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Searching for balance: With reopenings, life edges closer to normal (copy)

Daily life this week moved closer to normal than it has been in months.

Restaurants, gyms and movie theaters’ indoors could reopen to the public Wednesday under a revised executive order from the governor, though with some limits on closeness and number. With that, basically every sector in the state is at least partly back up and running.

“We’re blooming here in Savage,” said Heather Proskey, Savage Chamber of Commerce president. “We’re just very optimistic now; it’s going to be a great summer.”

The coronavirus continues to spread. leading to more than 1,200 deaths in the state as of Thursday and hundreds of people hospitalized at a time, according to the Minnesota Department of Health.

The situation ultimately leaves each Minnesotan to sort through the messy reality of COVID-19, an adversary whose characteristics in many different directions at once, according to health officials and other researchers.

Most people who catch it recover. Its reach seems to be growing at a relatively manageable, rather than accelerating, rate, and the number of people hospitalized on a given day has fallen.

That picture could turn around quickly. Even a small fatality rate adds up when a lot of people catch it, and gathering in bigger groups and indoors can help that happen. “It isn’t over yet,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, said this week.

On the other hand, face masks, a few feet of distance and fresh air can each help curb the virus’s progress from person to person. And local business owners and others say some normalcy is vital.

It can almost seem like there’s no virus, said Stephen Purdy, whose 6-year-old son, David, and a dozen others practiced kicks and punches Thursday in Singewald’s ATA Family Martial Arts’ parking lot near the Prior Lake-Savage boundary.

The training hall moved classes outside with widely spaced pads for each student to help with social distancing, but indoor classes should also restart next week. Purdy also pointed to the busy Highway 13 rush-hour traffic a few dozen yards away — a trickle just a few weeks ago.

“But we’re still aware,” he said of the virus. “We know it’s out there.”

Minnesota’s approach to the pandemic in some ways has worked as Gov. Tim Walz intended back in March, when he ordered most Minnesotans to stay home when possible.

The goal was to slow down new infections while the state and private companies ramped up testing and prepared hospital beds and other equipment for a potential surge, all of which state officials say has happened.

Local businesses by and large have survived so far, the presidents of the Savage and Prior Lake chambers said, though Bonfire restaurant closed its branches in Savage and elsewhere. But seemingly all took a major financial hit.

Katie Bentley, manager at the nonprofit Dan Patch American Legion, said she and a few volunteers basically worked without pay to offer takeout service, but even then it didn’t make enough money to be worthwhile. She plans to reopen indoors on June 18 with shortened hours and is trying to rebuild her staff.

“We’re all going in blind, just like everybody,” she said.

The state restrictions also drew some backlash from local business owners and legislators who said they could find a way to operate safely. Jeff Petschl, owner of Charlie’s on Prior, put the restaurant up for sale because of its losses, but he said this week he took it back off the market.

“The people want to be there,” he said of customers, who were quickly filling up online reservations Wednesday. With the looser rules, “I’d call it a step in the right direction.”

Health officials’ advice has also changed many residents’ behavior. Face masks are a common sight around the metropolitan area, and many families have limited their time together.

Jenelle Mote, whose 4-year-old son, Drew, was also practicing at Singewald’s on Thursday, said her family tries to listen to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other scientists rather than wade into the politics of the pandemic.

“We’re still cautious,” she said, praising Singewald’s outdoor setup. “It’s very nice; it makes us feel more comfortable.”

Everyone will need to weigh their own risks while listening to public health guidance, said Gillian Tarr, an epidemiologist and assistant professor in the University of Minnesota’s Division of Environmental Health Sciences. She and other university researchers are investigating the disease and the effectiveness of society’s various responses to it.

In her own life, Tarr works from home as much as possible, saying she feels like it’s her responsibility because she has that luxury. She also checks with anyone she visits about what they’ve been up to for the past couple of weeks to gauge their possible exposure.

Much of the research around the virus is still preliminary and sometimes contradictory, but the evidence that people can spread it before they have symptoms, or without ever feeling them, seems to be building, Tarr said. Rather than latching onto the findings of any single study, she looks at the overall picture of scientists’ gradually growing knowledge.

“I’m going to put that in my personal risk calculus,” she said.

One key point to sorting through the pandemic is that risk isn’t all or none, Tarr added. She and other officials have said it instead ebbs and flows along a spectrum depending on the situation and people’s decisions.

There’s no magic to staying exactly 6 feet apart, for example, but the chance of intercepting someone else’s germs is lower outside of that zone than within it. And researchers continue to find being outdoors and wearing face masks can make a significant difference.

Scientists at the University of Cambridge and elsewhere have found that a majority wearing masks could tamp down the pandemic and prevent a future surge. Japan, where mask-wearing is common, has avoided large numbers of deaths with relatively few social restrictions, according to The New York Times.

