasn’t gone away since the coronavirus outbreak, but the process of matching up Bigs and Littles has been put on hold for the time being. Instead, Redman encourages prospective Bigs to join the waiting list and complete paperwork so the matching process can resume soon after shelter-in-place orders end. If orders continue through June, Redman said BBBS may start implementing a virtual match process.

This month, BBBS of Southern Minnesota hosts two information sessions via Zoom. The first is 5 to 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, April 22 and the second is 8:30 to 9 p.m. April 28. Attending these sessions does not automatically enroll anyone in the BBBS program but instead provides resources and answers to frequently asked questions. Access to these sessions is available online at bbbsofsouthernmn.org/infosessions.

Redman said BBBS staff typically visit local high schools in April or May to encourage current sophomores to enroll in the program as juniors in the fall. This year, Redman encourages interested sophomores to visit bbbsofsouthernmn.org/programs/school-site-mentoring to learn more about school-site mentoring.

Gabby Holland, a junior at Faribault High School, said being a Big to third-grader Colbie has been “one of the highlights of [her] year.” She was a bit nervous about how the program would continue after schools closed, but she continues to talk to Colbie on the phone once a week about his online schooling and what’s going on at home.

“It’s been a bit of an adjustment but it’s doable,” said Holland. “I’m really grateful that I’m able to continue talking with my Little.”

Northfield assisted living facility resident tests positive for coronavirus

<&firstgraph>A Northfield Retirement Community assisted living facility resident has tested positive for the coronavirus.

<&firstgraph>Northfield Retirement Community President and CEO Kyle Nordine said the Cannon Valley Suites resident, who tested positive Wednesday, is isolated “and is being cared for by a specific and dedicated care team with proper personal protective equipment.”

<&firstgraph>HIPPA guidelines prohibit sharing the name of the resident, their condition or the symptoms the person showed.

<&firstgraph>Nordine on Friday said that no other positive cases have been identified at NRC, and additional tests on residents have been sent to the Minnesota Department of Health. NRC hadn’t received results as of Friday afternoon.

<&firstgraph>The news comes just a day before Rice County recorded its first COVID-19 related death, Pastor Craig Breimhorst.

<&firstgraph>“We are saddened to hear of our first COVID-19 death in Rice County. Our thoughts and prayers are with the family during this especially difficult time to lose a loved one,” says Deb Purfeerst, Rice County Public Health Director.

<&firstgraph>Breimhorst’s name was not released by the county. He self-identified in a March 23 interview with the Faribault Daily News<&firstgraph>.

<&firstgraph>As of Friday, Rice County has had six lab confirmed cases of COVID-19, ranging in age from 24 years of age to 89 years of age. Rice County COVID-19 data is updated regularly on the Rice County COVID-19 website, bit.ly/3ex1gpW<&firstgraph>.

<&firstgraph>Minnesota has had 2,071 lab confirmed cases with approximately 43,053 tests completed. 1,066 of the lab confirmed cases no longer need isolation. 518 of the cases have required hospitalization and there have been 111 deaths.

<&firstgraph>This death underscores the importance of protecting Rice County’s vulnerable population during this pandemic, said Purfeerst, who added that anyone can contract this disease and pass it on to others; everybody needs to take steps to protect the community, including following the Governor’s Stay At Home order, and social distancing of six feet.

<&firstgraph>To help stop the spread of COVID-19, NRC’s Nordine wants additional testing available immediately for all care facilities. He suggested the Legislature allocate specific additional funding for nursing homes and assisted living facilities.

<&firstgraph>Nordine said for the past several weeks, NRC has practiced proactive infection control measures, screening procedures and visitor restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

<&firstgraph>NRC has been working with the Minnesota Department of Health and State Emergency Operations Center and other groups to reduce COVID-19 transmission by increasing testing, PPE and gaining quicker access to testing results. The facility is following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services recommendations.

<&firstgraph>NRC is restricting residents from congregating in social spaces, requiring residents to stay in their rooms, and mandating that residents and care providers wear masks during care and when leaving their rooms. NRC is also monitoring residents’ daily temperatures and screening for symptoms. Staff are not allowed into the building if they are ill.

