Grocery store chains across southern Minnesota have been announcing a number of new hygienic measures in light of COVID-19, with one of the most recent additions being plexiglass protective barriers set up at checkouts and service counters.
Deemed essential services, the stores will remain open during a planned stay-at-home order issued by Gov. Tim Walz Wednesday afternoon. The policy is set to go into effect for two weeks starting late Friday night.
“You need to get out to the grocery stores, you need to get gasoline, those things will still be permitted. We’re not keeping you in your house, we’re asking you — we’re asking you because it’s going to take cooperation and collaboration — to stay home,” said the governor.
Walz explained that officials’ goal is to delay the point at which the virus peaks statewide, allowing more time to gather the necessary intensive care capabilities for the roughly 5% of all patients who will likely require it to drastically improve their chances of survival.
While grocery stores and their workers are expected to remain open during the shut down, a few of the smaller local chains are struggling with staffing and — across the board — companies are working to install more protective measures.
Protective barriers at
Iowa-based supermarket chain Hy-Vee — which has locations in Faribault, Mankato, Owatonna and one on the way in St. Peter — announced late last week that it will be installing these protective panels at cashier stations throughout its eight-state region.
According to a March 19 press release, “These panels are in place in our Des Moines-area stores, and will be installed in all other Hy-Vee locations over the next few days.”
Christina Gayman, director of public relations, added that for the moment these will only be at checkouts, although there has been discussion of possibly expanding usage.
Michigan-based grocer SpartanNash, which operates Family Fresh Market in St. Peter and Family Fare in Northfield, has also announced plans to add these barriers at all of its cashier stations, delis, customer service counters, pharmacies and fuel center checkouts.
As of Wednesday afternoon, the shields — which the company says will be sanitized every half hour — had not yet been installed in either Northfield or St. Peter. In a March 24 press release, the company noted that it had begun the process of adding barriers in its 155 retail locations and said installation would be complete across the region by April 3.
SpartanNash also released in a statement that all stores have placed signs on the floor to remind patrons of social distancing and attempt to ensure a six-foot distance in customer-employee interactions. These are present, like the shields, at all customer service desks, pharmacy counters, register lanes and elsewhere throughout the stores.
Sanitizing, looking to
In addition to installing guards, Gayman said that Hy-Vee is also having employees regularly wipe down checkout belts, pin pads, counters and other frequently-touched surfaces. She noted that there is also a worker stationed at the front of every store wiping down carts before customers use them.
“We are pressure washing the carts every night after we close, and also contracting with third-party sanitation services — most stores are doing it every week, if not more than that — to clean those carts separately,” said Gayman, “and that includes the red baskets customers use for smaller orders.”
At Radermacher’s Fresh Market in Le Sueur, as well as at its sister locations in Jordan and Le Center, store manager Amy Ernsting noted that there is a station set up at the front of the store with spray and paper towels for customers to clean their own carts.
Ernsting noted that each location is trusting customers to wipe down their own carts, being a smaller operation and also having been short-staffed lately due to COVID-19. She explained that many employees were elderly or had pre-existing medical conditions themselves and were nervous about contracting the virus in such a crowded environment.
“Our main focus is getting things stocked on our shelves and making sure registers and credit card machines are wiped down,” she explained. She added that they’ve posted notices that they’re hiring and have had a few applications coming in, but that interest has been low.
Walmart locations are implementing new cleaning and sanitizing procedures.
At the front of the store as customers enter wipes are offered for people to use on the carts before shopping as well as hand sanitizer. In order to properly clean the stores and restock shelves Walmart, including the Waseca, Owatonna and Faribault locations has changed its hours. The store is open from 7 a.m. to 8:30 p.m.
Along with limiting hours Walmart has started limiting the number of customers allowed in the store at one time.
No more than five customers per 1,000 square feet at a given time in the store.
In Waseca the entrance has been modified so people have to go through a roped off section with an employee watching and counting the number of people entering. If capacity is reached customers will be admitted inside on a one-in-one-out basis.
To protect the employees and customers the chain is beginning to take associates temperatures, supplying masks and gloves to those who would like to wear them as well as enacting additional medical leave.
Hy-Vee also announced over the weekend that its looking for temporary, part-time hourly employees to help with restocking and sanitizing, due to a recent surge in demand.
