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Janesville Bowl would normally close, for the most part, during the summer, anyway, but losing the end of spring still is a sting to the business. (File photo)

Local governments get creative to fit open meeting laws amidst COVID-19 pandemic

Walking in to a typical local government meeting, there’s a high chance that the scene will look more or less the same: a row of elected officials sitting in the front of a room along a table, with government staff and an attorney placed as their book ends. You might see a camera, you might see a couple bystanders, but you will always see someone posted up in a chair off to the side with a camera and notepad, diligently taking notes throughout the entire process.

That person is your local journalist, and they are there to represent the people and report the facts on the decisions made that will impact taxpayer dollars and countless aspects of citizens’ lives.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has health officials and government leaders across the nation — Minnesota included — urging people to stay home, practice social distancing, and keep group gatherings at a minimum, local governments are exploring any and all options on how they can go about their business serving their communities. One of those seriously obstacles they must overcome is the rules and regulations surrounding the Open Meeting Law.

“Government bodies should absolutely always allow the news media, which would be our journalists, to the meetings because they are the eyes and ears of the people,” said attorney Mark Anfinson, an expert on public access laws who represents the Minnesota Newspaper Association. “It might sound cliché, but it’s true. One journalist can get the word out to hundreds of thousands of people.”

In the last two weeks, governmental bodies throughout southern Minnesota have started implementing a plethora of different alternatives to their regular meetings. Small communities such as Medford and Le Center have held their meetings as is, but have limited the number of people from the public who could attend to adhere by the 10 people per gathering or six-feet of separation guidelines put forward by the Minnesota Department of Health. Many government bodies, including Steele County Board of Commissioners, Faribault City Council, Nicollet County Board of Commissioners, and Le Sueur City Council have all moved to some form of teleconferencing or livestreaming of the meetings that are closed off to the public, allowing the public to still view the meetings at home without creating a potentially large gathering of people.

“We were looking certainly at the legal aspect and what the statutes would allow us to do. That was one part of it,” said Scott Golberg, the Steele County administrator regarding their decision to move to a livestreaming form of their public meetings with only members of the press invited. “The other was logistics based on the resources that we had available as far as how we might be able to conduct a meeting, protect public health, and allow monitoring of our meetings.”

“A lot of public officials are trying to determine how meetings around the state should be conducted with no guidance or precedent for how this should look,” Anfinson said, stating that he has been receiving calls from many newspapers in the last two weeks with questions about the legality of the different meeting options. “The statute is pretty straight forward in a very detailed way that only applies is a pandemic is declared.”

In section 13D.021 of the Open Meeting Law, which covers meetings by telephone or other electronic means, the conditions state that a governing body can hold a meeting so long as a presiding officer or legal counsel determines that an in-person meeting is not practical or prudent because of a health pandemic or an emergency declared, that all members of the body participating in the meeting — wherever their physical location — can hear one another as well as all discussion and testimony, that members of the public present at the regular meeting location can hear all discussion and votes of the members of the body, at least one member of the body is physically present at the regular meeting location, and that all votes are conducted by roll call so that each member’s vote on each issue can be identified and recorded.

One concern that has popped up among members of the public is that the opportunity for public comment has become limited. The catch, however, is that a public comment period is not something that is protected by the Open Meeting Law.

“A public comment period is purely voluntary by the body and is not a requirement by law that it be conducted,” Anfinson explained. “A governing body that wants to eliminate that during the duration of the emergency certainly can do so and don’t have to worry about violating the Open Meeting Law.”

Anfinson stated that while he understands that this could be a frustration in many parts of the state, governing bodies simply are not required to accept public comment or input during their meetings. During the Steele County Board of Commissioners meeting on Tuesday evening, the commissioners invited the public to reach out via phone or email to them or to Golberg to have comments included in upcoming meetings — a measure that many governing bodies are trying to include as a means to encourage public interaction with their local government.

Some governing bodies, however, are doing whatever they can to keep their meetings as regular as possible, including the public comment period.

“We are not trying, we are doing,” said Todd Prafke, city administrator to St. Peter, in regard to keeping public comment a part of the city council’s meetings. “It’s just like our regular council meetings, this portion that we have been doing for the last 30 years that allows the public to come and comment on specific agenda items or items not on an agenda, whether through telephone or video chat.”

As of now, the St. Peter City Council meetings have remained the same as always, including allowing people from the public to attend. During their most recent meeting this month, they did implement an option for people to dial-in via telephone or with a video teleconference software to watch a livestream of the meeting. Prafke stated that in upcoming meetings they may consider going to an all-virtual meeting platform.