<&firstgraph>NRC has canceled all activities involving outside visitors.

<&firstgraph>“This is an extremely unfortunate event that one of our residents has fallen ill in spite of our significant efforts to keep everyone protected and healthy,” Nordine said. “With this current news, we are taking every step to treat this individual to seek a full recovery, and to keep all other residents and all staff safe as we are able.”

<&firstgraph>Public health officials have recommended isolation and continued care for those with coronavirus not requiring hospitalization.

Behind rallies to reopen economy, a Northfield activist and his family

Last week, as cars and people filled the street in front of the governor’s residence, demanding an end to restrictions meant to fight COVID-19, a live video of the protest appeared on the group Northfield-based Minnesota Gun Rights’ Facebook page.

Amid the honking cars and the chants of “USA, USA,” the group’s leader, Ben Dorr, took credit for helping draw supporters to the rally.

“We’re done being quarantined, we’re done having our freedoms taken,” said Dorr. “It’s time to open up America.”

Across the country, Dorr and his older brothers, Chris and Aaron, have long opposed Republican legislators for not being conservative enough on issues ranging from guns to abortion. Their detractors say they spread disinformation to sow confusion among voters.

Based on publicly available tax documents, the Dorrs’ efforts in Minnesota, Iowa and Ohio have raised more than $2.9 million since 2013, with at least a third of it going to a direct mail printing company in Iowa owned by the Dorr family.

Now, the trio is using their pro-gun social media platforms to call for anti-quarantine protests in Minnesota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Iowa and New York, just as President Trump commanded some governors on Twitter to “liberate” states with stay-at-home orders.

In a year when experts are warning against disinformation campaigns meant to deepen political divides and influence the outcome of elections up and down the ballot — and now, on the outcome of a pandemic sweeping the globe — the Dorrs’ operation offers a window into how disinformation machines churn in our most vulnerable moments.

Ben Dorr declined an interview in early March when MPR News first started reporting on his operation, while Aaron and Chris Dorr didn’t respond to calls, texts or emails. Calls and emails to the Dorrs’ associates were not returned.

Combined, the brothers have hundreds of thousands of social media followers, and in recent weeks have used their platforms to spread disinformation about the coronavirus. Some posts suggest it’s not as serious as scientists originally thought and others link quarantine measures to a liberal strategy to undermine personal freedoms.

Meanwhile, the Dorrs have launched a slate of private Facebook groups calling on officials to reopen states.

On the Reopen Minnesota page, which has 22,000 followers, members have likened coronavirus to the flu (coronavirus is more deadly), have questioned the science of wearing masks, even though it’s recommended by public health officials in Trump’s administration, and suggested that death rate numbers are being inflated to scare people into compliance.

“When people by the hundreds of thousands are dying per flu season do you walk out of your house with a mask wrapped around your face? Do you walk out of your house fearing for your life,” says a woman in one video post on the private page. “Does the government care about you then when you’re dying of a flu that comes around every single year? No.”

‘You’ve got to be kidding me’

While the Dorrs may have shifted their messaging to coronavirus, their tactics come from a playbook the brothers have cultivated over years in Iowa, Minnesota and Ohio. The Dorrs argue that even some of the most conservative elected officials in those states are too close to the center on gun rights and abortion, and then solicit donations and paid memberships from followers through a web of social media platforms, mailing lists and website.

Together, the Dorr brothers are affiliated with at least nine other gun and anti-abortion nonprofits.

Aaron, Chris and Ben Dorr’s father Paul is also well known for fighting public school referendums in Iowa and in the Midwest. Motivated by his belief that children should be home-schooled or within a religious community, he’s also created Facebook pages, websites and videos to make his case.

Ben Dorr’s tactics were on display earlier this year when a video clip of a confrontation between Republican Rep. Josh Heintzeman and Dorr surfaced online.

“Your daddy votes to kill babies, did you know that?” Dorr asks Heintzeman’s 6-year-old son, who is hanging on his dad’s arm in a hallway of the Minnesota State Capitol.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” said Heintzeman, who routinely gets high marks from anti-abortion groups for his record.

