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Medford City Council allows process to expire for Main Street project

The heat was turned up inside the Medford Fire Hall as members of the current city council and those who had been newly elected came head to head for the first time.

With the clock ticking on the drawn out Main Street reconstruction project, the Medford City Council held a special meeting Tuesday to take action on the project. Despite a sense of urgency, however, the council elected to allow the process to expire and start over in January, leaving the newly elected council to make the final decisions. The motion was passed in a 4-1 vote with Mayor Lois Nelson opposing.

Come January, Nelson and Councilors Marie Sexton and Matt Dempsey will be leaving the council. Sexton did not file for re-election and Dempsey was defeated by Mandy Mueller and Chad Merritt to fill one of the two open council seats. Danny Thomas, a former mayor of Medford, defeated Nelson in her mayoral bid for re-election.

Nelson has been adamantly pushing the council to order the improvement and preparation of the plans for the estimated $2.1 million project since the spring. She said during the special meeting that moving forward on this project was necessary due to historically low interest rates for capital improvement projects. City Administrator Andy Welti echoed Nelson’s sentiments, adding that another city recently secured funding for a project with a 0.9% interest rate.

“The biggest factor in all of this is COVID-19 – it has changed the discussion due to the financial impact the project will have on families,” Welti said. “Interest rates are never this low, making it the most opportune time as it is cost effective and will save money, but at the same time we are at a place where the community is already impacted by COVID-19.”

With restarting the clock on the process, the new council will have to set a new public hearing date for the proposed improvement project, which includes a 10-day mailed notice and two-week published notice prior to the hearing. While some may feel the council is setting the project back to square one, the city engineer contracted through Bolton and Menk confirmed that will not be the case as certain engineering processes and reports have already been completed and paid for.

Thomas, Mueller and Merritt were all in attendance for the special meeting and called upon by Councilor Grace Bartlett to provide feedback on the direction they would like to see the council take on Tuesday. All three of the newly elected officials agreed it made the most sense to allow the process to expire and start again in January.

Thomas made a statement in October that it was unknown if the city would continue with the engineering firm after the election, but he said on Tuesday that it will continue with the firm on the process.

“We have come this far and we need to see it through with them,” Thomas said. “Don’t vote no, let it expire and we will restart this process right away.”

The three soon-to-be council members also unanimously agreed that no one wants to start completely over with the project and that both the road and the water main need to be addressed.

Updates and changes to the potential project have been ongoing, focusing on the need to replace a water main that was installed in the 1950s and has had more than eight breaks. Joe Duncan with Bolton and Menk has made adjustments to the project over the summer and fall that has brought the estimated cost down nearly $600,000 from the initial price-tag.

Because the road is a county-state-aid highway, the county will be covering 75% of the cost on all state-aid eligible items, with the remaining cost falling on the city. County Engineer Greg Ilkka, who was also in attendance for the special meeting Tuesday, said there will be no impact to the county’s participation by restarting the process.

The meeting began with Nelson lecturing Thomas, with Sexton calling out the elephant in the room when she addressed the animosity.

“The discord and hate in this room, I see it coming from both sides, and it’s bothering me a lot,” said the nearly 25-year veteran of the city council. “There is no reason for it if you would simply just talk to one another. We all want to see this project done. We all want to do it and we all want to do it right.”


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Area bars, restaurants brace for big hit from COVID and restrictions
  • Updated

With the number of COVID cases skyrocketing, Gov. Tim Walz has announced tough new restrictions, limiting bars and restaurants to take out for at least four weeks and closing fitness centers.

The governor’s new restrictions mirror those announced on St. Patrick’s Day. Walz announced the abrupt closure of bars, restaurants and fitness centers shortly before enacting a Stay at Home order that lasted for several months. Now, the state is dealing with a COVID spike far greater than those seen during the early days of the pandemic. On Wednesday, the state set a new single-day deaths record with 67, and tallied more than 5,000 new or probable cases.

In Steele County, Public Health Director Amy Caron noted that roughly 30 to 35 cases were reported each week during the spring and summer. In October, that total roughly doubled — but it was nothing compared to the latest Steele County spike, which saw 408 new cases in the last week. Rice County saw 401 cases from Friday to Monday.

As of Wednesday, some 15 Steele County residents were hospitalized as of Wednesday and Caron expects that number to continue to rise. She said the biggest issue that keeps her up at night is the potential overload of the health care system.

“I hope it’s not too late for our hospitals at this point,” she said. “A lot of times, people get sick and it takes them a week or so before they need care.”

One thing that could make the trendlines even worse are the upcoming holidays, especially Thanksgiving next week. Caron strongly urged Minnesotans to follow the Minnesota Department of Health’s guidance and avoid gatherings with anyone outside of their household.

“If people decide to get together in groups, I expect we’ll see major fallout from that,” she said.

'A lot at risk'

While the explosion of cases is leaving policymakers and public health experts feeling they have little choice but to take such drastic actions, small, local business owners are sure to bear the brunt of the blow — and many fear they won’t be able to survive it.

