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Locals react to governor's new COVID restrictions: worry, acceptance
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Amid a wave in new COVID infections across the state, Gov. Tim Walz on Tuesday announced new restrictions on bars, restaurants and other businesses.

Set to go into effect Friday, the changes most prominently includes a 10 p.m. curfew for in-person service at restaurants and bars. In addition, bar seating and counter service will be prohibited; standing games like pool and darts will be limited. In addition to those restrictions, larger group gatherings will be strictly limited over the next few weeks. Beginning Nov. 27, wedding receptions and other events will be capped at 50 people, which will be further reduced to 25 by Dec. 11.

“I feel like the guy in Footloose — no dancing, no fun,” the governor quipped, referring to a classic 1980s movie. “That is not my intention. My intention is to keep you safe so you can all dance a lot longer and our neighbors don’t get put at risk.”

Local businesses and chamber directors expressed concern over the restrictions and relief that they would be somewhat limited. Owatonna Area Chamber of Commerce and Tourism President Brad Meier noted that this is a crucial time of the year for many restaurants and urged area residents to support them.

“Our businesses are really working hard at creating a safe environment,” Meier said. “Even though restrictions are tightening, it doesn’t mean you can’t go to (local businesses).”

Meier’s counterpart at the Faribault Chamber, Nort Johnson, noted that across the state nearly 200 businesses have been investigated for suspected patron transmission of COVID and 117 have met the outbreak threshold and had their names publicly released. None of the 117 restaurants are located in Faribault, Owatonna or Northfield. Johnson said that’s a testament to the efforts of local businesses to keep patrons safe but added that even those restaurants named in reports are trying their hardest.

“Sometimes even the best efforts can fall on deaf ears with some patrons,” he said. “It’s a really hard time for restaurants and bars that are trying to make some sort of a comeback after a difficult year.”

Don Clayton of Basher’s Sports Bar and Grill in Faribault said that the effect of restrictions on his business are likely to be minimal. Clayton said that Basher’s has already had limited seating and is typically very quiet by 10 p.m.

“I’m fortunate that that’s all (the governor) decided to do and didn’t decide to do something more drastic,” he said.

Targeting the young

Walz says he’s implementing the restrictions with a particular eye to reducing the rate of infection among 18- to 34-year olds. Minnesotans in that age bracket have seen skyrocketing rates of infection and many pass it onto others while remaining asymptomatic.

As the numbers of cases have risen, the amount of available critical care beds throughout the state has plummeted. According to the governor’s numbers, 97% of critical care beds in the metro and 91% in southeast Minnesota are in use. The biggest driver of the skyrocketing rate of infection has been social events. According to the state, more than 70% of COVID outbreaks over the last several months can be traced back to private social gatherings, weddings or late nights at bars.

In his Tuesday afternoon press conference, the governor expressed frustration that with the rising number of cases, but warned that lax COVID restrictions have led to massive outbreaks in Minnesota’s neighboring states. Should the state let down its guard, he warned that a similar spike is likely to occur.

“If we want to get back to the things we love, we need to take some control over this (virus) and do what we can to contain the spread,” he said.

Walz said he feels for the state’s hospitality businesses, who have had to bear the brunt of the harshest restrictions throughout the pandemic. Still, he said that his approach has been guided by the science, and as deeply unfortunate it is, it’s hospitality businesses that have been most at risk.

While the bar curfew may be unprecedented, Walz said that state data shows it’s particularly important. According to the Governor, the transmission risk more than doubles after 9 p.m., as people become increasingly inebriated and let their guard down.

“This isn’t happening because (hospitality businesses) have been lax, but because this is where there’s the most spread,” he said.

Rice County Public Health Director Deb Purfeerst says the governor’s restrictions make sense. She noted that with cases rising dramatically across the state, the time to “dial back” the state’s opening has come.

“We know that community spread is at an all-time high right now,” she said. “We need to make sure we are protecting vulnerable populations.”

The governor has also declared his intention to extend his Peacetime State of Emergency Declaration for another 30 days and has called another special session, as required by the Minnesota Constitution, to give lawmakers a chance to block it.

‘Not going to let this bring me down’

Roger Warheim of Owatonna’s Foremost Brewing Co., expected to open later this month, said that the governor’s restrictions haven’t altered his bar’s plans significantly. According to Warheim, the only significant change is that the business will have to close at 10 instead of 11 as originally planned.

“As far as counter seating is concerned, we were planning on not having people at the bar,” he said. “When people imbibe while they’re facing the bartender, we know that can be a risky situation.”

Jeff LeBeau, longtime owner of Faribault’s Depot Bar and Grill, expressed frustration with the governor’s actions. LeBeau said he takes COVID deeply seriously, but feels singled out by the restrictions aimed mainly at bar and restaurant owners.

To keep his patrons safe, LeBeau said that he does everything to spread patrons out and bar riskier activities like dancing. Despite the challenges, he vowed that the Depot would survive COVID and continue to operate long into the future.

“I’m not going to let this bring me down,” he said. “We’ll do what we need to do.”

Scott Boldt of Faribault’s Boldt Funeral Home said that the pandemic has been particularly hard for many families, and especially crushing for those who have lost a loved one to COVID and have not been able to see them in their final moments.

