Marshall Grange, Chaska parks and recreation director, uses his elbows to open doors as he does a walk-through of the community center.
He passes hand sanitizer stations, signs encouraging social distancing, and clearly-labeled doors marked “ENTER” and “EXIT.” Talking through a blue face mask, he follows masking tape arrows guiding people one-way around the gym, greeting employees with sanitizer spray in their gloved hands.
It’s the new normal at the Chaska Community Center, which reopened last Tuesday. Members sign up online for one-and-a-half hour workout spots, separated by 30 minutes of deep-cleaning by staff.
Front desk staff wear face masks behind plexiglass sheets. Every treadmill and weight lifting station is at least six feet apart. No-touch water fountains are a new addition. It’s all an effort to make the space safer for everyone.
“That was our No. 1 goal,” Grange said. “We need to make sure that people feel safe enough to come here, and obviously our staff need to feel the same way.”
For two months, community center staff were hard at work despite the center’s shutdown due to COVID-19. City staff said around $292,000 worth of improvements took place.
“While we were down, it was nice because this facility is going on 30 years old, and it was due for a lot of maintenance projects,” Grange said.
Grange said the most expensive change was probably wiring up cardio equipment with cables and TV functionality, which needed longer cables to accommodate social distancing.
They also redid the pool area, installed new water bottle fillers, repainted much of the building, spread staff desks throughout conference rooms, and moved all the cardio equipment from the fitness center to the gym.
“All that equipment,” Grange said, pointing to treadmills and cardio climbers, “and all of this,” nodding to the strength training area, “was all in here” — the small weight room.
“We were busy for a few months,” he said, laughing.
Now, workout equipment is spread out across the building, with cleaning stations never far away. In the weight room, Grange said part of the center’s messaging is to wear a mask when doing low-intensity exercises.
Rachel Hernandez knows what that’s like firsthand.
The Chaskan has been a member of the community center for nearly two years. She signed up for a workout slot the very first day it reopened and plans to go about five times a week.
“So far, so good,” she said of the reopening.
Hernandez had been running outside for the past few months while her membership was frozen with the center. Now that she’s back in action, she said things are going pretty well.
“I’ve been wearing a mask lifting so far. There’s not a lot of people there yet, so that helps,” Hernandez said. “I think it’s a great system that they have going. From what I’ve seen and done so far, I feel fine.”
She reserves a spot online for her interval, then goes home when it’s time for staff to deeply clean. Though participation is noticeably lesser, she wonders if the influx of people going back to work will make more of a demand for evening exercisers, busying the building.
Her other worry is wintertime when the “resolutioners” come to the gym after New Year’s.
“That’s where I’m a little concerned, if they’re going to adjust their sign-up hours and things like that,” she said.
But Grange said staff are committed to upholding state standards for capacity. Only 60 people can work out at a time, and there are various areas for people to spread out. Crowding hasn’t been an issue thus far. Even the extra-cautious are coming in for a sweat session.
“We had one of our members yesterday on day one who was a self-proclaimed germaphobe that said they felt comfortable here, so I thought that was a win,” Grange said. “The thing that’s made me the most proud, I guess, is we’ve gotten a lot of feedback where people feel safe.”
And for good reason.
Staff have ramped up cleaning procedures throughout the day. Attendants have spreadsheets of who uses what equipment, which is cleaned after each use. Once sanitized, that equipment is erased off the list and ready for someone else to use.
Grange said members were encouraged to clean equipment before and after each use, but said you can never be too safe.
To limit attendees inside the building, members can book online up to three days in advance. Sign-up closes at 4 a.m. for a given day, but people can still call to see if there’s availability and walk in to register that day.
When all of this was put into place, Grange said staff called every member and walked them through how to set up online accounts. Though there was a technology learning curve, he said things are going smoother now.
“Our whole approach has been just kind of, ‘Start small and build our rhythm,’ kind of see what works,” he said.
