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Jon Weisbrod / By JON WEISBROD jweisbrod@owatonna.com 

Blooming Prairie boys basketball coach Nate Piller was tasked with processing the news on a personal level that the state tournament had been cancelled while serving as a leader and mentor to a disappointed group of players that had just captured the Section 1-A championship. (Jon Weisbrod/People’s Press)

Steele Co sees COVID-19 community transmission, cases grow throughout region

The number of confirmed COVID-19 cases statewide has jumped by nearly 40% since the weekend, due in large part to an increase in the number of tests able to be processed over the last few days.

In a Monday afternoon press briefing, Gov. Tim Walz said the state was able to process more than 980 samples on Sunday alone and gave a special thanks to the Mayo Clinic, which has developed its own test for the novel coronavirus, as well as a number of drive-through testing sites across southern Minnesota.

“We were able to clear our backlog,” added Walz, who is himself in isolation following contact with a known COVID-19 case. “Those should all be off by today.”

In southern Minnesota, the first three cases of COVID-19 in Steele County were reported over the weekend — with two patients confirmed on Saturday and another the following morning.

According to a press release sent out Saturday by Steele County Public Health, the first two cases were a person in their 40s and another in their 50s who both likely contracted the virus while traveling to other states. In an interview, director Amy Caron said that the individuals had visited two separate locales and were likely not connected.

Caron added that the third case in Steele County, announced Sunday by the Minnesota Department of Health, is a confirmed instance of community transmission.

“This patient is in their 20s, and they had no known contact with anybody overseas or traveling out of state,” said Caron. “This causes some concern for us in public health that this is a community spread case. That means that it’s within the community.”

For now, she said the most important actions people can take locally continue to be remaining at home when sick and staying six feet away from others, given that the virus is spread primarily through respiratory droplets shared via close, person-to-person contact.

“We’re trying to slow the spread of this. We can’t contain it anymore and we really want people to heed the warning of staying six feet away from other people. That’s huge in slowing this spread down,” said Caron.

More testing, more cases

She added that southeastern Minnesota — including Rice and Steele counties, as well as the Rochester area — has the second highest number of confirmed cases statewide, outside of the Twin Cities metro.

“One reason could be that Mayo developed their own test and right now, they’re able to still use this test for people who have symptoms,” she noted. “The other tests available through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the MDH are restricted now for people who are hospitalized and health care workers that have been exposed, because of the shortage of tests and testing supplies.”

With more people being tested, Caron noted that it would make sense that the region is seeing more confirmed cases. In daily briefings, state health officials have often noted that the number of actual COVID-19 patients in the state likely far surpasses the confirmed total.

“Over the course of this, between 40% and 80% of Minnesotans will have become infected with COVID-19,” Walz noted on Monday. “The vast majority will recover without hospitalization. Those that need it, we need to make sure they’re able to get it.”

The governor added that the National Guard is moving additional personal protective equipment from Camp Ripley and will continue to be used in other capacities throughout the state.

Other executive orders signed by Walz on Monday suspended eviction proceedings during the current peacetime emergency and set up a localized small business loan program through the Department of Employment and Economic Development.

Outside of Steele County, Le Sueur, Nicollet and Rice counties saw an increase in the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases over the weekend.

Waseca County was also listed as having two cases on the MDH website, but public health director Sarah Berry explained that this was due to a mapping error which she’s currently working on getting resolved with the state. As of Monday afternoon, Waseca County still only had the one case confirmed last week.

First case in Le Sueur, third in Nicollet

Le Sueur County saw its first lab-confirmed case of the virus on Sunday. According to a press release from local officials, the individual is in their 40s and is recovering at home with no work exposures having been identified.

Cindy Shaughnessy, director of Le Sueur County Public Health, said she wasn’t able to say at this time how the individual was exposed but that state health officials are currently investigating the case. She added that just because the cause isn’t immediately apparent doesn’t mean it’s necessarily community transmission.

“I don’t have that information but on daily briefing calls, the health department is saying that there is community transition going on,” said Shaughnessy.

