There’s no way around it: COVID-19 was the story of the year. Heck, it may even be the story of the decade.
The virus, first noted in central China in late 2019, touched nearly every part of our lives. It dictated our movements, our ability to travel, to go into the office, to shop, to send our children to school, to see friends, even whether we could sit down and grab a quick bite. Given the pandemic’s track and the vaccines’ anticipated rollout, it’s likely to be with us through spring, at the very least.
And while the pandemic can’t be ignored when it comes to reviewing the year that was, we’re focusing on what made news in Waseca County. So sit back and take look back at our top stories of 2020.
1. Waseca Officer Arik Matson injured in the line of duty
The story: Jan. 6, 2020 changed the life of Waseca Police Officer Arik Matson, along with his entire family and the community of Waseca.
Matson was injured in the line of duty when he and three other officers responded to an emergency call of a suspect in a yard on the 900 block of Fourth Avenue SE. Upon arrival, they located the suspect, Tyler Robert Janovsky, 38, who already had a warrant out for his arrest.
When confronted, Janovsky opened fire from the roof of a home, shooting Matson in the head. Janovsky was also shot twice, sustaining non-life threatening injuries.
After being shot, Matson was rushed to the North Memorial Health Hospital in Robbinsdale where he stayed for three weeks before moving to a longer-term acute care facility and eventually a rehabilitation center. He was away in recovery for more than nine months, during which his wife, Megan Matson, and others documented his struggles, setbacks and strides through a CaringBridge account.
On Oct. 19, Arik was welcomed home to Waseca with smiles, signs and tears and a parade that many community members and supporters of Matson attended.
Janovsky was sentenced to 35 years in prison in November after pleading guilty to one count of the attempted murder of Arik and one count of attempted murder of Waseca officers Andrew Harren and Sgt. Timothy Schroeder. Arik, Megan and fellow officers made victim impact statements during the sentencing hearing.
Update: Waseca County Attorney Rachel Cornelius and Megan are working on a Matson Strong bill that, if passed, would change state law on the maximum sentencing for the attempted murder of a peace officer. The state maximum for shooting a peace officer is 20 years and both Cornelius and Megan feel that is inadequate. Rep. John Petersburg (R-Waseca) and Sen. John Jasinski (R-Faribault) have committed to introducing and carrying the Matson Strong bill through the Minnesota Legislature during the 2021 session.
2. COVID-19 impacts local communities
The Story: The first positive confirmed COVID-19 case appeared in Waseca County in March 2020 and a total of 1,755 confirmed cases have been reported in the county as of Dec. 31.
On March 13, Gov. Tim Walz issued an executive order and declared a peacetime emergency.
Waseca County Public Health, in conjunction with the Minnesota State Department of Health and the Center for Disease Control, created a plan that shared information online with community members on how to slow the spread of the virus.
Part of the plan was to follow the guidance of Walz, who chose to close schools in March 2020 to slow the spread of COVID-19. He also closed bars and restaurants on March 16 that lasted until June, when restaurants and bars reopened for indoor dining with limited capacities. In November, Walz shutdown bars and restaurants dine-in option again through the end of the year, with outdoor seating available as of mid-December 2020.
Minnesota also went into a stay at home order on March 27 and remained this way until May 18 to help mitigate COVID-19.
MDH and local public health officials partnered together to offer free COVID-19 testing in September 2020 over two days at the Waseca County Fairgrounds in a drive-thru format. Over the two-day testing period, 618 people were tested and of those only 14 were reported positive with COVID-19.
The Waseca hospital reached capacity due to COVID-19 on Nov. 20, but its occupancy level was always changing due to patients being discharged or transferred to other Mayo Clinic Health systems. The average length of stay for a COVID-19 patient was four to five days, unless it’s a severe case, which can be at least two to three weeks in the hospital.
Since the first positive case, 13 people have died in Waseca County from COVID-19, 11 of which had underlying conditions prior to contracting the virus.
On Dec. 22, Waseca Mayo Clinic frontline staff and emergency responders in Waseca received the first round of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine. The clinic received 60 doses for the first round to help combat the virus. The vaccine is a two shot dosage that is administered 21 days after the first shot, making the vaccine about 95% effective one week after the second dosage.
