Armed with only face masks and signs, hundreds of protesters joined together in and around Minnesota Square Park in St. Peter Thursday, calling for “Justice for George Floyd.”
“What I wanted is to keep the emphasis on George Floyd,” said Bukata Hayes, executive director of the Greater Mankato Diversity Council, which covers Blue Earth, Nicollet and Region Nine counties. “I think his life was unnecessarily taken. It’s times like these, where we have to take an accounting, look around, move forward together and clearly address what happened. So this was our part to support a community that is mourning, that is hurt and looking for assistance in finding a way forward.”
The part vigil, part protest, organized by Indivisible St. Peter/Greater Mankato, paid tribute to a man who died in an officer-involved incident currently under investigation in the Twin Cities. The incident, which was recorded on video and showed an officer kneeling on Floyd’s throat, while he exclaimed ‘I can’t breathe,’ has been widely shared across the globe and has led to massive protesting, both peaceful and non-peaceful, around the metro.
Thursday night into early Friday, several fires raged in south Minneapolis and in St. Paul’s Midway area where University Avenue businesses had been sacked earlier in the day. Just after 10 p.m., protesters overran the Minneapolis 3rd Precinct station — one of the epicenters of conflict the night before — after officers withdrew.
The protests in St. Peter were much more controlled, as the group held up signs, attempting to spread awareness and ask for support to causes like Black Lives Matter.
“We wanted this protest to be a reflection of what we feel Minnesota is and can be,” said Indivisible’s Misti Nicole Harper. “Like everybody, we were horrified, grief-stricken when George Floyd was murdered. We couldn’t sit back and feel like this didn’t happen. Even though we’re in St. Peter and Mankato, we needed to make a public display to show that we are watching.”
She added, “It’s about making sure we’re working together to create a more equitable and just Minnesota for all of us to live in. We’re not going to sit by and be passive about this; we’re going to hold everyone accountable, starting with ourselves … We’re doing what we can to make this place better for marginal folks.”
Participants were asked to maintain strict social distancing at 10 feet and to wear masks.
“Because of the volume of people that showed up, we did have to ask people to spread out a bit,” Harper said. “People were generally very compliant, and I didn’t see anybody not wearing a mask. Everyone was doing their best to socially distance and stay physically safe.”
Speakers at the event included Hayes; Maurice Staley, acting president of the organizing chapter of the NAACP Mankato; John Harper, admissions counselor, South Central College (North Mankato); Yurie Hong, co-founder and team leader of Indivisible St. Peter/Greater Mankato.
“We loved it,” Hayes said of the event. “We thought it was a great turnout. We thought it was wonderful that people were courageous enough to be out there, to hold signs, to connect. I was happy. I thought that the turnout was a great sign for us moving forward and how we do that together.”
The organizers said that while these issues can seem far away for everyone in greater Minnesota, they’re just as relevant here as anywhere else.
“I think, one, on a human level, to see what happened and to simply care about each other, I think, is important. If we can see suffering and we can see death and not be impacted, I think we lose,” Hayes said. “The other piece is that we are one state, and we are impacted by how the metro area operates. We have folks who are up in the cities to work daily; we have folks from the cities who come down to our area on weekends. We are one state. So to show solidarity with a state in mourning was important.”
Hayes was glad that the protest in St. Peter could be a peaceful one.
“For me, personally, but also as a council, we believe in peaceful protest,” he said. “We know folks are hurt and angry. We don’t believe hurt people then hurt other people. We would see peaceful protests; we would see working to find accountability; we would see working to create more just communities.”
Restaurants are finally feeling like restaurants again. The beginning of June was the first day in two months when Minnesotans could sit down at an establishment for a bite to eat and local restaurateurs are thrilled to be open.
“It’s so nice to put food on a plate again,” said Marty Bennet, the manager of 3rd Street Tavern.
3rd Street Tavern in St. Peter is one of many local bars and restaurants that have incorporated outdoor dining into their service model upon loosening COVID-19-related restrictions. A recent order from Gov. Tim Walz allowed restaurants to host limited dining services on an outdoor patio or cafe.