“We are not concerned about it, because we’re following the state statutes,” Prafke explained regarding the restrictions COVID-19 could be putting on public meetings. “As long as we follow the state statutes and make sure that [the meetings] are open and available for everyone, I think we’re doing a great job.”

The Northfield City Council also continued their meetings as usual, though that was largely to do with the timing of their regular meetings happening shortly before the pandemic was declared. Northfield City Administrator Ben Martig stated that all other meetings have been cancelled until the end of April, with the exception of the city council meeting which is leaning towards a video teleconference option.

“In response to COVID-19, one of the immediate things we did was try to prioritize what was the most important procedures we needed to get done,” Martig said regarding the decision to cancel all other committee and board meetings. “The amount of changes that we are taking in from the state and federal government takes a lot of time and energy, so we felt it was really prudent at this time to prioritize work and put a few things on hold.”

Moving forward, governing bodies are continuing to take guidelines and recommendations from health officials as well as state and federal leaders as they wade through the unprecedented territory that is the COVID-19 pandemic. As things continue to develop and change, Anfinson said that they will all need to get the Open Meeting Law at top of mind.

“Government bodies do have some limited ability to exclude the public in a pandemic situation,” Anfinson added. “But the pandemic and declarations of emergency don’t suddenly give them the authority to make up legal rules as they go along.”

“Some members of the public should be allowed in, and journalists should always be allowed in because of their function,” he continued. “I do think on the positive side of this, while there have been some issues, for the most part public officials have been recognizing the benefit of having journalists in the room. There’s a lot of positive legitimate efforts by public officials to do the best they can to try to strike the best balance between transparency and protecting the public form the virus.”

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Salons offer gift cards and product amid prolonged closures, urge clients to 'wait for us'

Salon owners and stylists across the region are going into their second week of state-mandated closure, with an extension likely on the horizon. While many note that employee and client health comes first, the small businesses and independent contractors are also trying to figure out ways to make it through the pandemic financially.

Although the March 16 executive order called for a temporary closure of bars, restaurants, movie theaters, fitness centers and more — set to end March 27 — many in the region believe it will be extended beyond the end of the month as the upper respiratory illness continues to spread throughout the state.

In a media briefing Tuesday afternoon, Gov. Tim Walz also noted that the closure would be extended, without providing a new timeline.

With the number of COVID-19 cases confirmed by the Minnesota Department of Health at 262 as of Tuesday afternoon, state officials have said repeatedly that the actual number is likely much higher . Given limited access to testing materials, not all cases are being reported. The novel coronavirus is most commonly spread via respiratory droplets transmitted during close person-to-person contact and the MDH is advising individuals to keep a minimum of six feet away from others during the pandemic.

When reviewing the governor’s executive order last Monday, many salon owners said it wasn’t immediately clear that they were among the businesses being asked to close down. Owner Tracy Grieves of Serendipity Salon in Le Sueur said the initial use of the word “spa” left many unsure.

“We were supposed to have closed at 5 p.m. on March 17, but many of us continued to work until 9 p.m. that night,” said Grieves. “That was when the Minnesota Board of Cosmetology received clarification that we were included in the order.”

At-home removal vs. at-home treatments

The next day, Grieves said she reached out immediately to clients, letting them know she would have to cancel their appointments temporarily until the situation improves. Offering waxing, skin care and nail services, she added that many of her customers come in on a fairly regular basis. For polish, this could be as often as every two weeks as nails grow out and require touch-ups.

“I’ve created some kits with the proper remover, some cotton pads and some foil. I put those on the front porch of the salon to allow [clients] to come pick that up, so at least they can do something at home to safely remove their product,” Grieves noted, adding that she worries many might not come back as soon after breaking their habitual two-week cycle.

She and many other salons have also been posting advice and videos on social media for those now needing to remove polish or care for their treatments at home.

“We’re still advising that people not take anything into their own hands,” said Sarah Chelmo, who manages Sisters Salon & Day Spa in Owatonna. “Just wait for us, if you can. Otherwise, you’re going to end up having to fix something versus just waiting for your stylist.”

In St. Peter, Fréy Salon & Spa posted a similar sentiment on its Facebook page, noting that stylists will likely be especially busy when salons are allowed to reopen and that it can take a fair amount of time and money to fix a botched dye.

“We’re going to end up working 12-hour days,” co-owner Emily Schoper said, of what life will likely look like after the pandemic. “In our heads, we’re probably not going to be back to work on Saturday.”