Update: The Waseca Mayo Clinic continues to battle COVID-19 with the hospital reaching capacity once, during the peak time back in November 2020.
Walz announced a loosening of restrictions on bars and restaurants during a press conference on Wednesday, Jan. 6 to discuss the next steps for COVID-19 and an update on restrictions for bars and restaurants.
3. Farmers feel impact of meat processing plant closures
The Story: Hog farmers saw a decline in processing in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic causing meat processing plants to close or lessening the processing capacity when employees were sick with the virus and due to a lack of demand.
With the pig processing plants down 25% capacity, farmers had to start thinking about alternatives of what to do with their hogs, including euthinizing them. Pigs go to market weighing about 250-300 pounds, anything bigger and the machines can’t handle it.
Waseca’s Todd Selvik said back in April that he has eight barns with 1,200 hogs in each barn and four of the barns were about to go to market when the crisis hit the farming community. After agonizing over the decision, Selvik and his family had to euthanize pigs that could have been used to feed families if the processing plants were able to run at capacity. Other farmers in the area were forced to euthanize some of their pigs as well.
The farmers who choose to compost were faced with another challenge of trying to find enough wood chips, corn stalks, sawdust or straw to make it work. The state couldn’t use any of its power or COVID-19 funding to help buy those materials, because COVID-19 isn’t known to affect livestock. The Minnesota Board of Animal Health helped to find companies with the material needed for composting.
President Donald Trump announced April 28 that he would sign an executive order to use the Defense Production Act to make meat processing a critical infrastructure that needs to stay open.
Processing plants like Smithfield in Sioux Falls, South Dakota; Tyson Foods in Waterloo, Iowa; Comfrey Farms in Windom, and JBS in Worthington have shut down after employees contracted COVID-19. JBS processed around 21,000 pigs a day, Smithfield around 19,000.
Hog farmers told The Globe newspaper in Worthington that they were told by their JBS hog buyer they could schedule euthanizing of hogs weighing over 330 pounds. JBS has agreed to take on the cost of euthanizing pigs.
Turkey farmers, chicken farmers and dairy farmers also lost out on revenue and processing in 2020 due to the pandemic.
4. COVID-19 affects students and the way that they learn
The Story: The COVID-19 pandemic changed the way students attend school and participate in activities.
In March, the Waseca and the Janesville-Waldorf-Pemberton school districts moved to full-time distance learning for all students due to the executive order from Walz. The students never returned to school for hybrid or in-person learning that spring, which wasn’t the plan to start but became clear it was needed.
During the spring, all schools were trying to implement distance learning and how to execute it best for the students who were struggling with the quick adjustment.
Since then, the schools have learned what works and what doesn’t for the students and it has improved the distance learning model for the students to have better success in the fall of 2020.
Waseca Public Schools started the 2020-21 school year in a hybrid learning model for kindergarten through 12th grade. This had the kindergarten through sixth grade students in-person four days a week with Mondays as a distance learning day for all students in the district and the seventh through 12th graders in-person two days a week and two days in distance learning.
Less than a week into the hybrid model, the Waseca School Board and Superintendent Eric Hudspith moved seventh through 12th grade to distance learning due to a rise in COVID-19 cases. The seventh-12th grade students returned to hybrid learning Sept. 29 before moving back to distance learning, along with the kindergarten-sixth grade students after Thanksgiving break and continued in that model through the end of 2020.
JWP students began the school year in distance learning for seventh-12th grade and in-person learning for kindergarten-sixth grade. The elementary students at JWP continued in-person learning through the end of 2020. JWP brought seventh-12th grade students back to hybrid learning by Oct. 5 before changing again to distance learning Nov. 16 and continued in that model through the end of 2020.
At the Nov. 12 school board meeting, Waseca Public School counselors updated the board on the mental health of the students. All four of the counselors shared that overall students are doing well to adjust and students are missing the social aspect that comes with school.
A Hartley counselor shared with the Waseca School Board that students are behind academically compared to the fall of 2019 and students are needing more reminders to keep their masks on. At the Waseca Intermediate School, students miss being in school and are reminded as well of COVID-19 safety procedures. At the WJSHS, counselor Paul Marlin mentioned that students are struggling with keeping a regulated schedule when not in school as well as not being as engaged when at home learning. The Alternative Learning Center counselor shared survey results from spring 2020 that found 55% of students who responded were not feeling good or bad about mental health and distance learning.