On Saturday, the MDH also confirmed a third patient in nearby Nicollet County, identified by local health officials as a 26-year-old who was exposed to the virus by contact with a known COVID-19 case. The individual is recovering at home, as state officials work on identifying and following up with others who may have come in contact with the patient.

Because the newest case was transmitted through contact with someone who had previously tested positive, Nicollet County Health and Human Services Director Cassandra Sassenberg said in an email that the individual is not on the MDH’s community transmission list.

“The CDC defines community transmission as detection of confirmed cases of COVID-19 with no epidemiological link to travelers or known cases,” she noted.

Second confirmed in Rice County

Rice County Public Health was also notified by state officials on Monday of a second confirmed local case. The agency said in a press release that, based on limited information, the patient is in their 30s and has transmission linked to travel within the United States. The patient was not hospitalized and is currently isolated at home.

“If you have any upper respiratory symptoms — anything from body aches, fever, coughing, sore throat, headaches, those type of things — they’re saying that you should stay home for at least seven days and also for three days with no fever and improvement of those symptoms, whichever is longer,” said Caron, of new guidance from national and state health officials.

Before coming in to get tested, local health care providers are most often requiring patients to call ahead of time, in order to limit the risk of transmitting the virus to others. Caron noted that shortness of breath, to an extent that can no longer be managed at home, is one exception where individuals should seek care as quickly as possible.

For more information on ways to prevent the spread of COVID-19, visit www.health.state.mn.us or call the MDH hotline with questions any day from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. at 651-201-3920 or 1-800-657-3903.

Waiting to wed: Local venues work to reschedule as area couples postpone due to virus

Wedding venues in southern Minnesota say peak season for the ceremonies is nearing, often running from May through late autumn, but with the number of COVID-19 cases around the U.S. growing significantly, many engaged couples are seeking to reschedule celebrations for a few months down the road.

In doing so, local residents are citing concerns about the health of their families and the wrench that the virus has thrown in certain aspects of preparation for the big day.

Angela Watkins said she chose to move her Owatonna wedding from June 13 to mid-August because of concerns about family members who fall into the high-risk category for severe cases of COVID-19, which includes older adults and those with certain pre-existing medical conditions.

“We all think that it might die down by then,” Watkins said, of her new date later this summer. “I just kind of went with it, told the wedding party what was going on and informed my family of the change. They thought it was a good idea.”

She noted that she was still able to have the ceremony on a Saturday, as initially planned, and that one silver lining of the delay is that it gives her more time to prepare. Apart from health concerns, she noted that the business where she was supposed to have her dress fitting next month was also no longer able to accommodate in-person visits due to the virus.

Fellow southern Minnesota resident Spring Oeltjenbruns also decided to postpone the date of her wedding celebration, but was able to get legally married over the weekend with a small group of immediate family members present.

“We had our wedding, reception, venue and dance planned and paid for. Now all of this will be done on July 25 depending on the virus,” she noted in an email.

Getting a marriage license

With many county offices significantly restricting public access due to the virus, some have found ways for couples to still complete a marriage license application during the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to the Steele County Recorder’s Office, officials have a work-around for residents to complete the process online, although it involves mailing forms back and forth, making for somewhat of a longer process. The couple would also still need to sign the document in the presence of a notary.

In Nicollet County, public services manager Jaci Kopet noted that due to the nature of the process, for her agency they still must be done in-person, meaning it’s not possible to complete an application at this time.

“Those have to be done in-person because you take an oath and we need to see picture identification,” explained Kopet. “It’s something that we can’t do by mail, although you can go anywhere in the state. If you’re getting married in Nicollet County, it doesn’t mean that you have to get your license in Nicollet County.”

Kopet added that there does tend to be an increase in marriage license applications during the spring and summer and that, once given, they’re valid for six months for all marriages in Minnesota.

Prompted by bar closings

For her part, Oeltjenbruns said that the decision to reschedule was made soon after Gov. Tim Walz issued an executive order early last week temporarily closing down bars, restaurants and other collective entertainment venues.w

This decision was also the impetus for Karmen Barnes to start exploring new dates for her April 18 ceremony, which was set to be held in Las Vegas.

