After an incredibly difficult year, COVID-19 vaccines have finally shed some light at the end of a very dark tunnel. Yet the optimism felt by many local business workers and health officials is still very tempered and cautious.

Across the region, vaccinations are proceeding apace and cases continue to decline. In Waseca County, Public Health Director Sarah Berry expressed excitement that the focus is expanding beyond seniors to food processing facility workers. Locally, people of color and from immigrant communities have been on the front lines of exposure as they fill jobs at factories and stores. Even as waves of COVID spread through their workplaces, many found themselves unable to take time off work or work from home.

Early in the pandemic, a series of outbreaks vaulted Rice County to the top of the New York Times’s list of U.S. counties hit hardest by COVID. At one point, more than three-quarters of COVID cases were among people of color, though Rice County remains over 80% white. By this month, 10% of those with confirmed cases were Black, 65% were white, 1.5% were of Asian descent, 1% were Native American and 16.5% were unknown.

Rice County, which has a larger population than either Steele or Waseca counties — 64,185, according to the state demographer — has also been harder hit by the pandemic. Among the reasons for its nearly 6,700 cases: two colleges in Northfield and the state’s largest prison, Minnesota Correctional Facility-Faribault. As of Monday, 96 county residents have died from COVID-related complications.

Population doesn’t necessarily equate to cases or fatalities. Steele County has a population of 36,683, 3,229 cases and 11 deaths while Waseca County, has 18,740 residents, 2,157 cases and 19 deaths.

Cultural, economic and linguistic barriers have further exacerbated the spread of COVID. Rice County residents are able to access some services from HealthFinders Collaborative, a nonprofit focused on providing care for low-income residents with a particular focus on immigrant communities.

“What we’re seeing is a symptom of underlying inequities that have been in place for a long time, from chronic disease to housing and education,” said Executive Director Charlie Mandile.

Even if a pandemic-reviving mutation is avoided and things “return to normal” soon, Mandile expects HealthFinders to see people living with the effects of COVID for years — not only from “long-hauler” symptoms, but lasting economic damage.

In Steele and Waseca counties, much of the responsibility has fallen on county public health departments to ensure that those most vulnerable to COVID understand how to protect themselves.

Front-line healthcare workers have been hit hard by the pandemic as well and have been a priority of the vaccination campaign. District One Hospital and Owatonna Hospital President David Albrecht said that about 65% of hospital workers have been vaccinated at this point. Albercht expressed optimism that Minnesota hospitals could soon return to normal operations, but he’s deeply concerned that this could be just the first chapter in humanity’s fight against coronavirus.

“As these different strains (of COVID) crop up, it’s still kind of unknown what will happen,” he said.

Dr. Robert Albright, southeast Minnesota Regional Vice President for Mayo Clinic Health System, said that Mayo’s decision to close down most of its clinics early on in the pandemic to minimize the spread of COVID and focus its energies on defeating the virus has been a success.

Since the start of the pandemic, Albright proudly noted that Mayo has completed more than 155,000 tests and developed an innovative antibody therapy that has saved many lives. Now he believes there’s great room for optimism that the pandemic could soon be behind us, but only if the public remains vigilant.

“What the research is telling us is that you may be protected if you’ve gotten it, but you could still potentially spread it, especially with variants going around,” he said. “So for now, continue to socially distance, don’t do high risk things, and get your vaccine.”

Albright’s colleague Dr. Brian Bunkers, who practices at Mayo’s Owatonna clinic, said that one clear silver lining is the sudden embrace of telemedicine. For rural patients in particular, Bunker believes that telemedicine can offer a smoother and more productive experience than traditional appointments.

Small biz hit

Just as the pandemic has exacerbated racial inequities, it’s also increased the inequality between smaller “Main Street” businesses and larger companies. The hospitality industry has been especially hard hit, shifting the nature of the state’s workforce disparities.

Local restaurants and bars had an especially topsy turvy year as restrictions were relaxed, then tightened, then relaxed again. Faribault Area Chamber of Commerce and Tourism President Nort Johnson said some restaurants are now having time rehiring workers. In part, Johnson attributed the difficulty to generous unemployment packages that have often provided as much or more financial stability as returning to work, coupled with peace of mind for the COVID-conscious.