All counselors are working to check-in more on students and to provide the necessary resources for the students.
Activities through the Minnesota State High School League were put on pause starting Nov. 20 that continued through the new year. Students were unable to practice or compete in-person during this time period, but some activities were able to meet virtually to keep students engaged.
Update: Both Waseca Public Schools and JWP will return to hybrid learning in January with activities and practices starting on Jan. 4.
5. COVID-19 outbreak at FCI-Waseca sparks lawsuit
The Story: An outbreak of COVID-19 began in the Waseca County Federal Correctional Institution in Waseca in August due to the transfer of 30 women into the facility from Grady County, Oklahoma and possibly other jails. This breakout, combined with the alleged lack of care and precautions has led to an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit on behalf of 14 inmates.
In April, FCI-Waseca stated that it implemented precautions for mitigating COVID-19 in the facility, including screening of inmates and staff with potential exposure, limited movement throughout the prison, social distancing, limited number of inmates at a time were allowed access to commissary, laundry, showers, telephone and electronic messaging access and medical and mental health care.
In a lawsuit filed against prison officials in December, the American Civil Liberties Union alleged that the 30 women transferred to FCI-Waseca were tested for COVID-19 and put into a range together after the women showing COVID-19 symptoms were allegedly told to say “no” when asked if they had been exposed to the virus during the intake process and weren’t isolated, which resulted in a large spread days later.
During this time in August, Waseca County had the highest case rate per 10,000 residents in the state for Aug. 9-22. The case rate per 10,000 was 37.75 after the previous two week period had a 22.33 case rate per 10,000.
In the ACLU’s class action lawsuit, it alleges FCI-Waseca didn’t take steps to prevent the spread of COVID-19, causing 70% of the inmates to contract the virus in three months and that the institute didn’t provide adequate health care.
There are 14 inmates in the lawsuit who shared their stories of being medically vulnerable and not receiving medical release to home confinement or proper medical care after contracting the virus, or they feared contracting the virus because they’re medically vulnerable to severe complications.
The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court of Minnesota against Michael Carvajal, the director of the Bureau of Prisons, and Waseca prison Warden M. Starr. The ACLU is seeking an emergency order requiring that the most medically vulnerable inmates are transferred to home confinement; the immediate implementation of social distancing and hygiene measures; and adequate medical care for inmates who have COVID-19 even though the Bureau of Prisons has declared them “recovered.”
Update: Officials at FCI-Waseca are denying the ACLU’s allegations that they didn’t prevent the spread of COVID-19 and provided adequate healthcare for inmates ill with the virus.
The ACLU is alleging in its lawsuit that the prison violated the inmates’ 8th Amendment right to “humane conditions of confinement” and the Rehabilitation Act that prohibits discrimination against individuals with a disability in federal programs.
U.S. Attorney Erica MacDonald, representing Carvajal and Starr, is requesting that the lawsuit be dismissed and the temporary restraining order be denied. MacDonald alleges that the ACLU won’t be successful in its lawsuit because the court doesn’t have jurisdiction over the Bureau of Prisons’ decisions regarding home confinement. In addition, the inmates have either recovered from COVID-19 or not contracted it, and FCI-Waseca is slated to receive the COVID-19 vaccine in January, according to MacDonald. Additionally, the inmates don’t meet the standard set by the 8th Amendment and aren’t likely to prevail on their Rehabilitation Act claim, according to MacDonald’s memo response to the restraining order request.
A hearing for oral arguments on the ACLU’s request for a temporary restraining order was scheduled for Jan. 6.
6. Peaceful protests in Waseca
The Story: On June 2, a peaceful protest for Black Lives Matter/George Floyd memorial took place in front of the Waseca County Courthouse.
Ky Kehler of Waseca organized the peaceful protest using Facebook to spread the word of the gathering and she worked with the local law enforcement for the event.
The protest of around 100 people was sparked by the other protests in Minneapolis that began after the death of Floyd while in Minneapolis police custody on May 25.
