Confirmed COVID-19 cases in Steele County spiked to 115 as of Tuesday, with glass-manufacturing company Viracon identified as having a minimum of 80 of those cases.
“Obviously I am concerned about it,” said Amy Caron, Steele County Public Health director, who has been working with Viracon for the last three weeks to contain the outbreak. “Any kind of spike in our community has us concerned, and obviously some of these employees live outside of the county.”
The increase in employees testing positive at the manufacturing plant has meant several employees’ household members also contracted the virus, but Caron says that was expected by health officials.
“We are seeing a number of household members of employees testing positive, but that is not surprising,” Caron said. “That is one of the reasons why our number is going up, but Mayo Clinic is also doing more widespread testing.”
Over the last three weeks, Caron said that she has been coordinating with the administrative team at Viracon to set up proper procedures to contain the virus. She said that the company is doing its own contact tracing and that, from what she has been told, it is requesting any employee who had potential exposure or is at medium risk to a positive case is to self-quarantine for two weeks with pay.
“That is not something we can enforce, but from my understanding it is what the company has elected to do,” Caron said. “I also recommended that the company shut down a couple weekends ago for 24 hours to do a deep cleaning and sanitization and they chose to shut down their whole weekend shift.”
Caron said that based on the information Viracon administrators have relayed to her that she is confident they are taking all the appropriate steps to contain the coronavirus.
“From my standpoint of working with the company, I think they have done a lot of practices to protect their employees,” Caron said.
The People’s Press has been contacted by several Viracon employees who said that they felt unsafe reporting to work due to the number of COVID-19 cases at their workplace as well as the lack of transparency from upper management to line employees. One person said that employees are feeling “torn” between their fear of the virus and the fear of losing their jobs.
While Caron said does not know what the specific protocols are for the company when it comes to sending workers home who may have been exposed to the virus, those who test positive for COVID-19 fall under federal protection.
“If they test positive and are put in quarantine they must be paid those two full weeks,” Caron said. “That is a federal law.”
According an email from Jeff Huebschen, a spokesperson for Apogee Enterprises, Inc., the parent company of Viracon, Apogee and its associated business locations “moved proactively” to protect the health and safety of their employees while remaining operational.
“In recent weeks there has been an increase in positive COVID-19 cases in the communities surrounding our Viracon factory in Owatonna and in our workforce which comes from those communities,” Huebschen wrote. “We have contact-traced all employees with symptoms and based on employee interviews, we do not believe the virus is being transmitted at Viracon.”
While Huebschen said that the large facility provides ample room for effective social distancing to prevent the spread, the Rice County Public Health director told that county’s Board of Commissioners Tuesday that though several cases of the novel coronavirus have been reported at a number of Faribault manufacturing facilities, there have been no significant “clusters” in Rice County factories.
Huebschen said that additional safety precautions including health interviews, temperature screening and increased workplace disinfecting have been put in place at the Owatonna facility. He added that employees on quarantines are receiving an additional 80 hours of paid time off and that any employee who is uncomfortable reporting to work can use their unpaid leave of absence with full medical benefits.
Across Minnesota, local township boards are charged with maintaining thousands of miles of gravel roads. That mission is particularly vital to agriculture and commerce, yet while they have few other expenses, many struggle constantly with regular upkeep and maintenance needs.
A new bill from Sen. John Jasinski, R-Faribault, would take a step toward changing that. Jasinski’s bill would create a new program called the Township Road Improvement Grant to provide funds for township road projects across the state. JThe bill was included in the Senate bonding bill, which passed with support from Republicans and a handful of DFLers. However, bonding bill negotiations between the DFL controlled House and Republican-controlled Senate ultimately stalled.
All is not lost, the bill could still be included in a package lawmakers hope to pass in a special legislative session tentatively set for next month.
Bridgewater Township Board of Supervisors Chair Gary Ebling says the money Jasinski’s proposing would provide welcome relief. Bridgewater spends about half its yearly budget on road and bridge maintenance. That’s actually on the low end compared to other area townships.
By comparison, Supervisor Bernard Frederick said that Woodville Township just outside Waseca spends nearly all of its budget, approximately $250,000, maintaining 45 miles of gravel and paved roads.
In order to fund those repairs, Woodville Township has had to increase taxes by 10% or more every year for the last five years. Even so, Frederick said some roads are in such poor shape that they are hardly worth fixing.