They’ll continue team discussions and add amenities as needed, all while following state COVID guidelines. But for now, they have people getting back into the fitness rhythm of things — and safely, at that.
“It’s just nice that they’re able to figure out a way to get it back open,” Hernandez said. “You can tell they have a really good system in place to keep people safe.”
When the needs of Scott and Carver county residents changed at the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, area food shelves adapted their services — thanks in part to donations from residents.
Organizations like Bountiful Basket Food Shelf, located in Chaska and also serving Carver, Chanhassen and Victoria, have seen a notable increase in food distributed in the initial months of 2020.
In a typical year, Bountiful Basket distributes about 300,000 pounds of food to those who need it. In the first three months of this year, they distributed 105,371 pounds. In March alone, 37,986 pounds of food were distributed, making it one of the organization’s “highest months ever,” said Chairman Tom Redman.
“Regarding food donations, our numbers have stayed constant, but the dollar donations have increased considerably,” Redman said. “Individuals, civic organizations, businesses, corporations and grants from nonprofits (in our community) have been amazing.”
Redman said there has been a small uptick those served.
“The largest increase would be in ‘new clients’ where we saw at least a doubling from around 50 a month in October through December compared to an average of over a 150 a month in January through March of this year,” said Redman.
People Reaching Out to People (PROP), based in Eden Prairie, distributed over 250,000 pounds of food donations between January and May of this year.
Executive Director Janet Palmer said these numbers are actually lower than 2019 because the organization’s “fresh choice market,” similar to a grocery store where individuals can shop for produce, dairy and bakery products, could not operate as usual in order to comply with health guidelines.
So far this year, PROP has seen a 4% increase in those using its services. Palmer said extra funding provided by the CARES Act for food bank administrative costs, and changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) have “really helped our customers.” However, right now, these “supports” are set to expire at the end of July.
“Once that ends, we predict two to four times the number of households that will need our services, with significant increases in September and October,” Palmer said.
The Scott County Community Action Partnership (CAP) Agency distributed 349,313 pounds of food in the first quarter of 2020, as compared to 321,814 pounds in the same timeframe in 2019.
The number of households being served by the CAP Agency has nearly doubled in 2020 as compared to 2019. In May 2020 alone, 3,622 households were using food donation services provided by the CAP Agency, where 810 were in May 2019. The largest increase comes from serving households through weekly pop-up food distributions that ran for 12 weeks beginning at the end of March, said Director of Nutrition and Community Services Jackie Lara.
Lara said the CAP Agency has seen an increase in monetary donations, as well as donations of food, toiletries, diapers and other essentials during the COVID-19 crisis.
“We can only serve those in need if we have the resources to do so,” Lara said. “We are so grateful for the community support during this time.”
While community needs changed in the early months of this year, guidelines for meeting those needs got complicated. Palmer said PROP has had to make “significant changes” based on what foods they are able to manage safely.
For example, “rescue food” donated from local grocery stores had to be suspended, which Palmer said was “a major hit” to the organization as they now have to purchase two to three times the food they normally would.
The food shelf has also changed their mix of perishable and non-perishable food stocks so more food can be boxed ahead of time. They are still able to provide essential food items like meat, eggs, milk and frozen vegetables along with boxed food in a curbside delivery model, Palmer said.
Volunteers are a vital part of the distribution process.
“We are 100% volunteers,” Redman said of Bountiful Basket. “As many employees are encouraged to work from home, we have continued to have all but a few of our volunteers show up to help.”
Despite the large number of senior volunteers at Bountiful Basket, Redman said people continue to show up to meet the needs of their community.
“We have encouraged those that do not feel comfortable coming in to volunteer to stay away until ... they feel they will be more safe, and some have opted to do this,” Redman said.
“CAP Agency has been here since 1965 to help others in their time of need and we do it in partnership with our community,” Lara said. “We depend on donations as well as volunteers to keep us going.”
“We know that the battle has yet to come, but we are well prepared,” Palmer said. “We appreciate the community that rallies when we need help.”