“I am part of the LGBT community and the person who started the riots at Stonewall was a black woman who was Marsha P. Johnson,” Kehler said in the June 2 article for Waseca County News. “And so I feel like I owe the black community my support because they gave me their support. Marsha P. Johnson is a godsend.”
Kehler received threats on the Facebook post that were reported to local authorities to handle. The local police department helped direct traffic when the protest moved to Trowbridge Park as well as blocking off a side street and putting cones in the front to keep cars away from the protesters.
The goal of the protest was to educate and to bring awareness to the community.
A second peaceful protest was held the same week, on June 6 in the front lawn of the Waseca County Courthouse to bring to light the impact of the death of Floyd. Around 30 people joined in the second protest to again raise awareness and bring an end to racism in the community. During the peaceful protest people shared their own stories and experiences to demonstrate what’s not acceptable and how to make a change.
7. New Waseca superintendent adjusting to the role
The Story: New Waseca Superintendent Eric Hudspith has been with the school district since July, joining the district in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
When he was first hired, Hudspith met with administration, staff, faculty and students to learn about the community. Part of his transition plan involved him making community connections in July and August, which was made difficult due to the virus canceling events and changing school learning plans.
Hudspith came from the Mankato school district, where he was the director of human resources and organizational development. In that position, he worked closely with the superintendent where he was able to gain experience and knowledge.
He started with multiple goals for the district, one being how best to handle COVID-19 in the school district. Hudspith worked with administrators, the school board and other staff to create the three plans that were required by the state prior to the beginning of the 2020-21 school year.
Since creating the numerous COVID-19 school plans, he has continued to adjust the plans for the safety of the students and staff and what is best for the students’ education.
Another goal of his is a part of the 2019-2024 strategic plan: to continue to make sure that every student leaves the district with options of what they want to accomplish in life. He plans to do this by continuing to offer a variety of programs for students to explore their interests so they can make the best post-secondary decision, as well as prepare them for adulthood.
8. Waseca County Board looks into broadband
The Story: The Waseca County Board funded a countywide broadband study in April by contributing $30,000 after receiving a $25,000 grant from the Blandin Foundation.
The county targeted two grants, one at the state level and the other at the federal level to help pay for the broadband expansion.
The state level grant was a Border-to-Border Broadband Development Grant, which provides up to 50% of a broadband project’s infrastructure costs up to $5 million.
On the federal level, the county pursued a Rural Digital Opportunity Fund grant. The Federal Communications Commission will direct up to $20.4 billion over 10 years to finance up to gigabit speed broadband networks in unserved rural areas. The auction will target over 6 million homes and businesses in census blocks that are entirely unserved by voice and broadband with speeds of at least 25 megabits of download versus three megabits of upload.
The RDOF grant works as a reverse auction where internet service providers bid on specific improvement areas through the federal government.
Waseca County has large areas deemed unserved and underserved. Underserved areas are defined as areas with greater than 25/3 Mbps but less than 100/20 Mbps. The served areas with greater than 100/20 Mbps lie along Hwy. 13 to New Richland and west to Waldorf and Pemberton.
Update: Waseca County at the end of the year set aside about $335,694 from its federal COVID-19 funds for the broadband expansion.
The county also received a grant from the Rosenau Legacy of Angels Endowment fund of the Saint Paul and Minnesota Foundation for $20,000 to go toward the broadband expansion project.
The Border-to-Border Grant recipients have not been named for 2021 yet.
9. Birds Eye expands local operation with new building
The Story: Birds Eye, along with its parent company Conagra Foods, was approved to construct a new 220,000-square foot facility on 47 acres to replace the current facility.
The current facility is set to close in 2021 and the city authorized annexing 120 acres from St. Mary Township on July 7. Conagra will use the remaining 73 acres as agricultural spray fields and will be classified for agricultural use for property taxes.
Birds Eye currently employs 179 full-time workers and an additional 250 seasonal workers. The new plant will initially employ 119 full-time workers and 250 seasonal workers. Conagra anticipates adding new product lines which will help make up the loss of 60 full-time jobs.
The facility will operate as a fresh-pack vegetable processing plant. It’s believed the plant will process peas and corn. The site improvements, plant and equipment is budgeted at $200 million.