Changing return policies,
Other measures Ernsting said all locations have taken is to no longer accept either returns or reusable bags at check-out, given the potential for cross-contamination. After the first known case of COVID-19 in Le Sueur County was confirmed over the weekend, there have been six cases announced by the Minnesota Department of Health as of Wednesday afternoon.
Like Radermacher’s, Hy-Vee has also temporarily changed its return policy. As of Tuesday, stores are no longer offering returns or issuing rain checks on any merchandise. Gayman explained that if a fresh product — such as deli items, meat, produce or seafood — is not up to the company’s standards, customers can bring it in for an exchange. The returned item will not be put back out on the floor, and non-perishable items will not be accepted.
Starting last week, many area grocers had begun setting aside the first hour of every day for older and immunocompromised customers, and in some cases expectant mothers and health care professionals.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it’s currently unknown whether or not pregnant women have a greater chance of becoming seriously ill from COVID-19 although changes associated with childbearing may increase risk of some infections.
Most Hy-Vee pharmacies — including the location in St. Peter — have also extended their hours from 7 to 8 a.m. in the morning, to serve the same demographics.
“We’re trusting that our customers will be honest. If you’re older than 60 or an expectant mother, obviously that looks different,” said Gayman. “We trust our customers to show up at the hours that are best for them.”
Both Hy-Vee, SpartanNash and Walmart, as well as a number of other stores, also have curbside pick-up and delivery options. Due to demand, Hy-Vee’s Aisles Online service is now pick-up only in Faribault, but delivery is still available in Owatonna.
Colleges are adjusting application processes and are giving refunds due to COVID-19.
Schools across the country have made difficult decisions to move students online and off campus to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and for the safety of students and staff.
Waseca Junior and Senior high councilor Christina Meeks has received information from different colleges and how each will proceed for prospective students.
“Overall, we believe that the majority of colleges will be understanding of the circumstances and work with students for admission ... ,” Meeks said in an email.
She said that most senior students at the Waseca high school who are planning to attend a postsecondary institution have already applied and been accepted to the college.
“This time of year is generally busy for juniors because they are going on college visits and taking college placement exams,” Waseca Junior and Senior High School Counselor Paul Marlin said. “Schools all around the area are currently working with ACT to try to accommodate student testing, however, with the COVID-19 pandemic, it is incredibly difficult to schedule the ACT due to social distancing.”
He went on to share that students looking at colleges are unable to go on visits with most campuses closed. Instead the students are researching colleges through websites.
Marlin said the majority of colleges are trying to accommodate students to the best of their ability with waiving certain college placement test requirements or leaning more heavily on students’ grades in high school.
Principal Jeanne Swanson said that orientations have been postponed and that some colleges are using students semester grades for admission.
Minnesota State University, Mankato has become flexible on ACT and SAT requirements for students applying for the fall 2020 semester.
According to the MSU website, admission decisions will be based on high school transcripts and GPAs for students who are applying for the fall of 2020 that do not have ACT or SAT scores and are unable to take the test this spring. Students missing test scores will not be required to submit them prior to enrolling for the fall of 2020. This is an exception that was created due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The campus is closed and all tours for prospective students have been cancelled through April. Students can sign up for a virtual visit instead.
Campus housing is open to those in need and campus dining has been turned into to go meals with limited hours.
Housing and dining refunds are available to students who moved out by April 5. The MSU website did not include how much of a refund would be given and parking permit refunds are still being worked on.
The University of Minnesota is working on a case-by-case basis for prospective students who are applying during COVID-19.
The college has also sent all students to online learning through the end of the summer 2020 semester and has created the Comprehensive Student Refund plan.
The student refund plan will be applied automatically to the students at all U of M campuses by the end of April. If students don’t receive their refunds by the end of April they are to contact the One Stop Student Services or business office on their campus.
Housing and residential life services for students with housing, dining plans and flex-dine/dining dollars on any campus will receive 100 percent credit of their housing and dining fees from March 28 to the end of their contract. This does not apply to students who have stayed on campus.
Another item that will be credited for students is their parking fee. For students who have paid for Crookston, Duluth, Morris or Twin Cities campuses, they will receive 100% of their parking fee credited from March 28 to the end of their semester contract. Rochester has no University-owned parking.
Students will receive 50 percent credit for the student services fee from March 28 through the last day of finals in May. There is a full list on the U of M website.
Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter has closed its campus as well and there are no tours or visits allowed at the moment so all prospective students have to do online research and reach out for information.
