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COVID-19 restrictions put some local bars in dire straits

Like many establishments, the Blue Moon Bar and Grill has relied upon an in-house atmosphere with live music and entertainment, sports, billiards and more to invite customers in for a drink. But all that came to an abrupt end for the Kasota establishment when the COVID-19 pandemic forced bars and restaurants to shutter last month. Once a hot spot for evening entertainment, Blue Moon Owner Bret Haslit reported that if he were less financially secure, he wouldn’t be able to keep it open.

“If I relied on this place to support me and my employees we would have closed down a long time ago,” said Haslip. “It is currently costing me about $3,000 a month or more.”

Since closing its doors, Blue Moon has offered its menu of burgers, wraps, sandwiches and pizzas for just three hours of takeout, 5-8 p.m. daily. Staff spend the rest of their time cleaning and remodeling the bar for its deeply anticipated reopening. With the bar making just 20-30% of its regular revenues, that’s all the Blue Moon can afford to do.

Adding to the woes of slow business, alcohol sales for Blue Moon are pretty much non-existent. While the bar is legally allowed to service customers with carryout beer and wine, Haslip said that it’s a poor income source when liquor stores can perform the same service at a cheaper price.

“I don’t know why they would buy a six-pack of beer from me for six times what they would get buying from the liquor store,” said Haslip.

While the business has been poor, Haslip said that Blue Moon will be able to weather through the pandemic. The owner has supported the bar with money he had earned from selling rental properties.

But others are starting to worry about their businesses’ survival. Mark McMillen, also known as “Mac,” the head of Mac’s Green Mill in Le Sueur, was uncertain about how long the bar could endure.

Carson Hughes / By CARSON HUGHES chughes@lesueurcountynews.com 

The COVID-19 shutdown has dug into the revenues of many local bars including Mac’s Green Mill. With liquor stores handling much of the demand for alcohol, bars have had to increasingly rely on food, sales haven’t been enough to make up for losses. (Carson Hughes/Le SUeur County News)

“It’s destroying our business,” said McMillen. “I’m really not sure how long we’ll survive.”

While other bars and restaurants have had to rely on their food service, Mac’s Green Mill doesn’t even have a full kitchen.

“Business has basically been non-existent,” said McMillen. “We do not have the facility set up to provide large amounts of food. We do not have a kitchen per se. So everything we do has to be done under special event permits.”

Mac’s Green Mill has been kept afloat through large, but infrequent events — a meat raffle, fish dinner and pork chop dinner cooked up with smokers. While the events have been a success, they also require a lot of work from volunteers.

“When we do special events, we get great participation and sell an average of 135-150 meals,” said McMillen. “But I only feel comfortable doing it so often, because it requires a bunch of friends to volunteer their time and come in and help volunteer during their Saturdays and what not. I feel guilty asking them to do that.”

Food sales have made up a big difference for establishments like Blaschko’s Embassy Bar and Grill in St. Peter. The bar has maintained decent food sales with daily specials, including burritos, steak and shrimp, wings and sloppy Joes which are available for take-out only.

“It helps to be in a small town where people know that we’re known for our food,” said bartender Kristi Klinger, who’s worked at Blaschko’s for six years. “We’ve had pretty decent lunches and suppers … We’ve been working with local businesses, too, to deliver food for orders from bigger companies. So we’re trying to work with all the people in our local areas to continue providing food we enjoy serving.”

“I think every bar is suffering by not having in-person sales of drinks and things like that, but luckily the Embassy is still serving off-sale,” she added.

The Embassy, like many local bars, is waiting to reopen, but that could take longer than some had hoped. On Thursday, Gov. Walz extended the Minnesota stay-at-home order to May 18. The order requires dine-in service at bars and restaurants to remain closed during this time.

Kasota’s Haslip wanted to see bars and restaurants reopened as soon as possible to prevent others from having to shut down.

“We need to open up,” said Haslip. “There is going to be a lot of places that will currently probably not reopen, and the longer we are closed, the more places that are going to fold.”

spotlight centerpiece
District plans virtual graduation; community members plan parade, fireworks

Options are limited for the St. Peter School District when it comes to the 2020 graduation ceremony. While administrative leaders have conjured up some creative, but still safe, ways to celebrate this year’s graduating class, an in-person ceremony is pretty much out of the question. The opportunity for students to celebrate the occasion together is low, amidst the coronavirus pandemic.

In a message to district parents and students, school leaders announced a May 29 virtual graduation ceremony will be available online. The time will be announced closer to graduation day. The district has hired a filmmaker to shoot and edit a graduation ceremony as well as the senior awards night.