Part of the development agreement is the 16-inch water main project the council approved Stantec to complete on Brown Avenue. The improvements are needed to give enough water pressure to the new Conagra building site.
Update: Construction began in the fall 2020 and the plant is anticipated to open in 2022.
10. Cash Wise leaves Waseca after less than two years
The Story: Coborn’s Inc., the parent company of Cash Wise, closed the Waseca Cash Wise grocery store portion on Feb. 28, 2020, less than two years after opening, leaving the Cash Wise liquor store open.
In a press release from Coborn’s, it stated the store was closed due to the lack of being able to generate the number of guest count necessary to sustain operations.
“Waseca was spoiled more than we know when Cash Wise came in so quickly after Hy-Vee closed,” Ann Fitch, director of the Waseca Area Chamber of Commerce, said in February. “That chain of events is not normal. There is no way to know how long of a drought we may have before we get another full service grocery store. I have full faith that building will not be empty long-term, but it might not house another grocery store. That is a fantastic large space that is suitable for an array of businesses.”
Cash Wise filled the space just 17 days after the closure of Hy-Vee, which had been in the space for over 30 years.
Update: The former Cash Wise building continues to sit empty almost a year after the grocery store closed, but the liquor store continues to serve the community.
The Waseca City Council is considering whether to return to in-person meeting or continue to use Zoom to meet.
The council also discussed Lead for Minnesota’s lease agreement for space in Waseca City Hall and a request for proposal for the Gaiter Lake development during its meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 5.
New Waseca City Councilors Ted Conrath and John Mansfield joined the council members during the meeting via Zoom.
Councilors were on different pages when it came to whether city council meetings should remain in the Zoom format or if the meetings should return to in-person.
Councilor Jeremy Conrath spoke up first about the meeting format, wanting to return to in-person meetings, even if the council had to meet in a larger room elsewhere. He said he believes that the residents are missing out on meetings because they aren’t comfortable with Zoom and want to be in front of the council.
Mansfield and Councilor Ted Conrath agreed with Jeremy on returning to in-person meetings. Councilor Allan Rose said if the city staff can figure out a way to bring the councilors and the public together in-person safely, he is on board with returning to in-person meetings.
“I tend to agree with Jeremy, I know everyone else is open, it doesn’t seem to me that after 9-10 months of this that we can’t get back into City Hall,” Mansfield said.
Mayor Roy Srp feels that the community input is missing from meetings and that would be nice to get back.
Councilors Mark Christiansen and Daren Arndt both wanted to stay in a Zoom meeting format for the safety of vulnerable family members and because they feel the meetings are working.
City Administrator Lee Mattson also spoke up about the logistics of returning to in-person meetings, stating that he wasn’t sure if the council chamber is big enough to socially distance the councilors, city staff and the public.
After a lengthy discussion Mattson took the direction to work with city staff to work on the logistics of using city hall again or if meetings need to continue through Zoom.
Lead for Minnesota lease discussion
Lead for Minnesota, LFMN, has been in Waseca for just over a year, working to bring young people back to the community and their hometowns across the state, while also revitalizing the cities. LFMN has 21 fellows across the state and two Corps members for a cohort size of 23. LFMN is an affiliate of Lead for America.
In December 2019, the city council approved the lease agreement for LFMN to use part of the basement of City Hall for $1 a year. At the most recent city council meeting, a discussion about the rent took place with no decisions made.
All of the council members agreed that having LFMN in Waseca is a positive thing and has accomplished a lot in the year. That being said, some council members disagreed with allowing a nonprofit to work out of City Hall for $1 a year for rent when other nonprofits in town have to pay rent and work that into expenses.
Mansfield pointed out that there is plenty of office space in downtown Waseca that he thinks would fit the nonprofit and would also help out other building owners in town who are looking for renters. He also talked about the city putting one nonprofit over another when giving Lead for Minnesota a lease for $1 a year when other nonprofits have to pay thousands of dollars a year in rent with the same funding challenges, calling it an injustice to other entrepreneurs in Waseca.
“We did this about a year ago and I really like what Lead stands for, bringing young people back to the community, but after hearing what my fellow council members think and in hindsight we perhaps weren’t 100% fair,” Jeremy Conrath said.
Ted Conrath also spoke up with similar thoughts to Mansfield about the previous council giving Lead for Minnesota a break on rent.