Bridgewater’s Ebling said that many townships are in a particularly tricky position because so many of their roads were built anywhere from 70 to 150 years ago. In those days, the region was much less densely populated and building standards were different. Most importantly, farm equipment has become much larger and heavier than it was when those roads were designed and built, extracting extra wear and tear. That’s forced townships to shell out more and more for extra gravel and repairs.
The program Jasinski’s bill lays out would effectively launch as a pilot, with $8 million in seed money. An advisory committee composed of township officials and engineers would be responsible for considering proposed projects and distributing funds to those of greatest need.
The bill is certainly much smaller than other proposals backed by Jasinski and Senate Republicans, such as $80 million for local road improvements and $25 million for bridge replacement, but it provides an innovative concept that could be expanded in future years.
David Hann, a former Minnesota senator who now serves as executive director of the Minnesota Association of Townships, said that the program could prove a game changer for townships, which have to maintain some 55,000 miles of road across the state.
“This bill has broad support among 2,000 townships across the state and almost 1 million townships residents,” he said.
Currently, most of the maintenance budget for state and local highways is funded by Minnesota’s Highway Users Tax Distribution Fund, which collects more than $2.3 billion in revenues, primarily from gas, vehicle registration and vehicle purchase taxes. In 2019, approximately $425 million was made available to Minnesota’s 87 counties. An additional $194 million allocated to cities with a population of more than 5,000, and $36 million allocated to aid townships across the state.
Under Minnesota’s funding formula, localities with more road mileage and population enjoy a larger share of the funding. Yet even larger townships like Bridgewater Township, which is adjacent to Dundas and Northfield, struggle for adequate funding.
Paved roads may be far more durable in the long term, but they’re a luxury few townships can afford. According to Rice County Engineer Dennis Luebbe, the cost to reconstruct and pave just 1 mile of gravel road is likely to top $1 million.
Township officials tend to be fiscally conservative, so when improvements are made to a stretch of township roads, the cost tends to be funded at least in part by additional assessments added to the tax bill of those who directly benefit from the project.
In total only a fraction of township roads are paved, and those exist in well-traveled townships like Bridgewater, which last year considered incorporating as its own city and recently increased its Board of Supervisors to five members.
For smaller townships like Havana in Steele County, 100% of township roads are gravel. That means that the township has to plow roughly $75,000 a year into maintenance, much of that devoted to laying fresh gravel.
Havana Township Supervisor Larry Schubert said that he believes Jasinski’s proposal would be helpful and hopes to see it in the final bonding bill. With additional funding from the state, he said townships could invest in improving ditches, reducing drifting during the winter and improving water drainage.
The former football field for the Medford School District located on the south end of town is one step closer to being developed after years of vacancy.
During Monday’s Medford City Council meeting, the board unanimously approved the final plat for the 5th Avenue apartments, which will be constructed on the former high school football field and be designated for those ages 50-plus. The developer, Todd Nelson of T. Nelson Properties, asked to rezone the majority of the property as a multi-family residential district, while a portion of the property will remain a residential district for single-family residential lots.
According to City Administrator Andy Welti, Nelson intends to develop the property in phases, starting with the first phase that will include the development of a 16-unit apartment complex and accompanying garage structure on the northwest corner of the property.
“He will also be putting in a storm water basin and begin grading the site for future development,” Welti said, adding that the excavated materials from the storm water retention basin will be used to prepare the remaining developable area.
The city is requiring the storm water retention basin and surrounding area to be sized to accommodate a back-to-back 1% storm event. The storm water retention basin has increased in size since the initial development proposal, now designed to be 6 feet in depth as well as the overall length and width increasing.
Welti said in his memo to the City Council that this will allow for an even larger storm event to be accommodated without a permanent wet pool.
The council also approved an amendment to the developer’s agreement, clarifying that the sewer lines that will extend between the apartment buildings to the sewer main located on Third Avenue SE will be considered private lines owned by Nelson. Nelson will also be responsible for all future maintenance and repair of those private sewer lines.
The 16-unit apartment complex scheduled as phase one will be one of three identical buildings on the 16-acre lot. Future development on the lot will include six four-plexes and nine single family home residential lots.
“The city is pleased to see development occurring on this former school district athletic site. As soon as plans that need to be approved to allow for the grading are done, [Nelson] said that he is ready to move forward,” Welti said. “I would probably expect the ground work to being within the next month or two.”