Graduates will be scheduled for specific times to come to the high school in their cap and gown to have their name read, walk across the stage, receive their diploma, class flower, and take pictures with their parents or guardians. Every graduate will be able to be accompanied by up to four adults of their choice with two participating and two observing. Filming will take place next May 13 and 14.

“Should guidelines for gatherings change prior to May 29th, we will be ready to pivot and develop a new plan for a more traditional graduation ceremony,” Principal Annette Engeldinger said in the announcement.

On a brighter note for senior students, prom has been tentatively rescheduled for July 18, provided the rules and regulations for size of gatherings change by then. The annual All Night Graduation Party is a no go, though, and instead, graduating seniors will each receive $20 in cash.

Community celebration

To make up for this year’s loss, some community members are actively pursuing a social distancing celebration for the senior class, complete with a parade and fireworks.

At the May 4 virtual School Board meeting, Emily Soderlund, mom to St. Peter High School seniors Emma and Kayla Soderlund, shared details of the hopeful festivities, tentatively planned for the end of May. She noted that the planners are receiving guidance and, she hopes, support from the city of St. Peter, the St. Peter Area Chamber of Commerce and the St. Peter Lions Club.

The St. Peter City Council will consider a resolution of support for the parade and a fireworks show (separate days) at its May 11 council meeting. The council will need to determine if the events can take place safely and in adherence to whatever statewide social distancing policies may still be in place at the end of the month.

The School Board at the May 4 meeting was just listening to the plans and didn’t put forward any official resolution of support, but members did express their gratitude to the parents and community members who were working hard to find ways to celebrate this year’s class. Board Chair Ben Leonard did note that he sees these as “community-led events” and not official district activities.

SPHS math teacher Sarah Annexstad gets ready to give a ‘virtual’ high five to senior Jaden Neubauer as she hands him his graduation cap & gown during Thursday pickup day. (Photo courtesy of St. Peter Public Schools)

Soderlund, who started a 2020 Saints support group on Facebook with fellow senior parent Crystal Winterfeldt, explained what the parade might look like, though the details are still being worked out. The community would park their vehicles along the parade route, and the students, with their families, would drive by in their own vehicles. Soderlund said community members would be encouraged to make signs, honk their horns and clap, as the seniors passed by. For seniors without vehicles, a volunteer list is being established to safely drive them along the rout.

The fireworks show, meanwhile, would take place near the high school, with students watching from the parking lot there. A St. Peter Police Department presence would be required to ensure social distancing rules were applied. Organizers are hoping to raise $12,000 for the show, and the St. Peter Lions Club is leading the donation collection efforts.

Soderlund feels the loss of the final months of seniors year is no small issue for the many students and families that are impacted.

“Emma and Kayla are my first-born children, and while they are adjusting to the circumstances, they are in no way doing great. As a parent, I have felt helpless, and as a member of this community, I can’t help but to think that so many other parents and families are feeling the same,” she said. “The senior parade and fireworks show are a way we, as a school community, can set the bar high for all of our neighboring communities.”

State faces $2.4B budget hole due to virus; cases grow in region

Minnesota’s COVID-19 toll climbed again in Wednesday’s report, as the Health Department reported 485 deaths, up 30 from Tuesday, while the total number of cases since the pandemic began surged to 8,579.

The numbers of people currently hospitalized (443) and in intensive care (180) remained relatively stable.

The case count continues to grow in south central Minnesota, though many of the earlier cases are now recovered.

Blue Earth County has the most confirmed cases, with 53 cases but zero deaths, while Rice County now has 30 confirmed cases and one death. Le Sueur County has 26 confirmed cases ; Steele County has 29 confirmed cases; Nicollet County 17 confirmed and two deaths; Waseca County seven confirmed; Goodhue County 23 confirmed; Brown County nine confirmed and one death; and Sibley County two confirmed.

The latest numbers came a day after state budget and economic officials delivered some grim news: Minnesota’s economy won’t recover from the coronavirus anytime soon, and the state faces a $2.4 billion budget deficit lasting well into next year.

That was Minnesota budget leaders’ bleak economic forecast unveiled Tuesday. COVID-19 costs “have rocked Minnesota’s economy” and will continue to do so until the crisis ends, state economist Laura Kalambokidis said Tuesday.

Budget forecasts showed big drops in consumer spending, sales taxes and wages. The state’s economic output is expected to drop three consecutive quarters before a return to positive territory, but it “does not get back to where it would have been without the pandemic,” Kalambokidis said. “Some amount of economic activity is simply lost.”

