Local life lost all normalcy this week, as the arrival of COVID-19 prompted local governments to declare a state of emergency and shutter schools and gathering places.
Residents of the high-rise Lake Point Condominiums tried to figure out how to take the elevator without spreading germs. Butter Bakery Cafe checked on staff who signed up for unemployment, and changed the layout so takeout customers couldn’t touch much of anything. The Jones-Harrison Residence traded group bingo for solo Sudoku, with residents dining one per table or in private rooms. The Semple Mansion postponed five weddings.
Spread primarily through respiratory droplets related to coughing and sneezing, 77 confirmed cases of COVID-19 had reached Minnesota as of March 18, including 30 in Hennepin County and six cases transmitted through community transmission. The Minnesota Department of Health has a 1,700-sample backlog and has been forced to ration tests for the new coronavirus; the actual number of cases is likely significantly higher. A Minneapolis police spokesperson said the virus has caused a spike in the city’s middle-of-the-night 911 medical calls.
In the hours after the City of Minneapolis ordered restaurants and other public places to close, paper signs appeared in nearly every shop door announcing new hours, takeout, delivery or closure.
Minneapolis attorney Davis Senseman is helping small businesses find a way to ethically close down and connect staff to unemployment income.
“It became clear that beyond maybe a week, maybe 10 days, they would not have any money to pay their staff,” Senseman said. “How can we make sure that there is a business for them to come back to?”
Senseman urged the public to keep supporting businesses and lobby for small business assistance.
The state is providing a 30-day sales tax “grace period” for businesses ordered to temporarily close and modify operation.
A message from Mayor Jacob Frey shared by the Uptown Association urged businesses to retain their employees and pay out accrued safe and sick time if possible. An alternative to layoffs is the state’s Shared Work program, he said, which allows staff to collect unemployment while working reduced hours. Among other measures, the city is waiving licensing late fees, expanding business support services, and lobbying the state for emergency relief funding for cash-strapped companies.
“Each scenario is different, and we know that many are hurting right now, but we are in this together,” Frey said in a statement.
“We’re definitely on the edge,” said Dan Swenson-Klatt, owner of Butter Bakery.
He’s reaching out to vendors, insurance companies and his landlord, trying to figure out which payments can be delayed and which can be put on hold. His food supply chain is strong, but he’s not sure how to get enough compostable to-go boxes. Still, he’s grateful for the community.
“I had a neighbor say today, ‘I’m happy to volunteer and deliver to people who can’t get out of the house,’” he said.
“It’s easy to stay 6 feet away from people when you’re on a bicycle,” said Fulton resident Dale Hammerschmidt. He and Mary Arneson have biked every day for five years — 1,872 days as of March 17 — and they don’t plan to stop now. They’re using the extra time at home to bake bread, read pharmacochemical literature on the virus, watch the Golden-crowned Kinglet in the yard, answer questions on the platform Quora and ponder the environmental impact of a population that stops leaving the house.
“How do we do this?” asked East Isles mom Laura Murphy, who is testing out virtual happy hours with friends and finding new ways to do playdates. On St. Patrick’s Day, neighbor kids wore green and walked around the block, without getting near each other. She’s interested in the concept of expanding a quarantine to include a neighboring household. And her friends agree: “I can’t believe how much my kid loves a virtual playdate,” she said. Through FaceTime, her daughter chats with a friend while she colors and plays on the swings. And she’s taken morning telelearning sessions through Temple Israel’s Early Childhood Center, reading books and learning to make playdough.
The Jones-Harrison Residence has stopped all visitors, with the exception of end-of-life visits. Instead, family members are dropping off crossword puzzles and setting up FaceTime visits through an online appointment calendar.
Jones-Harrison President Annette Greely said her staff is trying to avoid creating panic while being “super respectful of what this virus can do.” A Chinese study cited by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control has shown elevated risk for people over age 60, with a fatality rate of about 15% for those over 80. Staff ask that everyone be mindful of how the coronavirus affects the older population and take care to quarantine themselves as necessary.
At Lake Point Condominiums, Rodgers Adams said residents are trying to decide how often to sanitize door handles and elevator buttons, how to interact with the front office, how to distribute mail and newspapers, and when to allow plumbers inside.
“There is an amazing number of issues that nobody ever thought about in the daily experience of living here,” he said.
Cecil Smith, chair of the Minnesota Multihousing Association, said landlords’ No. 1 concern is trying to make communal living as safe as possible.
“At my properties, we’re beefing up cleaning, but it’s clean until somebody touches it,” he said.
The second concern is the economic impact, he said, and immediate access to unemployment and federal aid will help.
“There is a lot to think about,” he said. “Two weeks ago, nobody could have imagined today.”
“We’re taking it one day at a time to feed people and keep everybody safe,” said Lorrie Sandelin, director of Joyce Uptown Foodshelf. She requested monetary donations through the organization’s website, joyceuptownfoodshelf.org, which features a volunteer signup for packing meals and distributing food.
