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Outdoor igloos, indoor spaces: Owatonna restaurants and bars prepare for winter

Despite some mild temperatures predicted for early next week, reality has set in that winter has arrived and the fun-in-the-sun months have come to an end.

While the arrival of winter welcomes in a plethora of joy – cozy socks, snow-globe mornings, and holly-jolly spirits – the cold weather this year has been dreaded by those in the hospitality business since the moment spring arrived.

“From day one, the very first day the governor shut us down in March, we started the conversation of how we are going to adapt,” said Bill Cronin, president of Mineral Springs Brewery in Owatonna, adding that within one week the business spent over $10,000 to purchase a canning machine and to develop an online store and reservation system – all driven by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. “The beauty of the group is we perceived this all as challenges, and it’s been fun to adapt, but we also knew winter was coming.”

With the governor’s current executive order in relation to the pandemic, bars and restaurants can accommodate for 50% capacity of their indoor dining space and no bar seating. At MSB, Cronin said that would allow them to have only 43 seats available for customers.

“We never have 43 people in there,” Cronin said. “In reality, it would put as at about one-third of capacity because people would come in and, knowing they can’t stand around, see that there are already a handful of groups there and leave.”

Knowing their business would become more limited with winter, Cronin said the business partners began discussing alternatives to expanding their business while still keeping the public safe.

The solution to outdoor dining during Minnesota’s notorious winter months was almost too obvious: igloos.

Using the funding received through the city of Owatonna’s small business Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act grant program, Cronin said the business ordered five igloos to place on their patio with room to fit up to eight people per igloo and two space heaters approved by Ryan Seykora at the Owatonna Fire Department as well as Travis Ahrens with the Minnesota State Fire Marshal. Since the installation of the first igloos at the end of October, when online reservations started rolling in, they have been widely accepted by the public and appreciated by those who want to enjoy a night out of the house.

“We have already had a number of conversations with people who have said they’re not comfortable going out and being around other people, but that they’d love to be in one of the igloos,” Cronin said. He added that there will be a strict cleaning regiment between each 90-minute reservation, including a full sanitization, “fogging” of the air space, and opening the igloos up to completely air out – a 30-minute process.

While the brewery was fortunate to have the patio space to work with, Cronin said he is deeply worried about other restaurants in town that don’t have the same flexibility as they head deeper into the indoor-dining-only season. Places like Old Town Bagel in downtown Owatonna had been able to make use of the greenspace on Cedar Avenue as well as boulevard dining, but with the cold weather settling in, their options in their smaller location were limiting.

“Our landlord, Dick Hochreiter, has been gracious enough to let us have indoor seating in the building next to us,” said Mark Wilson, owner of the bagel shop that is situated next door to the former Rustique consignment shop. “We are able to get some tables in there and have about 25 people to accommodate the governor’s 50% rule, though I don’t know the exact table count just yet or how we will arrange it.”

Working with the city of Owatonna on a temporary permit, Wilson said they will be able to use 750-square-feet of the empty space as well as fit about two tables in their own location.

“It has definitely been a blessing that the landlord has come around and let us do this and that the city is working with us as well, we are very appreciative to both,” Wilson said. “When we had that first cold snap and again now with it turning into winter, it’s been pretty tough to justify being open and running all the days we normally are. Hopefully this will help and we’ll be able to keep going.”

Brad Meier, president of the Owatonna Chamber of Commerce and Tourism, said moving into the holidays, the community will be thoughtful on where they spend their dollars and consider the local bars and restaurants, knowing they are losing occupancy options as temperatures continue to drop.

“We’re really hopeful that the community will rally around our bars and restaurants. They are the ones who really have felt this as deeply as anyone having been restricted the longest,” Meier said. “We’re really urging people to support in whatever way they can, whether that is eating out, ordering take out, or perhaps from a business standpoint, if you were typically going to do a holiday party with your staff you could consider a gift card to a restaurant as a nice option instead.”

Though the community was energetic during the warm months to get out and enjoy their favorite dining options outside, Meier added the chamber has worked closely with the local hospitality industry and they know all the proper precautions and protocols are in place to keep customers safe.

Wilson said he is also concerned about the other bars and restaurants in town, acknowledging that some of them have had a “tougher go at it” than they have at the bagel shop.

“We wish everyone the best,” Wilson said. “Anything we can do to help support them, we sure will.”

Cronin echoed Wilson’s remarks, adding that he is hoping the same spirit the community had about shopping and eating local in the beginning of the pandemic will carry on throughout the upcoming months.

“This could be a very long, hard winter,” Cronin said. “Survival is the name of the game.”

Steele County townships' COVID-19 funds largely unspent
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While cities in Steele County have been able to use nearly all of their federal COVID-19 funds, most of the funds received by the townships will be unspent before Sunday’s deadline.

It’s due to a combination of the townships not having enough qualifying COVID-19 expenses and too short of a timeline to spend the money, County Administrator Scott Golberg told the People’s Press.

