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Pittsburgh Penguins forward Sidney Crosby skates during the third period of the team’s NHL hockey game against the Buffalo Sabres, Thursday, March 5, 2020, in Buffalo, N.Y. Crosby did not practice on Sunday, July 19, 2020 a day after leaving a team scrimmage with an undisclosed health issue. The team captain and two-time NHL MVP scored during an organized scrimmage on Saturday. (AP Photo/Jeffrey T. Barnes)

Graffiti, property damage a increasing concern across the city

Standing 12 feet high, a bronze-colored crane extends his neck and opens his mouth to the sky as if ready to release his unmistakable bugle. Perched on the top of the 127-year-old fountain in Owatonna’s Central Park, the crane has been a part of one of the most iconic symbols throughout the city’s history.

Until the night someone destroyed him.

Sometime in the overnight hours of July 11 and 12, an unknown person or persons removed the basin of the fountain on which the cast aluminum crane sits. What happened next is a story yet to be told, but the following morning park crews discovered the crane mangled and broken.

“Whoever did it didn’t take anything, but it shattered the bird,” said Jesse Wilker, Owatonna parks maintenance manager, adding that damage was also sustained to part of the fountain’s spray ring. “Luckily our mechanics were able to do a bunch of welding and get it back together. We have it at the shop and haven’t been able to put it back on the fountain, but you won’t be able to notice that is was ever damaged.”

Though it may be a sigh of relief that the talented maintenance crew was able to salvage the fountain topper, acts of vandalism have been more noticeable this year than in recent history. Starting with a fire beneath the bleachers at Dartts Park on March 9, which is currently under investigation with the State Fire Marshal, random acts of vandalism have occurred on private property, the fairgrounds and throughout the city park system.

“We’ve had vandalism every summer — I felt that last summer was a bad summer for it as well,” said Troy Klecker, the city’s interim parks and recreation director. “I am not sure that this summer stands out more than others aside from that one weekend when we had the first protest in town — that was an unusual weekend.”

Over Memorial Day weekend, days after George Floyd was killed while being arrested by Minneapolis police that sparked international Black Lives Matter protests, Wilker said that 84 separate locations throughout the park system were vandalized — largely by graffiti.

“It started from the boat landing at Lake Kohlmier to the parking lot and all the way to the beach house, and then again in Morehouse Park, down the trails, all the way to Dartts,” Wilker said, adding that most all of the graffiti was something related to George Floyd or law enforcement. “We had four guys working on removing it by pressure washing for two days.”

Wilker said that since that weekend, vandals have struck city parks every few day, with damage ranging from broken picnic tables to additional graffiti. He said that Dartts Park seems to get the brunt of the damage, but that it can be found at a variety of locations.

“We try to get to it first thing that morning so that no one sees it, a lot of people probably aren’t even seeing all that has happened,” Wilker said. “We usually have it cleaned up by 8 a.m.”

The city’s weed/nuisance inspector — who operates through the Owatonna Fire Department — has also reported roughly 10 incidents of vandalism since April occurring throughout the city, excluding the park system.

Another night of concentrated vandalism occurred on July 3, this time targeting the Steele County Fairgrounds. On Independence Day, Fair Manager Scott Kozelka said that damage and graffiti was discovered to several barns as well as the Village of Yesteryear — which is owned and operated by the Steele County Historical Society.

“It’s just sad,” Kozelka said in reference to the spray paint that cluttered the side of the brand new Wayne and Betty Kubicek Family Cattle Haven barn. “It’s a brand new barn, not even a year old yet, and this is an expense that we didn’t have in our budget.”

For the time being, the grounds crew at the fairgrounds painted over the obscenities splashed on the side of the building just enough to hide it from the public, though a couple of the less visible or less vulgar pieces of graffiti can still be seen. Damage was also done to some of the window screens on two other barns.

“It is fixable, and being a brand new building we will be fixing it,” Kozelka said, adding that the fair staff and board will have to go over the budget to see how they can repair the new cattle barn. “We put a lot of work into what we do up here, so we want it to stay nice. The fair is not just for us, we want it to be top notch for everyone.”

Andi Arnold, a member of the Owatonna Park Board and coordinator of the Steele County Safe and Drug Free Coalition, echoed Kozelka’s disappointment that the actions of the few impact many, but double downed on those feelings with frustration and anger.

“I am mad and upset,” said Arnold, specifically narrowing in on the damage to the Central Park fountain. “Having been born and raised in Owatonna, I have a lot of love and pride for this community. The history behind that fountain cannot be replaced.”

Wearing both her hats as a board member and head of the SDFC, Arnold said that she is highly motivated to bring surveillance to the park system as a preventative piece to not only the vandalism, but any criminal activity.

