Southwest Minneapolis prepares for coronavirus outbreak

Hand sanitizer has been out of stock at stores across Minneapolis, including the Uptown Lunds & Byerlys. Photo by Zac Farber

Organizations across Southwest Minneapolis are responding to the coronavirus outbreak by canceling events, introducing new protocols to protect people from the virus and drawing up plans to prevent community transmission. 

The Minneapolis College of Art and Design has canceled all classes through March 29 and all public events with 20 or more attendees through April 30. The Cross Country Ski World Cup, planned to start this weekend at Theodore Wirth Park, has been called off. The Lowry Hill East Neighborhood Association has canceled all public events through April 17. The Minneapolis Institute of Art is still open but all events, activities and tours through March 26 have been canceled and touch screens have been removed from the museum. 

At St. John’s Episcopal Church in Linden Hills, parishioners are being urged not to dip communion bread into wine and to “use a namaste-style greeting” instead of shaking hands. First Universalist Church in South Uptown recommends “smiling in greeting, rather than touching a hand.”

Kowalski’s has stopped self-serve food demos, and the Uptown VFW bar has placed its popcorn stand into storage.  

So far, there have been nine confirmed cases in the state, including one in Hennepin County. None have been contracted through community transmission. 

But with the number of COVID-19 cases rising, the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) has moved into a “community mitigation” phase, with more directives expected in the coming days aimed at increasing the physical distance between people. 

“The duration of these actions will likely not be short-term,” said Kris Ehresmann, the head of MDH’s infectious disease division. “They could last for a while.”

At the Jones-Harrison Residence, a Cedar-Isles-Dean senior home with more than 200 residents, all activities involving outside groups have been halted and staff are asking visitors to stay away if possible. 

“If you can get by with phone calls or Skyping, that would be best,” said Annette Greely, who started as the organization’s president in early February. “We have one of the most vulnerable populations that the virus is affecting.”

Greely said her staff is trying to avoid instituting 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. 

Greely said procedures are in flux and she’s been hearing new and changing information from the CDC and MDH on a daily basis. “If there’s an explosion of cases, we can get a new set of instructions,” she said. 

At least for now, though, bingo is still on. 

“That’s very important,” Greely said.

Restaurants, churches, gyms, museums and other public-facing organizations in Southwest have been doubling down on cleaning efforts, stocking up on disinfectants and asking sick employees to stay home. 

Settergren’s Ace Hardware in Linden Hills received a shipment of 500-600 bottles of hand sanitizer on March 4 but it had disappeared by the following morning. The store was also out of face masks.“Our shelves are a little bare,” said co-owner Mark Settergren. “We’re trying as hard as we can to get stuff in.”

Eric Harvey, the general manager of the Up-Down arcade bar on Lyndale Avenue, said he wants to install wall-mounted hand-sanitizing stations but hasn’t been able to find them in stock.

“Everybody’s touching these games with their hands, so staff are spending their downtime sanitizing the games — all the buttons, all the joysticks,” he said.

At Grace Neighborhood Nursery, a half-day preschool in East Isles, children have been learning proper handwashing technique — a 20-second scrub with germ-busting bubbles. 

“Wash, wash, wash your hands, wash them till they’re clean, scrub the hands, scrubbing there and scrubbing in between,” sings director Barb Murphy. “It’s real simple, and if they sing it twice, it’s 20 seconds.”

(Children are at relatively low risk for contracting the virus; Ehresmann said people under age 19 have made up only 2% of overall cases.)

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 has only been testing people who are hospitalized, who have respiratory symptoms and have traveled to an affected area and who are known to have come in contact with a COVID-19 patient. There have been 316 patients tested statewide as of March 12.

“We want to make sure we are testing individuals with the highest likelihood of having COVID-19,” Ehresmann said.

For up-to-date health information, please check the MDH or CDC websites or call the MDH’s coronavirus hotline at 651-201-3920.