Faribault Area Chamber of Commerce and Tourism President Nort Johnson said he expects the economic pain to be “brutal.” With the holidays traditionally a peak time for travel and shopping, many businesses count on increased revenues — but will now have to deal with less.

Johnson praised local business owners for doing their best to keep their customers safe. Unfortunately, he said that the failure of a limited number of patrons to follow social distancing and masking guidelines has hampered efforts to curb the virus’s spread. While expressing hope that Washington might deliver a much needed business assistance package, Johnson said that the biggest thing area residents can do is make sure to shop local and order takeout from their favorite restaurants.

“We will absolutely be promoting shopping local,” he said. “Gift certificates are great Christmas gifts and holiday gifts and could potentially keep a business open in town.”

Janna Viscomi is among those who have been personally and professionally hit by COVID-19. The Faribault city councilor has spent the last few months transforming Bernie's Grill, a traditional sit-down restaurant, into Janna's Market Grill, an innovative concept she designed in part to be COVID-safe. Viscomi hasn't been able to open the business as quickly as she'd like because she's come across plenty of roadblocks. Since her new business will be focused heavily on takeout, she's had trouble getting the state to approve the licenses needed to open her business.

"I anticipated this situation, I wanted to do something safer and they’re not making accommodations," she said with frustration. "The world changed, they told us we had to change, and yet they’re not trying to help us change."

Viscomi believes the shutdown will hit traditional restaurants particularly hard, with many forced to throw out a large amount of spoiled food. She anticipates that many will be forced to shut down altogether by the heavy losses.

"In my industry, everyone’s passionate about what they do, but there's a lot of risk," she said.

While consumed by the challenges of getting her business going again, Viscomi herself was hit by the virus. She said that while the fiscal challenges faced by businesses may be difficult, they shouldn't forget why it's so important to be careful.

"We have to make business decisions, but safety needs to come first," she said. "We have to make that determination that life comes before business."

Alex Lara, the assistant manager at El Tequila Mexican Restaurant in Faribault, said that the restaurant is grateful for its many devoted customers who helped it survive the last shutdown by ordering takeout.

While grateful for the continued support, Lara acknowledged that business overall has fallen dramatically since the pandemic first hit. Lunch has become especially slow, with more area residents working from home.

“Since we opened back up, it’s been really hit or miss,” he said. “We have OK days and slow days.”

Like so many businesses, El Tequila has traditionally been able to count on particularly brisk business during the holidays. In a typical year, large groups come to visit family members and stop for a nice meal at the restaurant - but that’s not likely to happen as much this year.

Basher’s Sports Bar and Grill co-owner Denise Clayton said that for her family owned business, the restrictions are a gut punch. Even though the Governor said the restrictions will only be for four weeks at this point, she’s anticipating a much longer and more damaging shutdown.

“It’s devastating,” she said. “I don’t know that we can survive it.”

Clayton said that Basher’s hadn’t even managed to recover from the damage caused by the first lockdown. To survive, Clayton said that she will have no choice but to lay off some employees — a decision she feels particularly awful about making just before the holidays. With the future of the business on the line, Clayton hopes to grow the catering side of the business and is partnering with the society of St. Vincent de Paul, which was forced to cancel its traditional Thanksgiving Meal, to provide turkey dinners to families in need.

Typically, St. Vincent de Paul’s provides a full turkey dinner for approximately 800 people at the Faribault American Legion. For a $30 donation, Basher’s will provide a full turkey dinner for a family of four, with St. Vincent de Paul’s providing distribution.

“I’m optimistic that we’ll be able to provide quite a few meals,” she said.

Jose Herrera, the owner of Owatonna's Plaza Morena Campestre Grill, said that during the pandemic, his restaurant has gotten strong support from the community but has still struggled to just break even. With the shutdown looming, Herrera said that many restaurant owners will be forced to seek additional credit or government assistance, if it's available. Without that, he anticipated that many will be forced to close.

“I’m just hoping this doesn’t go on for too long,” he said. “A lot of businesses that have shut down won’t reopen.”

Getting political

Assistance isn’t likely to come from the state level because the Minnesota Constitution requires the state to run a balanced budget. As a result, lawmakers will have to focus on making cuts, not providing additional assistance, when they return to regular session in January.

The governor’s additional orders come just a week after he called a sixth special session, giving legislators a chance to reject his one-month extension of the Peacetime Declaration of Emergency as required by law.

Unlike during previous special sessions, the Republican-controlled Senate did not vote to end the Governor’s Declaration. Still, Sen. John Jasinski, R-Faribault, expressed frustration that the governor had not included the legislature more in his decision-making process.

“He talks about One Minnesota and involving everyone, but he does not involve us,” Jasinski said. “I find out about his decisions in the news before I hear about them from him.”

Jasinski said that the threat posed by COVID is clear but that the state should take a more nuanced approach, with respect for regional differences. Had such an approach been taken earlier, he argued the state and its businesses could be in better fiscal shape.