“We were actually pretty lucky, as everything was booked through the hotel that we were having the wedding at. It was just a call to the wedding planner, then we had to move flights which was on our own and contact our guests who had everything booked already as well,” said Barnes.

Letting guests know about the plan to reschedule was one of the hardest parts, she noted, but said that because of her own underlying health conditions the best decision was to reschedule. Now, Barnes is looking at dates next fall and hoping that she can still make a friend’s wedding in Scotland around the same time.

As with Barnes’ hotel in Las Vegas, Oeltjenbruns said the Monterey Ballroom in Owatonna was very flexible with her throughout the process of rescheduling. Around the area, event venues say the majority of clients who have decided not to get married in the coming months are rescheduling — not cancelling.

“If they reschedule, there’s no additional fee and we keep the deposit in place but if they cancel or something, under these conditions we would return their deposit to them,” said Joe Hoehn, owner of The Mill Event Center in Waseca.

Typically, he said his space will host one wedding per week, maybe two. With rescheduling, he said they may be looking at Friday weddings — as opposed to only Saturday ceremonies — and even mid-week celebrations.

Maybe on a Sunday?

With most standard wedding times booked for the foreseeable future, owner Jenny Ernster of The 3 Ten Event Venue in Faribault said couples are becoming more open to the idea of getting married on Sunday or on weekends when there are other big events happening in the area. She noted that The 3 Ten isn’t usually booked on the day of the Blue Collar BBQ & Arts Festival in Faribault, but this summer it is.

While it’s been beneficial to the venue that so far couples are rescheduling and not canceling, if the virus continues to spread and postponements run into the summer, Ernster said she worries that it will take away from new business next year by making many 2021 dates unavailable.

“We don’t know how long this is going to last, and we’re just hoping people are going to stick with us and reschedule,” she added. “Then, there are small business loans as this goes on, too, that we could try and apply for.”

At The Mill, Hoehn said there’s been just one wedding scheduled for April which is now pushed back to November, but noted that he’s started fielding a few inquiries from couples who have their nuptials booked for May.

Glenn Switzer, owner of The Gardens of Castle Rock near Farmington, said this time of year is primarily popular at his venue for tours — their busiest season is the fall.

“We’ve made some small changes on the number of guests, but we’re open for tours we just hold them to under six people,” said Switzer. “Our weddings don’t start up until May and we’re working with a few couples right now to be ready to move the sates.”

More flexibility for churches

Meanwhile, a number of area churches say they only have a small number, if any, marriage ceremonies planned in the next couple months.

“We do have some scheduled in June, so we’re not sure exactly what we’ll do, yet,” said Tess Miller, administrative assistant for St. Anne’s Catholic Church in Le Sueur. “We haven’t called it off on anything, but what it’s coming down to is you can’t have more than 10 people at a gathering.”

She estimated that the parish hosts fewer than 10 weddings per summer, which she said offers it somewhat more flexibility than nearby event spaces. While both common wedding locations having to adapt, couples who have had to reschedule are also trying to stay positive.

“Basically, for me, it’s not about the date that you’re getting married, it’s about that you’re going to be with that person, no matter what,” said Watkins. “It doesn’t matter what date I picked. I’m still gong to have a good day.”

Small businesses continue to tread water during COVID-19 pandemic

OWATONNA — During his Monday afternoon news brief, Gov. Tim Walz still wasn’t ready to implement a shelter-in-place order for Minnesota. While some people feel it is overdue, there is a specific demographic of people who were relived: the small business owners.

Small businesses are the lifeblood of their communities, and the past few weeks have been nothing short of stressful as businesses have slowly been limited or completely shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic. While many people believe it is simply a matter of when, not if, the governor issues a shelter-in-place order across the state, effectively shutting done all businesses that aren’t considered essential, small business owners and the organizations that support them are doing everything they can to be prepared.

“People are just making the best of maybe the most challenging situation an economy and a local business scene has ever faced,” said Ed Lee, the director of the St. Peter Area Chamber of Commerce, as he discussed the efforts being made in his community by local business owners. “They’re just remarkable in how they are adapting, looking for options and how they’re acting with patience and not panic.”