While the recently approved federal American Rescue Plan Act will continue those expanded benefits, it could also provide local units of government with additional dollars to dole out to those most in need.

Owatonna Area Chamber of Commerce and Tourism President Brad Meier said it’s not yet clear how the dollars will be allocated, but there will be major demand. As Meier noted, Steele County recently received more than $5 million in requests for a recent assistance program.

David Hvistendahl, the owner of Corks and Pints in Faribault, said the losses suffered during the pandemic have been “staggering” but that government assistance has played a major role in keeping alive Corks and Pints, and Alibi at Froggy Bottoms restaurant, a tenant of his in downtown Northfield..

Despite the challenging year, Hvistendahl is optimistic about the future and is moving ahead with significant expansion and renovation plans at Corks and Pints. That includes a revamped front patio, complete with heating barrels and a natural gas heating tube.

Meier praised local businesses for their powerful levels of resilience and continued commitment to adaptation and innovation even amid difficult times. For some, like Faribault’s Janna Viscomi, the pandemic has meant nothing less than a wholesale reinvention.

The longtime owner of Bernie’s Grill downtown, Viscomi had been frustrated with the long hours and shrinking profit margins of her traditional business for years. Efforts to find a suitable buyer hadn’t panned out, but then came changes she never saw coming.

“I never thought my industry would be affected by anything,” she said. “Then you factor in germs and you become a big old petri dish.”

Viscomi spent much of 2020 developing a business model centered around safely and conveniently providing quality food. The result of that innovation was Janna’s Market Grill, which is focused on mass producing takeout meals that look good, taste good and keep well.

COVID has forced a number of local food trucks to shift their focus as well. The food truck industry has rapidly grown since regulations were loosened on the trucks themselves as well as the microbreweries they often partner with — but the pandemic posed a real test.

April Miller of New Richland-based Evan’s Eatery said that when the pandemic hit, the truck’s schedule was essentially wiped clean as fairs and festivals were cancelled — a difficult break for Miller and her husband Dan, who have made their truck a full-time, year round gig.

The Millers have managed to recover by focusing on providing foods at breweries and lunches, offering a safer alternative to dining at an indoors restaurant. Sales have increased as the weather has warmed and more customers have been vaccinated, but Miller expressed skepticism that things would really get “back to normal” even by this summer.

Pam Winjum at Winjum’s Shady Acres Resort west of Faribault also took the opportunity to reinvent her business, though the changes are more modest in scale. Winjum’s has been closed since November. Winjum said that part of the reason for staying closed was uncertainty around potential restrictions. When coupled with the restaurant’s rural location, which reduced traffic in the winter, she said a longer closure made sense.

The new Winjum’s is fully revamped, with a new executive chef, new menu and specials, including a new Sunday brunch and additional happy hours. When the weather warms, Winjum hopes to offer additional outdoor seating as well.

Even as some businesses have closed amid severe economic pressures, others have been quick to open in their place. Faribo West Mall Manager Laura Sterling said that demand for spots in the mall has remained significant.

The mall’s Mexican restaurant, Mi Lindo Michoacan, is opening a new grocery store and is waiting on approval from the state. The larger space occupied by the former Salvation Army store has several potential suitors, and some are eyeing smaller spaces as well.

“You would think with COVID coming you would think people wouldn’t be looking to expand,” she said. “But we are very happy that people are looking into doing just that.”

As more people have been vaccinated, local businesses are seeing even more traffic already. Crystal Vold of the mall’s Visionworks store said that while traffic has remained steady, seniors in particular are coming back after a year of lying low to avoid the virus.

For Basher’s Sports Bar and Grill in Faribault, innovation has meant holding outdoor events, even in the winter. Co-owner Don Clayton said that with cases and restrictions on a downward trend, the place has started to feel like its old self again.

“We’ve been blessed to have some crazy weekends lately,” he said. “It’s nice to see people get out and make reservations to bowl or eat.”

Reach Reporter Andrew Deziel at 507-333-3129 or follow him on Twitter @FDNandrew. © Copyright 2021 APG Media of Southern Minnesota. All rights reserved.

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