While the order expands dining possibilities, it also comes with numerous restrictions. No more than 50 patrons may be seated on the patio and tables must be six feet apart. Customers are limited to four per table — six if they’re family — and must make reservations ahead of time. Restaurant staff are required to wear face masks, and customers are encouraged, but not required, to do so when possible.
Starting Wednesday, June 10, indoor service is also acceptable. Restrictions include 6 feet of distance between groups, and 50% capacity or less, not to exceed 250 individuals for indoor or outdoor settings respectively. Reservations will still be required, and masks are required for workers and strongly recommended for customers.
3rd Street Tavern continues to provide curbside pickup and delivery, but incorporating outdoor dining was a simple task, because the bar already had a patio available for space. In addition to state regulations, the tavern has taken extra precautions — providing disposable utensils, menus and disinfectant wipes to customers who want them. Hand sanitizing stations will be available at multiple locations and staff will wear gloves in addition to masks.
Bennet has already reported a busy lunch at 3rd Street and believes that opening up the patio has driven up customer demand compared to when the bar operated on a complete curbside and delivery model.
“People are ready to get out of their house,” said Bennet. “People are excited to be outside with friends getting ready to eat. I had one customer comment ‘I’m glad to have food and for it to not be fast food and to not have to cook it myself.’”
At Chankaska Creek Ranch and Winery in Kasota, opening the patio was an exciting experience for General Manager Jane Schwickert. The winery was not providing any dining services during the stay-at-home order, relying on off-sale wine and gift baskets. Now, the patio is open for brick-oven pizza and drinks and Schwickert said that her nights have been completely booked.
“Today felt like opening for the first time,” said Schwickert. “A lot of excitement from all of us and it felt like a grand opening. We certainly would like to be able to welcome more people, but right now its baby steps and we’re just thrilled to finally be open.”
Chankaska Creek has taken a number of precautions for dining services including providing disposable service wear and hand sanitizer stations. Tables and chairs are disinfected between use, employees are screened before each shift and staff have been trained in proper handwashing techniques.
While the outdoor patio has allowed the winery to expand its services, Chankaska Creek is not at full capacity due to the 50 seat limit. The winery is also not offering wine tastings. Schwickert considered this time to be a transition phase and as restrictions loosen, the winery will be able to serve more customers and bring back its furloughed staff.
“It’s a different process for us,” said Schwickert. “We normally don’t take reservations but so far it seems to be going well hopefully customers will adapt.”
The reservation requirement has also been a challenge for Mac’s Green Mill Bar in Le Sueur. The establishment is more bar than restaurant and does not have a full kitchen and while reservations may come naturally to eateries, it’s a new experience at a bar where people hang around for extended periods of time.
“We’re going to learn as we go,” said Mark McMillen, also known as “Mac,” the head of Green Mill. “I expect the first day or two to be busy and I don’t know what to expect beyond that. It’s an extremely difficult concept to grasp in our position not being a full restaurant. A bar is not typically something you would call to make a reservation for. How do you tell people how long they can stay and the next people when they can come in? How do you measure the length of time you make reservations for? There’s a lot of untested challenges we are going to face and will have to learn on the fly.”
McMillen said he was “optimistically reserved,” about opening up the patio. While the change allows the Green Mill to host customers once again, the guidelines and restrictions on service means there are more expenses for the bar and it won’t be able to serve more than the 50 customer limit.
While the Green Mill has faced challenges, the business has also received support from the community. McMillen was grateful that the city of Le Sueur worked with the bar to open up patio space into the street. He was also thankful for the customers that have continued to support the bar.
“I want to thank the community for the support they’ve given us over the last 90 days or so,” said McMillen. “Every little bit has helped.”
Staff at Oak Terrace Assisted Living in North Mankato couldn’t tell you when the coronavirus first entered the facility. But they’ve watched as the disease it causes, COVID-19, has raced through staff and clients, leading to health scares for many and death for some.