Independent contractors hit hardest

While closed down, Schoper said the six stylists, two massage therapists and four guest service workers have been able to apply for unemployment as official employees of the salon. She added that the shop has kept its general manager on on an hourly basis to field phone calls, sell gift certificates and provide products via curbside pick-up and delivery.

“Nobody is an independent contractor, which in this case has been great because all the girls can ask for unemployment insurance with no questions asked. [My co-owner] and I were also paying premiums ourselves, so we can get unemployment, too,” Schoper explained, noting that she’s still waiting on final confirmation from the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development.

Under most circumstances, wages paid to an employee are also used to establish an unemployment insurance benefit account if a worker is laid off or gets their hours reduced through no fault of their own. According to DEED’s website, this is done through payments on taxable wages made by the employer to the state to reimburse benefits collected by former employees.

However, in some cases — often for small business owners or independent contractors — an employer is not required to pay unemployment insurance tax on wages.

In these cases, unless they’ve previously opted in, they may not qualify for unemployment insurance. Grieves noted that many self-employed individuals, like herself, now are unable to apply for benefits in the wake of the pandemic.

In a press conference Monday afternoon, DEED Commissioner Steve Grove acknowledged that small business owners and independent contractors will be among the hardest hit by the economic toll of COVID-19.

“We’ve been evaluating every option at our disposal to help,” he said.

Earlier this week, the agency also introduced an emergency loan program for small business owners intended to help those impacted by last Monday’s executive order. The initiative will make $30 million available from special revenue funds and the agency’s lender network will be able to offer between $2,500 and $35,000 for qualifying operations. Loans will be 50% forgivable and issued at a 0% interest rate.

Still, half of the money will need to be paid back at some point and for Grieves, she said she’s hesitant to commit herself to another payment down the line — especially while still paying off the mortgage on her home and business. “It’s still something you have to worry about paying back, on top of the fact that you’re worried about paying your monthly bills.”

‘We’re all brainstorming’

Something Grieves has done in the meantime to try to keep the business afloat has been to create gift certificates that clients can purchase online to use for services at a later date. In talking with other area salon owners via social media, she said she’s trying to come up with additional ways to keep at least some revenue coming in while the physical business is closed.

“We’re all brainstorming. We’re all in the same boat,” she noted, adding she may start trying to arrange curbside product pick-up or delivery.

Cole Johnson, who owns Haute Skin Spa & Tanning in Faribault and Owatonna, seconded Grieves, adding that many of the events that clients would use his services for have also been postponed due to the virus’ spread.

“There’s really not a ton that we can do. Right now, my big markets are spring break, prom season and wedding season, which are all kind of cancelled,” said Johnson. “Even if we could figure out a way to sell a self-tanner, no one has any use for it right now because there’s nothing to do.”

He added that he’s been working with a banker to apply for federal and state loans, and Schoper said she is doing the same thing — noting that qualifying for unemployment insurance has provided a welcome cushion to be able to talk options out with the business’ financial advisor.

“The silver lining to me is after this is all done, people are going to need self-care even more than they did before,” said Schoper. “We’re just trying to stay positive and look forward. The safety of our team and our guests is what comes first and foremost.”

Mental health remains a high priority during coronavirus pandemic

Ever since the novel coronavirus entered the forefront of minds across the nation, two common goals have become staying well and protecting others from sickness.

But while respiratory health is a valid concern, COVID-19 and social distancing protocols could also shake an individual’s mental and emotional wellbeing.

“Nationally, online screenings for anxiety have increased by nearly 20% over the last few weeks, and for many, social distancing inevitably means isolation and loneliness,” Shannah Mulvihill, Mental Health Minnesota’s executive director said in a news release. “It’s essential that people take care of their mental health as well as their physical health at this time, and we are working to share information, resources and suggestions that can help with that.”

Eric Lundin, a master’s level psychologist who works for Rice County Social Services, said new outpatient clients are welcome to schedule appointments, and child case management services also continue to take new clients. Community providers continue to see new patients as well, he said, all set up with telehealth, which allows providers to “see” clients online. However, not everyone has access to high speed internet, so therapists still see patients in person also.

Patients may start to use online billing or pay via telehealth, said Lundin, as Gov. Tim Walz is taking steps to allow for it.

“The main point I want to make is that mental health providers are open for business, and they’ll continue to see patients by telehealth,” said Lundin.

Mary Morgan, clinical director and a marriage and family therapist at Fernbrook Family Center in Owatonna, said her facility continues to provide in-office sessions and in-home appointments if clients are comfortable with that. Especially for those experiencing symptoms, Fernbrook also provides telehealth opportunities.