“I don’t have any problem with what they’re doing, I appreciate what they’re doing, I thank them for what they’re doing, but my only issue is that and we can keep leasing for $1, but we have to give other nonprofits the same opportunity, because we can’t discriminate against other nonprofits,” Ted said.
Kraus, founder and CEO of LFMN, was also present through Zoom in the meeting to answer questions and she said the nonprofit is thankful to have been able to share City Hall for the past year. She said the goal of Lead for Minnesota has always been to find a space that is affordable and works for the nonprofit.
“The last thing that we want to do is be an injustice to the community and other businesses and not invest in the community,” Kraus said. “We don’t want to detract from businesses but to help them grow...I appreciate the comments that the councilors made because we want to do what is just and equitable.”
Christiansen shared his reasoning behind allowing Lead for America to have cheap rental space in City Hall.
“Lead for Minnesota doesn’t make a profit ... for a year I have been fine with it because they garnish Waseca and bring people to the city,” Christiansen said. “I think they’ve done more in a year than we have in 10 years and that is where the help is going to come and it’s interesting to put a value to it.”
No decision was made on the lease as it was only on the agenda as a discussion item. City Staff and Mattson will look into options for the lease moving forward.
Gaiter Lake development
Waseca City Council approved a second round of requests for proposals for the city-owned Gaiter lake development in Waseca at the Jan. 5 meeting.
An RFP was sent out once already to collect ideas of what to develop on the land in October 2020, but the city didn’t receive any proposal bids. Developers who received the RFP for Gaiter Lake sent feedback to the city of why the company didn’t make a bid and the city was able to make the necessary changes to the RFP.
Gaiter Lake is just over 62 acres of usable land with access to the U.S. Highway 14. The land is zoned as Planned Unit Development, which is meant to provide for the development of twin homes, condos, apartments and space to accommodate the housing needs of the city.
The Gaiter Lake development is located within the Shoreland Overlay District and because of this, the DNR requires that no more than 35% of the development shall be impervious surface. Impervious surfaces are roads, buildings, parking lots, and other surfaces that water cannot easily penetrate according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
The city acquired the land near Gaiter Lake as part of a settlement with the DNR over setback requirements in a shoreland district. The land was previously owned by a developer and leased out for farmland.
According to information provided to the city council, sending out the RFP could bring in new development and infrastructure within the city to meet the needs of the city and contribute to the mission of Vision 2030.
Waseca County businesses that have been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic can begin applying for new state funding.
Waseca County received $359,051 from the Legislature’s business relief package passed in December. The county will provide one-time grants of up to $5,000 in the Emergency Business Relief Grant program and businesses that have been directly or indirectly impacted by Gov. Tim Walz’s Nov. 18 executive order will be prioritized.
The Waseca County Board authorized the grants to be awarded weekly rather than waiting for the county board’s approval every two weeks during its Jan. 5 meeting. Several county commissioners will sit on the committee reviewing the applications to provide oversight in lieu of county board approval. The Waseca Area Chamber of Commerce will administer the program.
Eligible businesses for the grants include restaurants, bars, fitness centers, recreation centers, museums and other businesses that were directed to close on Nov. 18, according to the county.
Businesses which were directly impacted or indirectly impacted, such as primarily deriving their income from sales of goods and services to businesses that were directed to close, will be given first priority for the grants. Businesses that didn’t receive grant relief from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, such as the Paycheck Protection Program, will also receive priority for Waseca County’s grants.
If other funds remain, all other applicants will be reviewed for eligibility based on the economic impact from the pandemic. Businesses could also be eligible for additional relief in excess of $5,000 in a second round of funding, according to the county.
The state was hesitant to include nonprofit organizations in this round of funding, County Administrator Michael Johnson said. A nonprofit could qualify for the funding if it has a social services element to it and functions like a business, he said.
The application will require business owners to sign an agreement certifying that the business was financially impacted by Executive Order 20-99, that grant funds will be used to cover costs incurred during the pandemic and the business is specifically listed within Executive Order 20-99.
The application will remain open until funds are depleted and the grants will be awarded as soon as the application has been validated. Final grant decisions will be made by the Application Review Panel in consultation with Johnson.