“It’s so sad when an individual cannot be with a person that’s dying due to COVID,” he said. “It makes their stress and grief even harder.”

Boldt noted that Walz’s new restrictions will only apply to funeral receptions, not the funeral itself. That makes it more limited than previous restrictions implemented by the governor while still providing additional safety and peace of mind.

Architects release design updates for new Owatonna High School
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The public got a closer look inside the future Owatonna High School building on Monday night. It’s been about a year since the $104 million bond referendum passed effectively approving the new building.

Wold Architects and Engineers presented building designs at Monday night’s Owatonna School Board work session. The presentation included information about the core planning group, the design process as well as several renderings of the building’s rooms, exterior and floor plans.

No formal action on the topic was taken during the work session. The next step is construction drawing where final details will start to take form. Superintendent Jeff Elstad hopes project bids will go out in January, with the goal of breaking ground in March or April.

“I’m just so proud of the work that has gone into the planning and work that’s gone into it by our staff and community members and their dedication to this project because when you start with a blank slate and then you’re able to create something based off of what you think is important to our community, I think that’s amazing,” Elstad said.

The building is slated to open in August 2023.

Shortly after the referendum passed, a Core Planning Group of parents, community members, staff, students and local stakeholders was developed. Elstad says the group has put in hundreds of hours, while maintaining a students-first priority when developing the design. Meeting nearly every two weeks, the group was tasked with coming up with project commitments and design criteria. They also toured other high schools to see the designs of other 21st century schools. Further subcommittees were created for more specialized areas like the performing arts and music, and physical education and athletics.

With the developed commitments and criteria, Paul Aplikowski, a partner at Wold, designed the general concept based on ideas developed from the core group.

“We really believe that a high school’s a signature piece in any town or any community and so we really invested a lot in trying to understand your area and what would make a building unique to your school district and your city,” Aplikowski told the board.

Aplikowski said they drew inspiration from elements of the city for the various spaces within the building. For instance, the main commons, which will also house the cafeteria, is inspired by downtown Owatonna and the river. Other areas of inspiration came from the city’s residential, commercial, recreational and agricultural areas.

“Really the whole floor plan is driven around trying to get as much of the academic area to surround that commons, as the heart of the city or the heart of the school,” Aplikowski said of the three-story building.

Clear themes during Monday’s meeting were creating learning spaces that were flexible, visible and fostered 21st century learning. Learning communities will feature operable walls to facilitate collaboration, while other classrooms will be open without walls. Individual classrooms will allow for flexibility in their set up.

“Each one of these communities is a certain set of teachers and students working together. We are really trying to create more of a sense of home, more of a collaborative environment,” Aplikowski said.

More information about the new high school can be found by visiting isd761.org/our-district/new-high-school.

Owatonna schools considering distance learning week
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Owatonna students may be spending some extra time away from school buildings following Thanksgiving break as a preemptive way to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

The Owatonna School Board is expected to vote on a targeted distance learning week during its special meeting at 7 a.m. Friday. Superintendent Jeff Elstad proposed the district-wide distance learning week, from Nov. 30 to Dec. 4, to maintain learning while preventing a potential outbreak when students return from Thanksgiving break.

Elstad said he has been working on the proposal with Steele County Public Health Director Amy Caron for a couple of weeks. The intention is to return in the current learning model on Dec. 7 if the data supports it.

“The reason why we are pushing this is because what we know about the science of how people are contracting COVID and when symptoms show up, typically anywhere between three to seven days after they’ve come in contact with someone that’s positive they would start to show symptoms,” Elstad said.

The hope is that people will show COVID-19 symptoms or get tested if they believe they’ve been exposed before reentering school buildings. If someone were to come into contact with a positive case during a Thanksgiving gathering, the extra week would provide a buffer period to allow people to get tested, look for symptoms and to start quarantining.

“Usually we tell people if they’re a close contact to test between five to seven days after exposure, so that kind of meets that criteria,” Caron said. “Then you have that two- to 14-day window where you are most likely to become positive or have the symptoms.”

Caron praised the target distance learning week strategy.

Other Steele County schools are discussing a targeted distance learning week with their school boards as part of a county-wide effort, Elstad said. Additionally, Elstad has met with some of the community’s largest employers, whom he said are in full support of the distance learning week initiative. Elstad said they asked for flexibility from the employers, especially for families with kindergarten through fifth-grade students who will need additional care from their parents while distance learning.

“The employers have stated that they are going to provide the flexibility needed for parents to do that so we can accomplish this as a community-wide effort,” he said.

While the planned distance learning week will be decided this Friday, numbers across the state continue to rise and there is still a chance the district may need to move to distance learning before Thanksgiving break. The school board will also decide on Friday if school activities will be allowed during distance learning days and if there will be adjustments made to the activities provided.

“We have a number of contingencies to consider,” Elstad said.

School and local health officials will continue to monitor the COVID-19 data.

Many schools regionally are looking at their learning model choices. The Northfield school district will be exclusively distance learning starting next week. 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 will switch to distance learning starting Nov. 18 until at least Jan. 15.

The Faribault School Board planned to meet Tuesday night to discuss its learning model going forward. The St. Peter School Board was also meeting Tuesday night to decide whether to switch its learning model. The Waseca and Janesville-Waldorf-Pemberton school districts haven’t announced any changes to their learning model as of yet.