During in the last two weeks, the St. Peter Chamber, as well as other chambers throughout southern Minnesota, has begun compiling resources for businesses and the public. These resources — all online — provide a location for businesses to update any changes to their hours or services so that customers can continue to support them.

“We are trying to encourage that any shopping trips that can be done safely will utilize local resources,” explained Nort Johnson, the president of the Faribault Area Chamber of Commerce and Tourism. “These are unprecedented times in our generation.”

“So far we have seen a lot of positivity in our community,” added Brad Meier, the president and CEO of the Owatonna Area Chamber of Commerce and Tourism. “I think people just realize that this is going to be a difficult situation and are bracing for that as far as business is really slowing down.”

Because it is such uncharted territory, there is still much left to the unknown for chambers and businesses alike. Sarah Jystad, owner of D & S Banner Sign and Print in Kenyon and president of the Kenyon Area Business Association, stated that everyone is still processing how their new normal is going to look.

“It’s sort of a changing-as-we-go thing,” she explained. “We’re all just busy trying to figure out the ground rules.”

“I feel like the grounds if shifting under my feet every day,” Jystad continued. “I’m just trying to figure out what I’m supposed to do, and it’s hard to know what’s right.”

According to Jystad, several businesses in the Kenyon area have already closed, while many more are adjusting their hours or moving to curbside pickup and delivery only. Meanwhile, the association has reached out to all its members encouraging them to contact them if they need assistance or are looking for other resources to help during this pressing time.

On Friday, the U.S. Small Business Association, a federal program, announced that disaster loans are now available at a 3.75% interest rate for a period of up to 30 years. Meier explained that these loans will help assist in business owners paying ongoing debt, loans, payroll, payables, and other bills.

“We are encouraging businesses, even if they are just thinking about it, to get on there and apply,” Meier added. “It’s a very broad scope that these loans are under in order to help get businesses through the coronavirus situation.”

“These loans will make a different in whether or not a business will make it through this crisis,” Johnson said.

On Monday, Walz also signed an additional executive order that established peacetime emergency loans for small businesses. This will see a forgivable loan program developed to award grants to nonprofit corporations that in turn will fund forgivable loans to small businesses.

The minimum loan is $2,500, with a maximum of $35,000, and under the terms of the program can be roughly 50% forgiven if the DEED commissioner approves and the business remains operating in the community “at substantially the same levels for two years following loan disbursement.”

While loans for the small businesses are crucial, now more than ever is when the chambers are urging the community to shop local. Over the weekend, several initiatives throughout southern Minnesota began popping up on social media, asking shoppers to take photos of them supporting a local business and entering them into a contest for a gift card to their small business of choice. Such initiatives have been seen in New Ulm, in Owatonna through the Vote Yes for OHS committee, and recently now in St. Peter on the chamber’s Facebook page.

“It’s a great idea and a nice way to get some energy around shopping local,” Meier said about the social media initiatives and contests.

“As long as restaurants are open, please keep supporting them in that way,” Lee said, adding that over the weekend he went out to visit area restaurants and was able to see the faces behind those still trying to serve their communities. “And please keep looking for online gift cards.”

“Don’t forget about us,” Jystad pled.

Despite the hard times that small businesses are currently facing, it is without surprise that many are still going out of their way to support their communities. In Kenyon, the food truck and Kenyon Bar and Grill have been busy serving meals to students while schools are closed. In Owatonna, two manufacturing companies donated N95 masks to the Owatonna Hospital and Mayo Clinic.

“It’s just what our business community here does,” Meier said about the donation of 200 N95 masks from Cybex and 300 N95 masks from Black Forest. “I have a feeling that we’re going to hear a lot more of these stories.”

Dr. Brian Bunkers with the Mayo Clinic accepted the donation of the N95 masks from Black Forest on Monday morning, stating that it is almost guaranteed that such donations will save lives.

“It’s important that we all understand that this is a temporary condition,” Johnson said about the importance of sticking together, both as businesses and a community. “It will have some unwelcomed outcomes, and the challenge to rebound and recover will be greater for some individuals and businesses than others. But as we work our way through it, we need to be mindful of shopping local, supporting local, and making good decisions as a group to make sure we have every effort to recover completely.”