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Jon Weisbrod / By JON WEISBROD jweisbrod@owatonna.com 

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Isaac Gefre, seen here in this file photo from October of 2019, was a member of the back-to-back Class 5A state championship football teams at Owatonna in (2017, 2018) and earned two all-district nods as a hard-hitting linebacker. Aside from finishing as one of the top producers for the Huskies’ baseball team last spring, Gefre was also named the Rookie of the Year on the trap shooting team. (Jon Weisbrod/People’s Press, file)


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Customers return as small businesses reopen their doors

By the time Faribault UPS Store employees finished with a quick lunch break Monday, there was a line of customers waiting outside the locked front door, all patiently waiting to be served.

Though the UPS Store has been open throughout the COVID-19 pandemic as an essential service, it was clear that the lifting of Minnesota’s stay-at-home order was just the encouragement people needed to get back out into the community. Many wore face masks and observed social distancing practices recommended by Public Health officials.

“You know how it is in Minnesota after a long winter, this winter just got really, really long,” said Nort Johnson, president of the Faribault Area Chamber of Commerce and Tourism. “Minnesotans as a whole are good people, and when rules are put out there for us to stay-at-home we will obey them. Now that it’s been lifted it’s like this endorsement to go out there again.”

Next door to the UPS Store, Holy Smoke Tobacco happily welcomed customers back into the store as opposed to the curbside pickup it has been using. Moe Tamimi, a shop employee, said that it shutting the facility from the public had a definite impact on business.

“It was hard for people who were handicapped,” Tamimi said. “They would have to come to the door and we would take what they want, bring it to them, come back to the register to ring them up, it was a process.”

Tamimi said that he already feels that business is getting back to normal on the first day the store was able to be open to the public following the governor's emergency order. Though he said that the customers are clearly showing extra precautions while they shop through social distancing and not touching items they don’t intend to buy, Tamimi added that he still sanitizes the counter and other areas in the store in between each customer. Johnson said this is precisely why it was time for the small businesses to reopen their doors.

“Nobody is going to go about their business in a way that is going to be harmful,” Johnson said. “The resources are out there, the guidance is out there, and the common sense is out there. From there it is really up to the business owners on how to best manage their facilities with their business models, which are all as different and diverse as our small business owners and what their businesses are.”

In Owatonna, where the Safe Shop Zone program kicked off last week to alert customers that the businesses have reopened and taken extra precautions to provide a safe shopping environment, Brad Meier said that the return of regular customers is the next stepping stone.

“We think that the people will come back,” said Meier, president of the Owatonna Area Chamber of Commerce and Tourism. “The more that businesses outwardly show that they are taking steps to help draw people back into their place of business, the more everyone will be ready to get back out there and get things moving.”

Meier said that the reopening of the small retailers is an important milestone for the overall reopening of the economy, anticipating that the more intimate settings of salons, bars and restaurants should receive guidelines from the state as early as Wednesday.

“The indications from the governor is that these places could possibly open on June 1, and having these guidelines out there that will indicate what they need to do when they open is important so they can start to prepare and get things ready to go,” Meier said. “It’s a tough situation for that group of businesses because they were the first to be closed and obviously are going to be the last to open, but this will be one of those opportunities to show the government that they’re ready to be open and do it the right way where it is safe for the public and their employees.”

Johnson echoed Meier’s comments, stating that business owners will continue to rise to the challenge to reopen the economy while keeping everyone safe.

“I am certainly glad that at least the handcuffs have been taken off to an extent,” Johnson said. “Accommodations that need to be made are best left in the hands of those running their operations, they know their business models and their facilities better than anybody and I’m confident that when they open for business that they are going to do a great job.”


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New state law aligns with federal Tobacco 21 decision

Despite the federal government passing a Tobacco 21 bill in December and local cities such as Owatonna and Northfield having passed similar ordinances, local public health officials say that Minnesota’s recent passage of a Tobacco 21 law “closes the gap” and provides needed consistency.

“The federal law was pretty bare bones,” said Mary Urch with Steele County Public Health. “In communities that had not yet passed Tobacco 21, the issue was that there were no compliance checks until September 2020, so this really helps clarify things for retailers and law enforcement officials.”

Urch said that the local officials she had been working with had expressed confusion about what their local applications needed to be when it came to the federal law. The language in the newly passed state law will help cities and counties craft consistent ordinances to raise the legal age to buy tobacco and tobacco-related products such as e-cigarettes to 21.

“The work we have done at the local level truly shapes statewide decisions,” Urch said, adding that she wholeheartedly believes that the cities and counties who passed Tobacco 21 ordinances helped encourage state legislators to follow suit. “Statewide statistics to us represent actual people that we know. We talk to the parents of students who are already struggling with addiction to e-cigarette products and we teach classes in high schools to students who share the day-to-day realities. It drives us to local action, and that cumulative effect builds to statewide decisions.”