It’s an accusation that Dorr also lodged at Minnesota Concerned Citizens for Life executive director Scott Fischbach, just as he was wrapping up the group’s annual March for Life earlier this year.

“He took a video of it, and you can see on my face ‘I’m like, huh?’” said Fischbach, who leads the state’s largest anti-abortion group and had never encountered Dorr before. “It was shocking.”

Dorr’s claim refers to the use of Medicaid funding to cover abortions, which is required as the result of a 1995 Minnesota Supreme Court decision. But Fischbach said Dorr’s claims are a distortion because the Legislature can’t overturn a court ruling.

Fischbach said Dorr’s claims are meant to confuse people who have opposed abortion for years.

“He’s trying to discredit those we have worked with for decades, who have been in the battle for some time,” Fischbach said. “It’s sad because he’s preying on individuals whose hearts are pure and want to see an end to abortion, and he’s flat out lying to them.”

‘Misleading people’

Minnesota lawmakers are also troubled by Ben Dorr’s tactics — so much so that they, along with the Republican Party of Minnesota, launched a website earlier this year denouncing his organizations as scams.

It’s an unusual move for a party that’s typically in lock-step on key conservative issues such as gun rights and abortion.

But House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said Ben Dorr’s influence at the State Capitol is questionable.

While Ben and his brother Chris are registered as lobbyists, Daudt said they do little to advance issues at the Capitol or support legislators during campaign season.

He recalled seeing Ben Dorr filming a video on the Capitol steps several years ago:

“He was just going on and on about how he’s going to turn around right now and go to so-and-so’s office and I’m not going to leave until they take a meeting with me,” Daudt said. “Then they cut the video … and they just wandered off to their vehicles.”

“They are definitely misleading people to make people think they are involved and engaged here,” Daudt said.

Daudt said he’s been a target of Dorr’s for years — for instance, a claim that Daudt’s caucus didn’t do enough to pass pro-gun bills when Republicans were in the majority. In fact, Republicans passed five bills important to gun owners, including one that would allow carry permits from some other states.

Even though House Democrats are now in the majority, Dorr is still targeting Republicans. As Democrats passed stricter gun measures earlier this year, Dorr filmed a video outside the House chamber calling Republicans RINOs, or “Republican in Name Only.”

“Losers, anti-gun RINOs,” Dorr said. “This place is filled with them.”

Every House Republican opposed the gun control bills.

Steady stream of cash

While Republican lawmakers say Ben Dorr’s influence at the Capitol may be minuscule, his group has thousands of passionate followers online who regularly tune into Dorr’s lengthy YouTube videos about gun rights.

The strategy ensures a steady stream of cash for Dorr’s Minnesota Gun Rights, which topped $237,000 in 2018 — the group’s largest haul yet.

But Republican lawmakers have lingering questions about how that money is spent.

“They prey on fear. People are alarmed, and they ask for money,” said Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake.

Minnesota Gun Rights has no political fund registered with the state campaign finance board, so it’s not clear how much they’ve ever spent to elect a candidate. And it’s organized as a 501©(4), which means the group can advocate for or against public policy issues, but donors and donations are opaque.

In a lengthy video, posted earlier this month, the Dorr brothers explained the family’s private business, Midwest Freedom Enterprises, a direct mail printing operation they created in 2010 because it was cheaper than outsourcing the work.

“We built this with our dollars,” said Aaron Dorr said of the company. “Not a dime of this money came from ... members.”

But according to documents filed with the IRS, more than $1 million of the money raised by Iowa Gun Owners, Minnesota Gun Rights and affiliated gun groups track back to Midwest Freedom Enterprises.

Those forms also list Midwest Freedom Enterprises as doing all the nonprofit’s management work.

The IRS requires a variety of disclosures to make ties between non-profit and for-profit businesses clear. But to date, the Dorrs have not followed these rules.

“Most non-profits do not conduct business with another for-profit business owned by anyone on their board,” said Steve Anseth, who leads the nonprofit division of accounting firm Abdo, Eick and Meyers. “That said, it’s not against the law, it’s not improper.”

But Anseth said that those relationships need to be made clear on tax forms.