The college is also following suit with other colleges in Minnesota to give refunds in the form of credit.
Students who were living in campus housing and left campus will receive a 40 percent credit to their student account for their housing charges. For students who had a meal plan and left campus they will receive credit to their student account in the amount of their remaining meal plan balance. Students whose meal plan charges are completely covered by grant or scholarship aid will not receive a credit to their account.
Another item that is being refunded by the college is parking permits from this spring semester. Students who had a parking permit will receive a $70 credit to their student account.
All refunds and credits will first be applied to any outstanding balances on a students account and then automatically applied to the $500 fall registration deposit with any remaining funds going to the students account as a credit or the student can request a refund.
More information on how the college is handling COVID-19 can be found on the Gustavus Adolphus website.
The service industry lays in limbo after Gov. Walz issued a stay-in-place order in March. Several area restaurants are doing what they can to stay open after the order is lifted.
In Waseca, Yellow Mushroom Pizza manager Lisa Nelson said she hopes Yellow Mushroom Pizza can remain afloat through May 1 in the current format. She added the restaurant has not had to lay off employees but has reduced hours because of a more than 50% drop in revenue caused by the loss of dine-in eating.
“Do I think it? I don’t know,” she said of staying open. “It’s hard to say without having a crystal ball to look into.”
For Kahlo owner Maria Estrada in Northfield, the future is uncertain.
In the initial stages of the ban on in-person dining due to the rapid spread of COVID-19, business was constant, but recent days have brought concern over whether Kahlo will be able to remain open if the limitations last months. The business must still pay for water and electricity and can’t rely on emergency loans or grants. Perhaps the biggest fear hanging over Kahlo, however, are the chains of uncertainty.
Because of the lead up to the restrictions, Estrada knew she needed an operations plan to survive the pandemic. That planning hasn’t negated the loss of walk-in traffic and alcohol sales. She noted some vendors have given the business a break, but a few catering jobs have been canceled, forcing Kahlo to return down payments.
“It’s getting worrisome,” Estrada said. “We have bills to pay, payroll, leave payment. It’s just a lot of things that will start to pile up.”
Estrada is far from alone. Thousands of restaurateurs and restaurant workers across the state are feeling the effects of Gov. Tim Walz’s ban on in-person dining, extended through the end of April to help ease the spread of COVID-19. That’s left many an owner wondering if their business will survive this pandemic.
Lonsdale-based Whistle Stop restaurant co-owner Terry Bastyr said the pace of takeout orders was initially slow but has quickened.
“Last night we couldn’t keep up because it was so busy,” he said Wednesday. Despite the increase, Whistle Stop has seen an overall sharp decline in sales. A dining room that can hold 50 people has been empty and alcohol sales have been paused. The business has been forced to lay off its mainly part-time employees.
Despite forced cuts, Bastyr expects the restaurant to survive the crisis based on its community support.
“There’s a lot of good people that live in this town,” he said.
Well-known St. Peter restaurant Patrick’s on Third is also grappling with a sharp decline in revenue caused by the ban on in-person dining ,but has seen a significant increase in delivery orders.
Co-owner John Mayer said the mood of restaurant employees is as high as can be expected. He noted he would like for Patrick’s to be able to sell growlers, an action that could increase revenue but that’s currently banned by the Minnesota Legislature.
A craft beer site, Patrick’s now has a significant amount of tap beer on-hand because of the ban of in-person dining.
Customer grace is evident
Depot Bar and Grill in Faribault has fallen victim to the loss of alcohol sales, which comprise 30% of revenue. The business has been forced to lay off 40 employees to account for the dramatic drop in dine-in revenue.
Despite that challenge, the community has stepped up to help. A regular customer purchased 10 $25-gift cards for friends and customers. Another customer gave a $30 tip on a $20 tab.
“We’re continuing to do carryout and curbside pickup, and we’ve been really busy,” said General Manager Tonya Dunn. “The community’s been fabulous.”
She noted extensive community support comes as other local establishments Crooked Pint and Bernie’s Grill have recently closed due to the outbreak and Carbone’s Pizzeria in Faribault is now only open in the evenings for takeout.
For Pizza Ranch in Le Sueur, the impact hasn’t been too bad, said General Manager Jamie Casey, who credited the community for continuing to order pickup and delivery at a constant pace and being patient while ordering over the phone.
“Everyone’s been very supportive of us,” she said.