Tracy Ackman-Shaw with Rice County Public Health said that the state law is a direct result of a grassroots effort by educators, health care workers and various elected officials. She said that this decision is going to ease the transition for other communities as everyone “gets on the same page.”

“I think this really speaks volumes to protecting the youth and getting the message across that this product is harmful,” Ackman-Shaw said, adding that the state law also clearly defines e-cig and vape products as tobacco-related substances. “This helps create barriers so that teenagers cannot get their hands on it. It isn’t a punitive action, it’s a proactive one.”

According to Minnesotans for a Smoke-Free Generation, nearly 95% of addicted adult smokers started using tobacco before they were 21. That National Academy of Medicine estimates that Tobacco 21 laws will lead to enormous health gains, including a 25% reduction in smoking initiation among 15- to 17-year-olds. Andi Arnold, the coordinator for the Steele County Safe and Drug Free Coalition said that this is a big win for the students she works directly with who have been advocating Tobacco 21 for a number of years.

“This is a huge victory for the students who worked hard to advocate to reduce access to tobacco products,” Arnold said. “Their voices were heard and I am deeply proud of the young people I worked with who shared personal stories of the negative impact vaping had created in their daily lives and how difficult it was for them to see their friends struggle with addiction from a product they at first thought was relatively harmless.”

Arnold also cheered the recognition by legislators on the science behind brain development, stating that the introducing chemical substances at a young age create a higher risk for addiction and cognitive damage.

“There will be the people making the argument that if you can enlist in the military or vote that you should be able to buy tobacco,” Arnold said. “Military service and voting do not chemically alter the brain. We had good reason to change the drinking age back to 21, and a consistent age for substance use will make it easier to card and help in the effort to reduce access.”

The rise in popularity of vaping among teenagers was the call for concern for Owatonna, with city council member Kevin Raney bringing the Tobacco 21 ordinance that was eventually passed to the table. Raney said that he believes the unified voice among the cities and counties who already passed these ordinances is what helped the state recognize the importance of the issues.

“I’m glad that even with COVID-19 going on that the state legislature was able to push this through and move that age up to 21,” Raney said. “This is going to make a big difference, especially in the small communities that don’t really have the law enforcement to clamp down on it. The statewide law will give those cities a lot of guidance so that there is no grey area anymore, it’s just 21 or no tobacco.”

Rice County Commissioner Dave Miller was among the group that had worked with Public Health to adopt a countywide ordinance. He said that the state law will make those efforts smoother and quicker.

“Honestly it’s about time,” he said. “Too many kids are getting started using at a young age, so to just keep even a few of them from getting started I am in support of.”

Steele County’s Urch said that the governor’s signature not only shows an emphasis on overall public health, but also the recognition that both substance use and mental health are real issues facing today’s youth.

“We have found in all our focus groups — from kids and in classes — that often those young people who are using e-cigarettes are doing so to deal with emotional and mental health issues they are having,” Urch said. “The passage of Tobacco 21 highlights Minnesota’s commitment to understanding mental health and preventing substance use. This is a looming problem, and it is great for us to recognize that this foundational prevention is needed. “


Suzy Rook / By SUZANNE ROOK srook@faribault.com 

House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown walks out of the House Chamber Sunday, May 17, 2020 not wearing a mask, in St. Paul. All the DFL legislators choose to wear a mask on the House floor and all the Republican legislators choose not to wear masks on the floor. (Glen Stubbe/Star Tribune via AP)


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Drive-in graduations win out locally over virtual ceremonies

Biodegradable balloons to release in place of tasseled caps, contact-less diploma pick-up and radio-broadcast commencement addresses are just some of the adjustments area schools have made heading into this year’s graduation season.

As of early May, Minnesota districts knew they had two primary options for celebrating the class of 2020 — go digital with a video conference or go mobile with a drive-in event — and those in Steele County have opted for the latter, with a number of “in-person” ceremonies set for later this spring.

Even though a statewide stay-at-home order has been eased, gatherings of more than 10 people from separate households are still prohibited due to the continued spread of COVID-19 throughout the state — meaning traditional commencements are not an option at this point. Although some districts entertained the idea of postponing graduation until an in-person event would be possible, locally, all have opted to keep their original dates for fear that students — especially those joining the military — or their families might not be available later this summer.

While Owatonna Public Schools has planned its drive-in ceremony for the parking lot at Federated Insurance, both Blooming Prairie and Medford will have students drive through the school’s parking lot to hear speeches and pick up diplomas. In each case, families are limited to one car per student except under special circumstances, which may include having two primary households. Safety guidelines provided by the Minnesota Department of Education on drive-in ceremonies include making sure every household is in a separate car, having all attendees remain in their vehicles and not offering either food or restrooms during the event.

While the MDE outlined the possibility for parking lot ceremonies, the department also said that, “the safest option right now is for everyone to stay home.” It asked districts to consider whether these events might encourage at-risk family members to come out when it would be safer for them to remain indoors, and encouraged districts to consider accommodations for families who may not have access to a vehicle.