He told the Steele County Board on Tuesday that the 10 townships that received funding will be reverting nearly $100,000 to the county after the Nov. 15 deadline. Golberg said he doesn’t know the amount the county will receive from the cities after the deadline, but the first city reverted its COVID-19 funding to the county on Friday and it was about $1,000.

Steele County has until the end of November to put the money it receives from the townships and cities toward county expenses related to the pandemic, but the county still has some of its own federal funding to spend. Steele County has spent $3.3 million of its $4.49 million.

“We tried our best to do what we could,” Golberg said.

Steele County asked its congressional delegation to try to extend the deadline, but Golberg said he doesn’t see that happening at this point. The county’s remaining federal COVID-19 funds will go to the state on Dec. 1 to spend until the end of the year, with leftover funds then reverting to the federal government.

Golberg said they wanted a deadline extension to create a “safety net” because local governments and businesses will continue to feel the financial pain of the pandemic after the deadline and likely into 2021, he said.

Narrow timeline

Local governments had a “very narrow window” to spend the money, Golberg said.

The money was allocated to the state government in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act and the counties had to wait for the state to release it, which took place after legislative special sessions and an executive order from Gov. Tim Walz at the end of June.

Steele County received the funding in July and then had to set up a program and guidelines for allocating the money without knowing how much would be needed by cities, townships, businesses and nonprofits, Golberg said.

“Three months were lost. It was critical. We just ran out of time,” he said.

Helping businesses

The cities in Steele County were able to spend most of their funding because they granted it to businesses in the community.

Three townships didn’t apply for the funding and the 10 who did received the funding in August and September. However, there were few businesses that the townships could dole it out to. The townships also didn’t have many expenses such as safety renovations in their buildings and for the election, Golberg said.

The county has given some of its funding to businesses. Fifty-eight businesses and 30 nonprofits applied for the county’s funding and some applications are still pending two weeks before the deadline, Golberg said.

County commissioners questioned on Tuesday whether more businesses could apply for the unused money, but Golberg said they’re running up against the deadline at this point because it takes several weeks to go through the application process.

The only items at this point that the county could spend the money on are internal expenses such as payroll and public safety, but even then, Golberg said he’s not sure the county has enough time before the deadline to get it finalized.

Commissioner Greg Krueger said he wants to see local businesses receive the funding if they still qualify instead of reverting the funding to the state.

Commissioner Jim Abbe said the available funding has been advertised as much as possible to help businesses impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“As much as you want to get it out there, we’ve tried. … I don’t know how else to get the word out other than to physically knock on their door,” Abbe said.

Schools move to distance learning in attempt to curb COVID-19
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As COVID-19 numbers continue to rise across Minnesota, schools in the region are switching to distance learning in an attempt to stop the spread of the virus.

One by one, school districts in southeastern Minnesota have announced they’re changing to distance learning, often with only a day or two for parents or staff to prepare, as the districts face an increase in COVID-19 cases locally and a shortage of staff as students and staff quarantine. Many districts have set a date to return to in-person learning, but whether students will be able to is unknown at this point.

Owatonna school district’s in-person learning is the latest to feel the pandemic’s impacts.

The district was planning to proactively switch to distance learning for the week following Thanksgiving to curb COVID-19’s spread, but has found itself making the change earlier than expected. Steele County‘s 14-day case rate per 10,000 people jumped to a rate of 41.99 as of Thursday, Nov. 12.

“And our projected county case number that will be publicly reported next Thursday is at 67.6 cases per 10,000,” Owatonna Superintendent Jeff Elstad said.

The Owatonna School Board approved on Friday to move all students into a distance learning model. All students sixth- through 12th-grade will begin distance learning on Tuesday, Nov. 17 and Friday is the last day students will be learning in the building. Monday will be used as a transition day with no classroom instruction for staff to prepare for the switch.

McKinley Elementary in Owatonna is already in a distance learning model as a result of a spike in cases within the building. The remaining Owatonna elementary schools and early learning students will begin distance learning on Tuesday, Nov. 24, with a transition period for staff the day before. There’s no school on Friday, Nov. 20 due to virtual conferences, meaning elementary students’ last day in person will be Nov. 19.

“Having this delayed shift with elementary will allow us to repurpose staff from both the middle school and the high school to help us cover those staff outages at the elementary leading through next Thursday,” Superintendent Jeff Elstad said.

Gov. Walz has requested that schools prioritize in-person learning for younger students, thus the district’s decision to keep the district’s youngest learners in-person as long as possible.

Owatonna students will stick with the distance learning model through Friday, Dec. 4. School officials would like for students to return to their current learning model beginning Monday, Dec. 7, but that is contingent on COVID-19 data. A decision will be made Dec. 3 and communicated to families. Thanksgiving break is scheduled for Nov. 25 through Nov. 27, with no distance learning on those days.