“We’ve always been here, and we will continue to be here through this storm,” said Pat Anderson, enterprise and program director at Sabathani Community Center.
With added safety precautions, the Sabathani food shelf will remain open from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Thursday. Anderson requested donations of canned goods, rice, meat, dairy and snacks for kids home from school.
“Usually we think dinner,” Anderson said. “Now it’s breakfast, lunch, dinner and healthy snacks.”
Neighborhoods like Whittier and Windom are creating spreadsheets and questionnaires matching neighborhood needs with volunteers. Kingfield is asking residents to buy gift cards to help shops with cash flow, and the neighborhood group is creating a network with a contact on every block.
A metrowide support group is available through Facebook at tinyurl.com/covid-twin-cities.
“If things do progress and people find themselves in a tough situation, we can activate neighbors who are ready to help,” said Kaley Brown, executive director of the Whittier Alliance.
Provision Community Restaurant is packaging meals for pickup in the lobby at 2940 Harriet Ave. S. for free, no questions asked, from 5:30 p.m.-6:30 p.m. Monday through Friday.
Minneapolis police are already seeing a “noticeable” increase in 911 medical calls related to the coronavirus, spokesperson John Elder said at a March 17 press conference.
Officials asked people not to call 911 just because they suspect they have COVID-19.
“The goal is to reserve 911 for true emergencies,” said Marty Scheerer, chief of Hennepin County’s Emergency Medical Services department. “It’s kind of back to 1950s-type medication and treatments for this disease. There’s not a lot we can do for you.”
To limit exposure, Hennepin County is reducing the number of first responders answering calls. A firefighter crew may come unaccompanied by an ambulance or police officers. “Our response levels will change based on call volume, staffing and the type of emergencies,” Scheerer said.
Emergency responders will arrive wearing masks, goggles, gowns and sometimes scrubs. The county has “many thousands” of N95 masks, Scheerer said, but to conserve the supply, crews are being asked to use an N95 mask up to five times before discarding it.
“We’ll be keeping our distance away from you, standing at the doorway or only sending one responder in to talk to you at a time,” Scheerer said. “Many, if not most of us, will contract the virus.”
Hennepin County Sheriff Dave Hutchinson said no inmates have yet tested for the virus, and sick inmates are being isolated. “If it gets worse, we’ll release people who are non-violent,” he said.
Local government response
Hennepin County has closed public libraries and service centers.
“These are unnerving times,” said board chair Marion Greene, who represents Southwest Minneapolis. “We’re working as fast as we can to respond as best as we know how.”
By declaring a state of emergency, Hennepin County will allocate $2.5 million to pay for supplies for county emergency response personnel.
The county board also approved an emergency action giving the county administrator’s office $3 million to acquire emergency quarantine housing for COVID-19 patients who are experiencing homelessness or otherwise lack a place to quarantine. The county will look for an apartment building or motel with private units and separate bathrooms. In King County, Washington, officials have already spent more than $19 million on such housing.
Mayor Jacob Frey’s emergency declaration in Minneapolis, which the City Council is expected to approve after this issue goes to press, provides the mayor additional powers and authorities that will allow Frey to approve contracts for the city on public health matters, implement rules limiting the number of people allowed to congregate in a building and authorize aid and assistance for response and recovery plans.
The city also suspended water shutoffs for a month, and Frey is urging the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office to halt eviction enforcement in Minneapolis for at least two weeks.
“We foresee that the impacts of COVID-19 will last beyond a [14-day] suspension, especially for our low-income workers, especially for those in the hospitality industry,” Frey wrote in a letter to Hennepin County Sheriff Dave Hutchinson.
Testing for COVID-19
One Whittier resident, who asked to remain anonymous out of fear of social and professional stigma, spent a week voluntarily self-quarantined after her college-aged daughter was suddenly forced to return from a semester abroad program in Florence, Italy.
Her daughter returned to the U.S. on March 2, when only Italy’s Lombardo region was under quarantine, and has not shown symptoms. But her mother was troubled by the initial lack of guidance from American authorities for people returning from affected countries.
“In Italy it was becoming such a big deal and yet here it was nothing, and when she got off the plane they didn’t even talk to her,” she said. “No tests, No, ‘Here’s what they want you to do.’”
With limited tests available, MDH is currently prioritizing hospitalized patients, health care workers and people in congregate living. The department reported 77 positive cases out of 2,762 patients tested statewide as of March 18.
“We want to make sure we are testing individuals with the highest likelihood of having COVID-19,” Minnesota Infectious Disease Division Director Kris Ehresmann said.
Tested or not, the state asks all patients with fever or acute coughs and shortness of breath to self-quarantine for at least seven days. That means isolation from household contacts as much as possible, and fellow household members should limit their own public activity for 14 days and monitor their symptoms as well.
Patients should remain self-quarantined until 72 hours after the fever resolves without medication and respiratory symptoms improve. Patients should seek care if symptoms become severe, and call ahead to a health provider when possible.