With all of this in mind, some residents said they simply want to find a balance of precaution and regular life. Ron Singewald, the martial arts school’s owner, said he has used Zoom classes and the outdoor sessions and is adding the indoors, so clients can choose what works best for them.

“We are one big family,” Singewald said of the group. “At the end of the day, we want everyone to be safe.”

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State finds COVID-19 cases in seven area congregate care facilities

Four Scott County congregate care facilities and three Carver County facilities have confirmed cases of coronavirus among their residents and staff, including two deaths at McKenna Crossing in Prior Lake, according to data released by the Minnesota Department of Health earlier this month.

The state data says that affected facilities include Shakopee’s St. Gertrude’s Health and Rehabilitation Center with 18 cases, Friendship Manor with 11 and Emerald Crest with six, according to the June 5 data. McKenna saw six staff member cases and nine among residents.

Auburn Meadows and Nagel Assisted Living and Memory Care in Waconia both had one reported case among staff. SummerWood of Chanhassen has reported one case each among staff and residents.

Both SummerWood of Chanhassen and McKenna Crossing are owned by Presbyterian Homes and Services.

At least three facilities have said that the state’s data is incorrect.

Michelle Yelich, the Marketing and Community Outreach Manager for Auburn Meadows, said in an email that two staff members at the facility in Chaska and one staff member at the facility and Waconia tested positive for the coronavirus instead of the one staff case listed by the state.

Friendship Manor Director of Social Services Jamie Mohlin said the Shakopee facility has actually had three staff cases and eight resident cases.

The Nagel Assisted Living Facility in Waconia didn’t respond to a request for comment by press time Thursday, though a staff member who answered the phone told a reporter he wasn’t aware of a case there.

‘Doing what they can’

The coronavirus has led to more than 3,500 hospitalizations and more than 1,200 deaths in Minnesota, according to the department’s count as of Thursday.

Most infected people recover, but symptoms can become severe or deadly, particularly in older people or those with other health conditions. The virus spreads most easily among closely grouped people indoors, according to state and federal health officials.

Known cases have ranged from infancy to more than 100 years old, but most of those who have died were older and staying in long-term care or assisted living facilities. Those facilities for the past couple of months have limited or banned visitors and taken other steps to slow the virus’s arrival.

Families at McKenna Crossing say they feel that staff are been responsive and proactive in trying to protect residents.

Michelle Bahr’s mother, Eileen Gunderson, has lived in the assisted living facility McKenna Crossing for the last two years. Bahr said she’s happy that her 83-year-old mother was there when the pandemic hit.

She and her brothers briefly discussed moving their mother elsewhere, but “we just decided that mom really is just getting the best care there,” Bahr said.

“They’re really a wonderful facility to work with, they’ve been really good to my mom, really good to our family,” she added.

Even before McKenna Crossing had any confirmed cases, Bahr said, her mother saw only the food delivery staff and nursing staff each day, a facility-wide strategy meant to prevent the virus’s spread. Staff helped keep Bahr’s mother feeling connected with her family by setting up weekly Facetime visits for the residents.

“These folks are completely reliant on staff, and I just have nothing but good to say about the staff, they’re so good,” Bahr said.

Ernie Peacock makes regular drop-offs of care packages at the facility for his wife, Carole, who lives in the memory care unit. Peacock said he’s concerned about his wife catching the virus, but he feels like she’s in good hands.

“Those are really quality people and they deserve recognition,” Peacock said. “They’re the ones that are doing the best they can.”

The facility didn’t return a request for comment by press time Thursday.

Mohlin and Yelich said their facilities have taken similar measures to mitigate the spread of the virus.

Mohlin said at Friendship Manor a COVID Infectious Control Committee meets to match updated protocols and guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the MDH. Families have communicated with residents by way of phone calls, cards, video chats and window visits while the facility remains closed to visitors.

Yelich said Auburn Meadows has put in place visitor restrictions, deep cleaning protocols, symptom monitoring and a mask and protective eyewear requirement for all staff and private caregivers. She called the lack of resident cases a “true testament to our staff and the pre-cautions they take both inside and outside of our buildings.”

New data

The department previously released names of congregate care facilities with coronavirus exposures online, but those with fewer than 10 residents weren’t included, and neither was the exact number of cases among residents and staff. State officials said they worried the information could violate privacy laws.

That changed on June 5, when Sen. Karin Housley (R-St. Marys Point) sent a letter to Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm stating that she would pursue a legislative subpoena for the information if it wasn’t released.

The release showed the state’s public list was incomplete. Through Wednesday afternoon, Friendship Manor was not listed despite having 11 confirmed coronavirus cases and more than 80 beds, according to the facility’s website.

Scott County Public Health Director Lisa Brodsky, who has been maintaining the county’s coronavirus surveillance report, said she wasn’t sure why the facility was left out. She added the facility and two deaths at McKenna Crossing to the statistics on the county’s report on Wednesday.