“There has been a lot of emotion,” said administrator Drew Hood. “People go into the health care, because they want to help people and they also want to bring joy to people. It’s really hard for caring people to see the residents they love decline and be afflicted by this virus.”
The leadership team and staff have worked tirelessly to institute safety measures, to take precautions, to protect themselves and clients, at the facility. Their efforts may very well have saved lives, but these weeks have been painful. In a May 27 joint release with Nicollet County, the facility reported seven residents and 20 staff members at Oak Terrace in North Mankato had tested positive for COVID-19. Hood did not want to say the number of residents who have died from COVID-19 complications, due to privacy reasons, but it’s more than one.
Since March, Oak Terrace has restricted visitors, encouraged staff who showed symptoms to stay home, restricted/eliminated congregate dining and isolated residents who were symptomatic to prevent further spread of the virus. The facility has also reached out to residents’ families to make sure they had up to date information about their loved ones and the care they’ve been receiving.
“As of my knowledge (coming from a webinar I was on with Care Provider of MN) we are only one of 37 communities in the state to do testing of all residents as well as doing mass testing of staff,” Hood said.
But the virus managed to find its way inside, and staff suddenly found itself in a near impossible fight, trying to stop an invisible threat from impacting those most vulnerable to it. And worse, caretakers were left in a predicament of needing to do their job while fearing that their work could contribute to spreading the virus without even realizing it.
“What have we found by this testing? We have found asymptomatic residents and staff,” Hood said. “We have had both residents and staff report, ‘I feel fine; I can’t believe that I am positive.’ This is why this pandemic is so difficult — it can be spread by those who do not know they have it. This pandemic is a difficult time for all, and the residents we serve are at highest risk.”
The virus has made an unfair example of Oak Terrace Assisted Living. It’s presence in the North Mankato facility has been a model for how the virus can spread without damage among many, and yet be so dangerous to the vulnerable.
“The story of Oak Terrace and COVID-19 has many storylines,” Hood said. “It is a story of a virus that is affecting the world. It is a personal story of individuals being away from family and friends. It is a story of staff who come to work every day to care for the elders in our society. And I could go on.”
Nicollet County, as a whole, had 87 confirmed cases of COVID-19 as of the June 2 Minnesota Department of Health report. That case count is minor compared to some counties in the south central region, including Rice County, which is approaching 500 confirmed. And yet, Nicollet County has 10 deaths related to the disease, more than any other south central county. All 10 deaths were to residents in their 80s or 90s.
Cassandra Sassenberg, director of Nicollet County Health and Human Services, noted that coronavirus in its ability to spread without warning.
“Unlike influenza, there is no prophylactic treatment for COVID-19,” she said. “It is transmitted very efficiently and remains invisible for days before symptoms appear. Older adults are the most at-risk to experience severe symptoms from this virus. Because there are no therapies or approved treatments for COVID-19, many health care facilities will continue to see a rise in cases, despite infection control measures and preventive action. We continue to urge residents to take necessary precautions to slow transmission, like the use of cloth masks, social distancing, and following recommendations as they are updated by the Minnesota Department of Health.”
The virus spreads anywhere and everywhere, but it’s only some who will be impacted in the worst way.
“One of the thing is that makes this virus so dangerous is that is causes mild symptoms in so many but such severe symptoms in those most vulnerable,” Hood said.
He believes it’s imperative for all residents to do what they can to not contribute to the spread of the virus and to take the simplest of precautions.
“We owe it as part of a civilized society to help protect the most vulnerable,” he said. “The other thing is that, at some point, normal life is going to return, and they’re likely to open up the economy before there is a vaccine. We’re going to need to do the simple things, like wearing face masks, using hand hygiene, and being aware of our own symptoms, so we don’t spread the virus.”
Hood said he’s choosing to be up front and transparent about the virus’s impact on the facility, because he and his team believe they have nothing to hide, and by speaking up, perhaps they can help save lives: “When individuals understand what’s going on, maybe it will help people understand how dangerous this is to the elderly and might encourage people to do what they can to not spread the virus.”