At the Federated Insurance building on the south end of town Sunday, Owatonna High School staff and students addressed hundreds of cars from a stage at the front of the parking lot.
Their words were then broadcast over an audio system and through car radios for fellow graduates and families, listening in from their vehicles. Despite a blustery day, warming as the afternoon wore on, the ceremony started promptly at 2 p.m. and — at least from the stage — went off without a visible hitch.
Cars were stretched out in stalls as far as the eye could see, and due to the heat, most with windows up listening from the stereo. Horns were honked for the student speakers and again as Assistant Principals Hollie Jeska and Philip Wiken read the names of the 337 graduates. Some cars were decked out with window paint and balloons, one student even arrived via limousine.
The ceremony’s three student speakers — Joseph Brueggemeier, Hamdia Idow and Elise Sande — were positioned in chairs just off to the side of the stage, while district administrators, staff and school board members were seated atop in full regalia. Earlier in the day, select high school staff had also been on hand in their robes at the Foundation building on the Steele County Fairgrounds.
From 9 a.m. to noon, seniors were able to drive through the building in their cars, stop at one of four photo set-ups and get their picture taken with their diploma cover. Honored teachers, selected in part by the student body, presented the diploma covers and congratulated students ahead of the photo shoot.
“The students selected the teachers that were going to represent them at the commencement ceremony,” said Owatonna High School Principal Kory Kath. “They had a vote where they nominated teachers that they wanted to see, then we pulled the ones that had the most nominations and we tried to target our retiring teachers as well.”
Cars came through the building in two side-by-side lines, pulling in two at a time through either doorway to a near and far photo set-up. Students hopped out in their cap and gown when the car was in place, posed against a professional backdrop, then got right back in and drove away to prepare for the afternoon component.
At the end of the day on Sunday, after it was finally dark enough outside on one of the longest days of the year, the school lit up its exterior for 20 minutes starting at 9:30 p.m. — making an end to what, due to the need for social distancing, had evolved from a short ceremony to a day of celebration.
It was a long two-and-a-half months for restaurants and bars that could resort only to curbside pickup and delivery for revenue during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. When the state of Minnesota first loosened up the reigns on restrictions, allowing restaurants to open up their patios at 25% on June 1, the sigh of relief was audible.
“We were not a little worried – we were a lot worried,” said Jose Herrara, the owner of Plaza Morena Campestre Grill in Owatonna. “We were very worried because we couldn’t survive for too long. We’ve been losing money this whole time, but we are fighting to survive.”
Herrara’s delighted that it was able to serve customers on the split patio at Plaza last week. It gives him hope that the eatery will make it to the other side of COVID-19, though spacing requirements are challenging and limit the restaurant to roughly 20 diners at a time.
“If people aren’t in an out in a half hour, that provides an obstacle, too,” Herrara said, adding that table turnover has never been more important in the restaurant industry. “We also have had to hire on a lot more people because we still have takeout orders, so our payroll is going up and we’re still losing money.”
Last week, Herrara said that even if he could open the inside of the restaurant at just 25% that it would make the world of difference, allowing him to seat an additional 50 people. On Friday, Gov. Tim Walz announced that restaurants and bars would be allowed to open their indoor dining at 50% capacity Wednesday, giving Herrara additional reason to hope.
Tonya Dunn, the general manager at Depot Bar and Grill in Faribault, was shocked that the indoor dining was opening so early, adding that she expected it to still take a month or more for that to happen.
“It really gave us hope,” Dunn said. “We have been putting in a lot of work to get ready, but now that we know we can open on Wednesday it was all definitely worth it.”
When patios were first allowed to open, Dunn said they instantly erected a tent in the south end of the parking lot to allow for even more tables. She said it worked, keeping the restaurant busy with excited customers every day.
“I think people were just really excited to get out again, so it’s been really good,” Dunn said. “I’ve been feeling very fortunate and that we lucked out because we definitely have the largest and best patio in town, we were really lucky in that way.”
Though the indoor dining is being largely viewed as a promising step towards survival for most restaurants that have made it this far, Dunn said she is still concerned about when the state will allow those in the hospitality business to operate at full capacity again.