“The nonprofit needs to be getting the same value that they could get from any other company or a better value,” Anseth added. “You don’t have to demonstrate that on the 990 [form], but if the IRS comes and looks at it, you have to demonstrate it to the IRS.”

Now, the coronavirus may serve as another way for the Dorrs to expand their membership and funding.

Back in Saint Paul in front of the governor’s mansion, Ben Dorr encouraged protestors to visit his website. There, people can pay to become members of his gun rights group.

“Get involved, fight, take our country back,” he said. “Go to ReOpenMN.com. Get on board.”

NH+C says it's ready for any patient surge, city seeking supplies

<&firstgraph>Northfield Hospital and Clinics says it’s in a good position to respond to a local coronavirus outbreak.

<&firstgraph>President and CEO Steve Underdahl made the comments Tuesday during an online Northfield City Council study session, just days after some hospital staff were placed on a temporary leave of absence, and administration took a salary reduction as the hospital loses an estimated $1 million per week due to the loss of elective surgeries to focus on responding to the pandemic.


<&firstgraph>The city-owned hospital system has recrafted itself into an emergency response center to combat COVID-19. Northfield Hospital and Clinics has closed all but two clinic locations and eliminated non-emergent surgeries and diagnostics.

The hospital system says it has an “excellent supply chain management and resourcing,” and has focused on acquiring PPE and goods and materials for an expected prolonged effort. Over the last few weeks, Kathy Ness and Northfield Hospital and Clinics nurse Lynette Marks have organized about 90 volunteers who are sewing face masks for hospital staff.<&firstgraph>

<&firstgraph>“We got ahead of it a little bit,” Underdahl said.

<&firstgraph>Chief Medical Officer Jeff Meland said the hospital system is “in good shape to respond given what we know today.” He added NH+C is preparing for a local/regional wave of patients and is likely to function as a backup care facility for larger centers.

<&firstgraph>There has been clinical coordination with regional providers Allina Health, Mayo Clinic, Hennepin Health and others, along with strategic scheduling for Emergency Department physicians.

<&firstgraph>Northfield Hospital and Clinic’s video visit system is operational, along with call-first options, online tools and visitor restrictions.

<&firstgraph>Underdahl told the council the federal government has made false statements about everyone being able to have COVID-19 testing. Currently, testing is focused on hospitalized patients, health care workers and people living in congregate settings. Rice County Public Health is recommending those with respiratory symptoms/fever who can manage their symptoms stay at home because being tested won’t change recommendations or how they are clinically managed.

<&firstgraph>The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended people cover their face with either bandanas, scarves, gators or homemade masks in public to slow the spread of COVID-19.

Contemplating measures to help businesses

<&firstgraph>Northfield officials say the city’s in a strong financial position, and short-term financial challenges posed by COVID-19 are limited. It is looking to acquire additional PPE, wipes and non-medical grade masks.

<&firstgraph>“Future fiscal conditions are difficult to predict with uncertainties and unknowns but we are doing analysis and preparing for financial challenges,” said City Administrator Ben Martig. “Staff is reviewing and implementing potential lower-priority spending needs for potential added flexibility for future budget challenges.”

<&firstgraph>Utility shutoffs have been suspended, and city staff are reviewing a temporary utility fee waiver.

<&firstgraph>The council discussed amending city code to allow liquor establishments to deliver alcohol but opted not to move forward with evaluation after Northfield Police Chief Monte Nelson expressed concerns relating to enforcement and the possible cost to taxpayers in staff and legal time. He said business owner reaction to the proposal was mixed.



<&firstgraph>“It’s bad timing to try to change an ordinance in the middle of a pandemic response,” Nelson said.

<&firstgraph>Councilor Erica Zweifel agreed.

<&firstgraph>“I find the idea intriguing, but I agree with the chief that now is not that time,” she added.

<&firstgraph>The council was also presented with the idea of possibly issuing pro-rated refunds for liquor licenses as coronavirus has eliminated alcohol sales in bars and restaurants. The city is evaluating the proposal.

<&firstgraph>Nelson said he disagrees with people who say the country should quickly open back up for business, adding he believes easing social distancing restrictions too quickly would lead to more deaths.

<&firstgraph>“We need to stay the course,” he said.