“There has been an increase in park use — that we know. Whether it’s just because of COVID or because of criminal activity and mischief, I’m not sure,” Arnold said. “This is a great opportunity to help make a difference for environmental change, which is so important to the work that we do.”

Arnold said that a steering committee has been formed to partner with the city, the SDFC, and local law enforcement to prevent criminal activity in the park system, but also to bring together a collaborative effort across all sectors to make Owatonna a safe place where people want to live.

“By being destructive and doing these types of things, people are just creating obstacles rather than being part of the solution,” Arnold said. “If there are youth that are feeling frustrated or passionate about wanting to make a difference, they should be trying to channel that energy into constructive community change.”

Klecker said the city is currently looking into costs to install surveillance cameras to the parks, but added that vigilant and attentive residents can also help in curbing vandalism and saving taxpayer dollars.

“Our community parks are community assets, and those are paid for and taken care of with taxpayer dollars,” Klecker said. “The parks are everyone’s parks, so if you see anything suspicious and see any activity — say something.”

Collage artist 'paints' with paper

Emily Lavalier‘s work displays a world of detail and color, but a closer look reveals that world is made up of scraps of paper, tissue paper, string and beads.

Lavalier is a self-taught high-density collage artist from Minneapolis. Her work is at the Owatonna Arts Center and on display at the Owatonna Hospital as part of its Healing Arts Program. These galleries will be up throughout the summer.

“I was always pretty artistic as a kid,” Lavalier said. Throughout elementary and high school she would participate in art contests.

She entered the University of Wisconsin-Madison as an art major, but later changed her degree to communications after discovering an art degree was not for her. After school she took a job as a travel agent. At night she would have intricate scrapbooking sessions based on her travels and create greeting cards.

“I think those two things kept me in the art mode,” Lavalier said.

In her late 20s she left the travel industry to begin working as an employment consultant for those with disabilities.

“I just kind of had this moment of realization, I was helping these people find these jobs that were individualized, they were passionate about it, they loved doing,” Lavalier said. “I was like ‘why don’t I have a job that I like and feel that same way?’”

That is when she started investing more time, money and resources into her art. She continues to work with people with disabilities at a group home.

Emily Lavalier says people often note her work has a whimsical vibe to it. This picture was taken at the Austin Artworks show last winter. (Photo courtesy of Emily Lavalier)

How Lavalier layers her pieces

She begins each collage by deciding its size and sketching out her plan. From there she adds the biggest pieces first, for example the sky or grass. She continues to build the collage by adding small pieces until the fine details have developed.

“The first couple layers get covered, so I try to save my good papers and my details and stuff that I don’t want to get covered for the third or fourth layers,” Lavalier said.

As the pieces become smaller and smaller Lavalier looks for colors rather than specific images. The final step includes adding texture with string, tissue paper and beads to get the image to pop. The details are her trademark and what makes her collages high density.

“I realized people really like the texture, people really like the really small details,” Lavalier said.

She uses recycled material from books and magazines which she picks up from thrift stores. In fact, a book on golf courses has provided Lavalier with all the green scraps she needs.

“When I first started doing (collages) I was kind of joking around that it’s art for the broke person,” Lavalier said.

Prints of Emily Lavalier’s work can be purchased from her online store (Photo courtesy of Emily Lavalier)

Each collage takes around 200 to 500 hours, but the time really depends on the size and the amount of detail.

“I usually have a couple going at a time, so if I’m working on one and then I’m sick of looking at it I just kind of jump over to another one,” Lavalier said.

Since completing a large collage for the new Westwood Hills Nature Center in St. Louis Park, she is focusing on smaller projects with solid backgrounds similar to the ones available to view on her Instagram page @emlavart.

She draws inspiration from her life

Nathan Stromberg, a collage artist and painter from St.Paul has been an inspiration to Lavalier. She has viewed his work at the Minnesota State Fair. The two met at one point and Stromberg gave her some tips on how to improve her work.

“He was hugely inspiring to me,” Lavalier said

Lavalier also draws inspiration from her four years in the travel industry. A lot of her earlier works were based on photos that she took or places she went to while traveling. She also draws inspiration from her job in the disability field and the people she works with.

Emily Lavalier’s work can be found hanging in the Owatonna Arts Center and at the Owatonna Allina Hospital in the Healing Arts Project. She was drawn to collage work because it was an inexpensive project and allows the artist to fix their mistakes easily by covering it up. (Photo courtesy of Emily Lavalier)

Lavalier makes an effort to represent diversity within her work. In her “Fancy Lady” series she shows women of various skin tones because she believes representation matters.

“I’d say that that’s one social statement that I say in my pieces,” Lavalier said. “I try to make women that could essentially be anyone.”