Fall activities will be allowed to continue through next week and will conclude Nov. 21. This will be subject to change and evaluated on a daily basis. Winter high school activities will be delayed until a later date and when it’s safer for students, coaches and advisors to return. Other Big Nine schools are also following this direction to help stop the spread, according to Elstad. All middle school activities will be suspended starting Monday, Nov. 16.

“I want to make clear to the community that this is not canceling a winter season. This is delaying the start because of the current surge in COVID-19 that we are seeing not only in our city and school district, but across the state,” Elstad said.

‘Not a sustainable model’

Steele County has seen 143 new cases from Nov. 2 through Nov. 8, with a positivity rate of 15.2%, which is up from the last report of 5.1%, according to an email sent to Owatonna families.

The Owatonna school district has 367 students and staff who are either quarantined or in isolation, with 21 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the school district since Thursday of last week. Currently the district has 42 staff that are in quarantine or in isolation, causing a major staffing shortage, according to Elstad. There are seven to 10 positions going unfilled and being covered by other teachers during their prep period every day.

“That’s simply not a sustainable model for us,” Elstad said.

Blooming Prairie is also feeling the strain of the virus.

“That’s probably the biggest issue that we run into is having to quarantine or isolate staff, we’ve been very fortunate to be able to hold on so to speak, but staffing has been a challenge, especially over the last couple of weeks,” Blooming Prairie Superintendent Chris Staloch said.

Blooming Prairie Public Schools plans to go into a distance learning model soon. The district will continue its current learning model through next week. Students will not have instruction on Nov. 23 and Nov. 24 while staff use the two days to plan. Distance learning will begin Nov. 30 and run through Dec. 4. The district has had a couple of positive cases, Staloch says.

The Medford school district announced on Thursday its intent to move into a distance learning period starting Monday, Nov. 23 through Friday, Dec. 4 with Thanksgiving break that Thursday and Friday. Like Owatonna schools, officials hope to bring students back to school in their current safe learning model on Monday, Dec. 7.

There will be no school for Medford students on Monday, Nov. 16 as staff and teachers plan for the upcoming distance learning weeks. Students will return to school in their current model for the week of Tuesday, Nov. 17 through Friday, Nov. 20. The school’s current learning model has high school students in a hybrid model and elementary students in an in-person model.

Rice County case increases

While Steele County schools are making plans to transition to distance learning, others schools across the region are also following suit.

On Wednesday, Faribault Public Schools announced the district will begin distance learning Thursday, Nov. 19. All athletics and activities will be suspended at that time. Students will remain in the model until the end of winter break. There will be no school on Monday or Tuesday of next week as teachers and staff prep for the switch. Wednesday will follow the hybrid learning model.

Students return after winter break to an in-person or hybrid learning model, but the decision depends on various COVID-19 data points.

The transition was made based on an increase in positive cases and COVID-like symptoms in Faribault’s students and staff. As of Wednesday, the Faribault school district has 11 confirmed COVID-19 cases among students and staff. A total of 40 cases have been confirmed since the beginning of the school year, according to a letter sent to Faribault families.

Similar to Owatonna schools, Faribault schools have faced staffing shortages due to staff becoming sick or quarantining. Substitute teachers are becoming difficult to find as demand increases.

“The latest preliminary Rice County two-week case rate per 10,000 residents is 77.39 and expected to rise in the coming days,” Superintendent Todd Sesker said in a letter to families.

The Minnesota Department of Health reported Rice County‘s 14-day case rate per 10,000 people at 41.82 as of Thursday, Nov. 12. The Northfield school district, another Rice County school, will be exclusively distance learning starting next week.

Northfield Senior High and Shattuck-St. Mary’s in Faribault are included on the Minnesota Department of Health’s list of five or more confirmed cases of COVID-19 in students or staff who were in the building while infectious during a two week reporting period.

While some schools are just making the switch now, others made the switch weeks ago.

Le Sueur-Henderson switched to distance learning for the middle/high school on Oct. 25, with plans to stay in that model until at least Nov. 25.

Tri-City United, also in Le Sueur County, will switch to distance learning starting Nov. 18 until at least Jan. 15. The district’s high school has been placed on the five or more active cases of COVID-19 in students or staff while in the building. Le Sueur County‘s 14-day case rate per 10,000 people is at 51.82, an increase from the previous week’s 33.23, according to the MDH.

Waseca schools will not be changing its learning model and the district has reported a total of 17 positive cases since July 1. School officials plan to meet Nov. 19 to further discuss the topic. The Janesville-Waldorf-Pemberton school district will remain with the hybrid model next week. Waseca County‘s 14-day case rate per 10,000 people is at 30.84, which is a small increase from the previous 28.18 rate.

The St. Peter School Board has confirmed that it will switch to distance learning starting Nov. 16, likely lasting until at least Jan. 4. All St. Peter sports and activities are also canceled during that time.

Kenyon-Wanamingo is switching its high school to distance learning and elementary/middle school students to hybrid learning likely until at least Thanksgiving Break. Goodhue County‘s 14-day case rate per 10,000 people is at 64.69, which almost doubled from last week’s report of 34.19.