“If [clients] are healthy, we’re certainly willing to see them,” said Morgan. “We have just asked people to utilize social distancing and good hand washing when they come into our office. We have a sign on the door of [coronavirus] symptoms.”

Terri Reuvers, licensed independent clinical social worker at Resilient Living in Faribault, said she had to make major adjustments to her practice to maintain connections with her clients. No longer seeing clients in her office, she’s established a secure video conference system to provide telemedicine. She’s received four client referrals in two days, and she can only accept them because she implemented telehealth.

“I meet with my patients while they’re in their home and I’m in my home office and I still have to abide by all of the HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) rules for compliance and privacy,” said Reuvers. “And it’s interesting that my younger patients are very easily adapting to this format where some of my older patients are having a little bit of a challenge with making connections in this format.”

Reuvers said she’s also received information from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services on the coronavirus 1135 waiver, under which therapists may apply for telehealth with less fear of violating HIPAA. The CMS encourages telehealth use during this time, she said.

While Reuvers has received a number of client referrals in recent weeks, she said this is typical in February through May. However, she does believe COVID-19 is elevating anxiety across the board because of all the unknown.

“What we are doing as therapists is trying to help people identify points to focus on ‘now’ rather than what’s being taken away from them,” said Reuvers. “Now’s the time to be able to get to some of those things you’ve been putting off.”

Making the best of uncertain times

Lundin offers several pointers for anyone struggling to keep their heads above water during the coronavirus pandemic and social distance practices.

To avoid falling into a slump, Lundin recommends establishing a schedule. That means having a consistent bedtime, setting a goal for the day or maybe the week, and/or getting outside and moving once a day.

He also advises those living in close quarters with their families to give others the benefit of the doubt. Put simply, that means being kind and remembering everyone is doing the best they can under the circumstances. A helpful tip: everyone in the home should have their own “retreat space” if possible.

“The other thing is to lower your expectations,” said Lundin. “What this means is life isn’t going to be what we want it to be for a while, and the more we protest the harder it’s going to be … Your children are going to misbehave. Expect children to misbehave. If you can recognize that, maybe you won’t be so upset. It’s critical to lower expectations of everyone.”

While controlling others isn’t realistic, Lundin encourages individuals to find something within their control. Social distancing could be an opportunity to try something new, or to revisit an old hobby that took a backseat in the busyness of ordinary times. Whether that means playing an instrument or journalling, Lundin said having a control factor is essential during a time when everything else seems chaotic.

He also encourages others to “find the lesson we can learn from this” and look for the positives. For some, this may mean more time with a spouse and/or children, more time to self-reflect or time outdoors.

“I think finally, it’s really important that you continue to connect with your friends as much as possible via video conference or by text,” said Lundin. “Those connections are probably more critical now than ever.”

Reuvers also encourages individuals to think about the elderly or anyone without a smartphone, and connect with them through phone calls or texting. Helping out others in general during a time of uncertainty is a way to boost gratitude and become more hopeful, she said.

While Reuvers believes social media is an excellent tool for connecting with people while social distancing, she recognizes that certain platforms on social media sites may implant inaccurate information regarding COVID-19, thus causing unnecessary anxiety in its users. She encourages her clients to seek updated medical information from the Minnesota Department of Health as well as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Overall, she recommends those experiencing anxiety to limit their intake of news media, even if they’re accessing factual information.

“I’m not usually one to say [not to watch or read the news], but it doesn’t make sense for people to inundate themselves,” said Reuvers. “You have to limit how much you’re going to hear. You do want to know what’s going on but don’t want to feel hopeless and desperate.”

For those dealing with pre-existing mental illnesses, like anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder, Reuvers recommends patients touch base with others. At a time when overreacting has become the norm, she said it can be difficult to know a reasonable amount of times to wash hands or how to react at all. Knowing how other people respond to COVID-19 could help clients set reasonable expectations for themselves.

“I think if you let people know what your needs are, folks may come forward,” said Reuvers. “ … Now is just a good time for people to be good to themselves and the other folks in their life.”

Bridget Kranz / By BRIDGET KRANZ bkranz@owatonna.com 

Chalk creations, such as the one shown above made by 5-year-old Olivia Harman of Medford over the weekend, are becoming a go-to family activity during the COVID-19 social distancing guidelines. The Owatonna Area Chamber of Commerce and Tourism, as well as Owatonna Parks and Recreation, are inviting the public to get creative this weekend and share photos of their designs for the chance to win a gift certificate redeemable at any member business. (Submitted by Eryn Harman)