No ‘red alarm’ yet as cases as ICU numbers climb

The number of cases discovered in Minnesota has accelerated sharply over the past week as the state’s testing push intensified.

“Minnesota’s numbers, we are not at our peak yet,” Gov. Tim Walz said Tuesday. “There are some dark days ahead of us. But we have changed the calculus on this.”

Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said the latest numbers on deaths showed the ongoing trend Minnesota’s seen since the pandemic began — nearly all of those who died were living in long-term care facilities and had underlying health problems.

Despite the increase officials are seeing now in cases and hospitalizations, she said the climb remained within the state’s ability to manage it so it does not overwhelm the health care system.

Two key metrics — how long it takes for the raw case count to double and how long it takes for current hospitalizations to double — remained relatively moderate. The “red alarm” will sound if and when case counts start doubling every two to three days; right now it’s about eight days, she said.

One other positive: Patients needing ICU care aren’t rising as quickly as current hospitalizations. “We’re still feeling good about that,” she added.

She cautioned, though, that Minnesota was not yet at the steepest part of its curve.

Meatpacking at the

center of case jumps

The escalation in positive cases continues to be driven by a handful of counties with outbreaks centered around meatpacking plants. Testing has intensified around those outbreaks and led to more positive tests for the disease.

Cases in Nobles County in southwestern Minnesota, where an outbreak centered around the JBS pork plant in Worthington, continue to swell. The county continued to have the largest outbreak outside the Twin Cities and the largest by far of any Minnesota county relative to its population.

About 1 in 20 people in Nobles County have tested positive for COVID-19. Cases there have jumped from a handful in mid-April to 1,069 on Tuesday as testing in the region accelerates and reveals more cases.

The JBS plant shut on April 20 as executives worked to control the disease’s spread. The plant reopened Wednesday with expanded cleaning and disinfecting operations, and with workers spaced farther apart.

The closure of the plant and others in the Midwest has caused major disruption in the supply chain, with some hog farmers forced to destroy healthy pigs because there was no place to process them.

Similar problems have been reported in Stearns County, where COVID-19 cases tied to two packing plants — Pilgrim’s Pride poultry plant in Cold Spring and Jennie-O Turkey in Melrose — have skyrocketed. An undisclosed number of workers at both plants have tested positive for the virus.

At the beginning of last week, there were 55 confirmed coronavirus cases in Stearns. By Sunday, as testing for the disease intensified, there were 589 and by Tuesday confirmed cases had jumped again to 815.

Kandiyohi County in west-central Minnesota is also seeing cases jump two weeks after officials with the Jennie-O turkey processing plant there said some employees had tested positive for the coronavirus. The county had confirmed three COVID-19 cases back then. On Tuesday, the Health Department reported 200 people have now tested positive.

Some businesses back to work,

others frustrated

The governor has said about 91 percent of Minnesota’s workforce is now able to return to their workplaces with hygiene and distancing rules in place, under his tweaked stay-at-home order.

Walz fielded similar questions Tuesday amid news that some businesses and communities were chafing at the stay-at-home order, which has been running for more than a month.

The order kept people out of crowded public spaces, helping slow the outbreak and buying time for the state’s health care system to secure supplies and prepare for waves of cases and hospitalizations.

But, as Walz has acknowledged, it’s come at a steep economic cost for many who’ve been thrown out of work. Restaurants and bars remain the biggest sector still unable to bring customers back into their buildings.

Earlier this week a Twin Cities barbershop publicly defied Walz’s order and opened his shop to customers. Leaders in the town of Lakefield, in southwestern Minnesota, recently voted to support businesses that want to defy Walz’s order and reopen. GOP leaders have also prodded Walz to move faster, even as COVID-19 cases continue to climb.

“I want things open as badly as they do,” the governor said, adding that reopening the wrong way could rekindle the disease’s spread and put the lives of vulnerable people at risk.

“This is one of those difficult things that, if we do this right, it’ll appear like we’re wrong because we didn’t overrun the health care system,” he said. “It’s a bit like someone who can’t swim, and you keep them out of the water. Whether you can claim you kept them from drowning might have been a little debatable, but if they had jumped in the deep end, it would have been trouble.”

Kali Erickson of St. Peter winds up for a forehand in a match against her brother Kolbe Erickson on Thursday at St. Peter High School. (Pat Beck/St. Peter Herald)

Campers gather at Lake Washington’s Camp Patterson in 2017. (File photo)

Pig farmers in Le Sueur County and across the nation are facing dire straights after several processing facilities have closed after workers contracted COVID-19. Without places to send their pigs, many have been forced to euthanize their stock. (Daily News file photo)