Rep. Todd Lippert, DFL-Northfield, argued that with the number of cases rising exponentially and the largest increases seen in Greater Minnesota, the Governor’s measures are needed to preserve what’s left of the healthcare system’s capacity. Lippert expressed optimism that the federal government will provide some sort of relief package, but barring that, said there’s some measures the state could enact like extending unemployment insurance. He also urged his constituents to do their part to get the virus under control.

“What we’ve been saying all along we need everyone to do the basics,” “Stay home if you’re sick, wear a mask, do social distancing, and as hard as it is, limit social gatherings.”


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District One, Owatonna Hospital restrict visitors

As the COVID-19 cases in Minnesota continue to climb at an accelerated rate, Allina Health has moved their visitor status to red, meaning no visitors will be allowed in the facilities with very limited exceptions.

The healthcare provider announced Wednesday afternoon that the visitor guidelines have been further restricted to keep patients and staff safe. These restrictions will impact both Owatonna Hospital and District One Hospital in Faribault, where President David Albrecht said some restrictions were already in place.

“We have had visitor restrictions in place since the beginning of the pandemic in March,” Albrecht said. “These restrictions that are being implemented now are actually a return to many of the restrictions in place last spring. Restrictions were relaxed slightly over the summer and fall as the spread of the coronavirus was under control/stable.”

Albrecht reiterated that the increased restrictions are a precautionary measure to keep patients and employees safe during a time of an “outbreak escalation.” He added that both hospitals have electronic means available to allow patients and families to visit virtually.

“Compassionate exceptions can still be made in special circumstances to allow a face-to-face visit,” Albrecht said. According to the Allina Health website, compassionate care exception are made for patients who are actively dying, have a sudden decline in medical condition or are having surgery. The site states case-by-case exceptions are made with the clinical team, patient care manager, and/or house supervisor.

Those who are granted access to visit a loved one at the hospital will be screened for symptoms of COVID-19, must wear a mask, must have good hand hygiene and must practice physical distancing during the visit.

The announcement from Allina comes only two days the Northfield Hospital + Clinics announced that visitors were prohibited from their facilities. Compassionate exemption is also being considered there for patients at the end of life, cancer patients with a new diagnosis or at the end of treatment, and one adult support person for pediatric patients, patients with disabilities or dementia, and patients giving birth.

The Mayo Clinic Health System’s Southeast Minnesota Region implemented a no-visitor policy for all inpatient and outpatient facilities at the end of October. This includes all hospitals and clinics at all Mayo Clinic Health System locations in the region, with the exclusion of Rochester hospitals and clinics. Compassionate exceptions mirror that of the Allina Health and Northfield Hospital guidelines. The policy will remain in place until further notice.


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Medford superintendent discusses upcoming distance learning, athletics
  • Updated

The Medford School Board spent Monday night discussing learning model updates, COVID-19 cases within the district and how the district plans to proceed with school athletics as COVID-19 cases are increasing in Steele County and the state.

Students didn’t have school on Monday as teachers and staff prepped for distance learning in the coming weeks. As previously announced, students will remain in their current learning model through the rest of this week. Superintendent Mark Ristau said the district will ensure students are sent home with the materials and devices needed for distance learning.

“Our goal is still to make it to Friday, our in-house numbers are OK right now and the county was fine with that moving forward,” Ristau said.

Distance learning for Medford students begins Monday, Nov. 23 through Friday, Dec. 4 with a break for Thanksgiving Nov. 26-27. Ristau said he hopes to bring students back to their current learning model on Monday, Dec. 7, depending on case data.

The school board also agreed to push the beginning of winter sports back to Dec. 7. The remaining fall sports, football and volleyball, will continue as long as it is safe to do so. The move comes as a way to provide closure to an existing season while putting a pause on starting a new season.

“That may be wishful thinking,” Ristau said, adding that an pushing back the start of winter activities might be necessary. Fall extracurricular activities will also continue contingent on safety, according to Ristau, and they have plans to halt extracurriculars in the winter if necessary.

However, Gov. Tim Walz is set to announce new COVID-19 restrictions, including new guidelines for youth sports on Wednesday night. In a previous press conference, Gov. Walz said he would announce a pause in school activities including sports, according to MinnPost. The governor pointed to an increase in the number of COVID-19 case outbreaks related to sports.

Several Medford staff have just completed quarantining and another staff member is quarantining awaiting test results. Depending on those results, more students and staff may have to switch to distance learning earlier than planned. Most recently, Steele County reported 42 new COVID-19 cases within the past 48 hours. Last Thursday the county’s case rate per 10,000 was at 41.99. With trends going in the wrong direction and Ristau says the next rate could be in the 60s and could jump up even more the following week.

“Our new positives have more than doubled from last week and we have quadrupled over the last two weeks for our cases,” Steele County Public Health Director Amy Caron said in her Monday update on Facebook.

The next Medford School Board meeting is set for Dec. 21 at 6 p.m.