She does admit that sometimes it can be a challenge to find darker skin tones with the magazines and books at her disposal.

Lavalier’s work is displayed at:

• Owatonna Arts Center

435 Garden View Lane, Owatonna

• Owatonna Hospital

2250 N.W. 26th St., Owatonna

Conagra, the parent company of Birds Eye Foods, has plans for a new 220,00-square-foot facility south of the old Quad Graphics building. The city of Waseca approved a letter of intent Monday. (County News file photo)

Walz unveils statewide mask order; hospitalizations up

Gov. Tim Walz on Wednesday announced a statewide order requiring Minnesotans to wear masks in restaurants, stores and other public indoor gathering spaces to stem the spread of COVID-19.

Businesses will have to post notice of the new regulations and ensure patrons comply. Cities with tougher ordinances can go beyond the state indoor-only rules. It’s set to take effect Saturday. Walz is briefing reporters now:

The governor said if Minnesota could get 90 to 95 percent compliance, it would be the fastest, least expensive way back to normalcy.

This is the quickest way to ending the COVID pandemic,” he told reporters. “It is the surest way to getting us to the therapeutics and vaccines” while continuing to reopen the economy. If Minnesotans complied, businesses could stay open, kids could return safely to school buildings, and we “get back that life that we all miss so much.”

Walz has been signaling for days that such an order was coming. On Tuesday, he noted that businesses support such a uniform move as do care providers and the state’s health leaders.

If Minnesotans really want to get back to business and dial back other restrictions tied to COVID-19, “wear a mask,” he said Tuesday.

More than half of states now require the use of masks or face coverings in public settings.

Republicans, including Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, have said a statewide mandate would be a mistake.

Last week, Walz told MPR News that he was hoping to get legislative Republicans to buy in. On Wednesday, however, Gazelka slammed Walz’s coming order.

“Once again, I find myself asking why one-size-fits-all is the only option for a mask mandate,” he said in a statement. “Businesses and individuals are already requiring and wearing masks in most situations, so the mandate feels like a heavy-handed, broad approach that won’t work well for every situation.

Hospitalizations start to climb

News of the statewide masking order came as the Health Department on Wednesday posted new numbers showing the recent jump in COVID-19 cases is beginning to surface in hospitals.

The agency reported total current hospitalizations (273) and the number of people needing intensive care (119) rising. Officials had been anticipating this kind of shift given the rise in new cases surfacing in recent weeks.

The state reported four new deaths, continuing a three-week trend of mostly single-digit daily death counts; 1,552 people in Minnesota have died from the disease since the pandemic began.

Case counts, however, continued to climb, with 507 new cases reported Wednesday, part of a concerning July upswing, although the size of the increases in recent days appear to have flattened.

Of the 47,961 cases confirmed in Minnesota since the pandemic began, about 88 percent of people infected have recovered to the point they no longer need to be isolated.

Cases growing in many age brackets

State health officials continue to worry about the recent spike of coronavirus cases in younger Minnesotans, including that those infected will inadvertently spread the virus to grandparents and other more vulnerable populations.

Minnesotans in their 20s now make up the age group with the most confirmed cases in the pandemic, with more than 11,000. The median age of Minnesotans infected has been trending down in recent weeks and is now 37 years old.

Health investigators are also starting to see more cases in many age brackets, including ages 30 through 59, as more people get together for family gatherings and summer fun without social distancing, Kris Ehresmann, the state’s infectious disease director, said Monday.

It’s not like the situation the past few weeks where 20-somethings meeting in bars drove the increases. Now, analysts are seeing an evolution in the “larger, gradual increase in social activities,” she added.

New cases are also rising in northern Minnesota. Cases in Beltrami County, home to Bemidji, have more than doubled in the past week and a half, from 53 to 115 on Wednesday. Ehresmann this week said the case increase is tied to spread from athletic events and other public gatherings.

No ‘gotcha’

State officials continue to work to get their arms around clusters of problems centered around bars and restaurants.

The Health Department last week received some 120 complaints recently from concerned residents reporting violations of the current orders around gathering in indoor social spaces, particularly bars and restaurants.

Complaints include staff not wearing masks, not enough social distancing and too many people at a site.

Officials acknowledged 14 letters have been sent to establishments flagged for violations. The state Public Safety Department has the ability to issue fines and revoke liquor licenses, which would effectively close them.

Most bar and restaurant owners who’ve been flagged have responded positively, Minnesota Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said Friday, adding that the state wants to avoid “wholesale closure” of these places.

“But in all candor, I don’t think anything can be considered completely off the table with what we’re seeing around the country and in our own numbers in Minnesota,” she added. “But we clearly would like to explore intermediate measures before that.”