“As long as we can open at 100% indoors come fall we will be OK,” Dunn said. “We are very fortunate to have the patio, because if we didn’t have that space we would not survive. So I’m hoping that by fall we’ll be able to open at 100%, otherwise a lot of people in the business will not make it.”
While Herrera also hopes for a full opening sooner rather than later, he said right now he and his staff are focused on making sure that their customers are leaving satisfied – no matter where they sit.
“I just want to make sure people are happy,” Herrara said. “We have had great and strong support from people in our community, and because of them we will keep fighting to make it work.”
Though originally planned as a protest, the modest number of people who gathered outside the Law Enforcement Center in Owatonna on Saturday simply wanted one thing: healthy conversation. With no more than 30 people in attendance at any given time, members of the public had the opportunity to converse with Owatonna city officials and police officers.
“I think it was quite prevalent that our community members want to be relevant and viewed as significant,” said Owatonna Chief of Police Keith Hiller, who was one of the officers that initiated and engaged in conversation with participants Saturday. “What they really want is for people to listen, and not just law enforcement but other people within the community – they want them to hear their voices.”
The event was originally promoted as a protest to call for reform of police departments and government following the death of George Floyd, a black man who died May 25 while in custody of the Minneapolis Police Department. It was the second protest organized by 16-year-old Percy Mayer, of Owatonna. The first occurred May 31 and lasted 10 hours, ending with Owatonna officers kneeling with a predominately young crowd of demonstrators.
Following a meeting between Mayer, Hiller, and a handful of others, the protest that originally stated no children under the age of 15 were allowed switched gears to an open dialogue event. Though the organizers still requested that no children be in attendance, Hiller said he felt the youth were missing from the conversation over the weekend.
“I think it would have been an amazing opportunity to hear from them,” Hiller said, believing the request for kids not to be in attendance due to risk of violence may have scared some parents and teenagers. “The youth have a much better sense of how they want to communicate with their city leaders, and we need to listen to them.”
Shane Johnson, a black man who has lived in Owatonna for two years, agreed with Hiller that the city’s youth need to be a part of the solution. He said that as a former resident of Minneapolis that he couldn’t be prouder of the way law enforcement conduct themselves locally when dealing with people of all races, creeds and religions.
“The climate here is great and the police here make me proud, they talk to you like you’re an individual, they aren’t quick to draw their weapons, and if they can they will just talk to you and send you on your way,” Johnson said. “If our kids get to know the cops here, they’ll see that they have hearts.”
Though Johnson said he wishes the Owatonna police officers would have immediately come forward with a statement denouncing Floyd’s death, he believes kneeling with the demonstrators during the first protest was genuine. He said that the comments from the community that the kneeling was “all for show” was an inappropriate personal attack on a police department that had nothing to do with what is happening in the larger metro areas of the country.
“It should be automatic to do something that shows that you don’t believe in what happened,” Johnson said. “But to say it wasn’t sincere, that’s not right. That hurts.”
When Johnson and his wife first showed up to the Law Enforcement Center on Saturday, they were immediately greeted by Mayor Tom Kuntz who introduced himself to the couple and instantly asked them what their major concerns are for the community and what he could do to help move the city forward.
“He came straight up to us and that was just great,” Johnson said. “I explained to him that what we have to do is get more black people to apply for these positions, to get blacks on the police force. We need to fix this from the inside, and I think Owatonna is the place to show everyone else how it’s done.”
Kuntz said he felt the day was extremely productive and appreciated people like Johnson being so open with him. He added that he is looking forward to finding a way to take the conversations that took place on Saturday and looking to see how Owatonna as an entire community can do better.
“I’m very proud of Owatonna, of our citizens and of our Police Department,” Kuntz said. “This is why we stand out as a shining spot in southern Minnesota.”
With COVID-19 still a threat, Kuntz said they are still trying to find a way to safely hold open community forums while protecting public health. He anticipates that has the COVID-19 pandemic continues to slow and be less of a risk that more things will start to fall in place. Hiller also said he is looking forward to the conversations continuing, saying that he will strive to find a way to make them more geared toward the city’s younger population.
“An adult might not think a game of kickball or bean bags is going to result in some magic, but the magic lays in the police officials and youth getting together and having a normal conversation about what is going on in the community and how each party is feeling,” Hiller said. “Whatever the youth feels comfortable with we are willing to give it a try.”