In Steele County, high school administrators say students expressed significantly greater interest in a parking lot celebration than a virtual commencement. Staff members added that, by finding ways to bring the event off the screen, they are trying to make it as memorable and meaningful as possible for the seniors.

Still, some are advising those with pre-existing conditions or who are especially at risk for a more severe case of COVID-19 to stay home. Additionally, all proceedings will be broadcast via local radio stations and streaming services. For more details on the specific celebrations in each district, see below.

Owatonna: Parking lot party, porch lights at night

The Huskies will graduate as planned on the afternoon of Sunday, June 7, coming together in the parking lot of Federated Insurance’s A.T. Annexstad Building along South Cedar Avenue for a drive-in celebration. Owatonna High School Principal Kory Kath said that staff had been planning a similar event before guidance came down from the MDE — the main thing that has changed is now students won’t be able to leave their cars and can only roll down driver-side windows in order to comply with social distancing guidelines.

After this new guidance was issued, Kath and his staff put out a survey to the graduating class asking if students still wanted to have a drive-in ceremony, or if they’d prefer to switch to a video format.

“It was overwhelming that students still wanted to do the drive-in,” he said. “The most important thing for us was to make sure that we had student voice coming into this and that we met the needs of students and what they wanted to see from their graduation. Then, from there, we wanted to make it a community celebration.”

After sending out a letter to families over the weekend, Kath said he expects that now is the time when students who need special accommodations will hopefully start to reach out to staff. He added that the school’s first priority would be figuring out access to a vehicle for teens that don’t have one readily available, because “they need to be inside a car to meet guidelines.”

In addition to the 2 p.m. ceremony, the district will also be taking photos of seniors with their diplomas in the morning at the Steele County fairgrounds. Students are grouped into three, hour-long time slots by last name. According to Kath’s letter, seniors must arrive in cars, drive through the Owatonna Foundation Building, then step out into the photo area, where they will get their diploma cover and have their photo taken.

After the ceremony, the district is asking Owatonna residents to turn on their porch lights in honor of the class of 2020 on the night of June 7. The high school and football field will also be lit to honor seniors, and residents are invited to drive by and see the lights between 9:30 and 9:50 p.m.

Meanwhile, the Owatonna Alternative Learning Center — which hosts students from around the county and beyond — is planning a drive-in ceremony of its own for noon June 4. While Principal Jim Kiefer said he is still hammering out the details, he also heard from students that they’d prefer an “in-person” gathering over a completely virtual graduation.

Blooming Prairie: Broadcast speeches, town-wide parade

As opposed to Medford and Owatonna, who will have speakers address the cars live during the graduation ceremony, Blooming Prairie Public Schools is pre-recording its program — which is set to begin at 11 a.m. on May 31. Students and families can tune into Kat Kountry 105 on FM 104.9 from their cars, hearing their peers speak and their names read as they filter through the high school parking lot to pick up their diploma and get their photo taken.

“We’ll have an order of cars in which they’ll be coming up, we’ll have a stage there and we’ll have diplomas out on tables,” said Principal John Worke. “They can get it if they choose … but we will have someone there if they can’t get out of the car, we can give it to them with gloves and a mask on.”

After the procession through the parking lot, cars will parade through Blooming Prairie, accompanied by the Fire and Police departments. Unlike when the football team returned from the state championship and filed down Main Street, this parade will hit every street in town, according to Worke. He estimated that this part of the celebration will begin around noon.

“We’ve contacted the chamber, so the area businesses may have signs down Main Street just like the state football game. We’re just going to celebrate a different group in similar ways,” he added. “People can come outside and give them a clap or a wave.”

Medford: Biodegradable balloons, grads may walk?

At the northern end of Steele County, Medford High School is planning an event that combines elements of both Owatonna and Blooming Prairie’s ceremonies. It will take place in the school parking lot on the evening of May 29, but instead of driving through, the school has the space to let each family park in alphabetical order and take in speeches from their cars.

Like Kath and Worke, Principal Kevin Babcock said he and his staff were in close communication with other area schools — bouncing ideas off of each other, with everyone ultimately landing on similar events. However, Babcock is also trying to find a way to have students physically get out of their cars and walk across a stage — something that turned as up important to seniors in a recently administered survey. He said he’s in contact with the district’s legal counsel to see if that’s something that can be done while still complying with state requirements.

“Nobody would leave their car except to do a line-up, where they would drive up to the front by the stage. Their diploma would be sitting on a table up on the stage,” he said, adding that the student would grab the diploma and walk from one end of the stage to the other. “I’ll be announcing the students’ names remotely. The only people getting out of the car would be the people in the car, so unless that gets completely shut down, that’s what we’re planning on right now.”

In addition to broadcasting the event online and on the radio, Babcock added that the district will be filming the ceremony and sending out hard copies to students. Many seniors have also taken individual photos of themselves throwing their caps to be compiled into the video. For the ceremony itself, staff members have also ordered biodegradable maroon and gold balloons for each senior to release when Babcock officially presents the class of 2020.