Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

A COVID-19 update & thoughts from Rice County, Minnesota January 22, 2021

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Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo from Valley Grove Cemetery, used for illustration only.

SLIGHTLY OVER A MONTH has passed since I wrote about COVID-19 in my southeastern Minnesota county. And in those 34 days, 22 more individuals in Rice County have died due to the virus, bringing our total deaths to 69. Since the pandemic began, the number of people infected with COVID (January 21 county stats) stands at 6,139.

My heart breaks when I consider the death data, because behind every number is a person. Someone who loved and was loved. The virus claimed individuals ranging in age from 24 – 104. Most (42) lived in long term care centers.

I scrolled through area obituaries to find a few of those individuals who died due to COVID. I appreciate when families publicly share that cause of death as I think it’s a personally powerful way to make a statement to the community that, This virus is deadly.

READ THEIR NAMES

In my brief search, I found these names: Craig, 71; Ted, 77; Harvey, 75; Chuck, 89; Norma, 92; and Dave, 87. Dave, part of my faith family, was a long-time funeral home director prior to retiring and passing along the business to his son. Craig was a Faribault pastor, the first in my county to die of COVID-19 in April.

While my immediate family has thus far remained healthy, many extended family members have gotten and recovered from the virus. Friends have also been ill, including one hospitalized for two weeks. I indirectly know others who’ve been hospitalized and/or died. They are individuals I’ve sometimes prayed for for weeks as they’ve battled the virus and struggled to recover.

My niece will tell you the story of a friend who has suffered serious, severe and long-lasting complications from COVID-19. That’s the thing about this virus. We never know if we will experience only a mild case or something much more serious. Even deadly. Age is not a given protection.

MASK WEARING REMAINS AN ISSUE

Wearing a multi-layered, tight-fitting mask (and, no, a plastic face shield alone doesn’t count as CDC-approved protection); socially distancing; washing/sanitizing hands often; avoiding time with those outside our household, especially in enclosed spaces; and staying home when sick or with COVID symptoms remain as important as ever to help stop the spread of the virus. I can’t stress those health and safety protocols enough.

I continue to see people in public without masks or wearing them below their noses and sometimes even below their mouths. That frustrates me to no end—this inability to wear a mask or to wear it correctly by covering both the mouth AND the nose. It’s not that difficult. Even my 2-year-old grandson wears his mask properly. Why is it so hard for adults (like the cashiers at a local dollar store, some grocery store customers, etc.) to do so? Most troubling was the half-masker sporting a jacket for an area small town volunteer fire and rescue department. I want to scream at these people and confront them. (I don’t. I avoid them.) And, yes, that may sound judgy. But at this point in the pandemic, when a new variant is increasing spread, masks are even more important. People ought to care about protecting others. They ought to care that their neighbors are getting really sick and/or dying.

HOPEFUL AS VACCINES ROLL OUT

As of yesterday, 2,039 people in Rice County, or 3.1 percent, have started the vaccination process targeted first to those living in long term care settings and working in healthcare. It’s a start in a county with a population of 65,765. Some vaccines have also been set aside for childcare workers, educators and those age 65 and over. That said, the supply cannot meet demand. Yet, I am thankful for vaccination beginning and hopeful that will amp up under the Biden administration.

Randy and I are some eight months shy of the age 65 cut-off. I’m not worried about myself as much as my husband. He faces possible COVID exposure in the workplace. (And, yes, there have been cases.) As a highly-skilled and in high demand automotive machinist, working from home is not an option. So I ask him to mask and distance himself from co-workers and customers, especially those non-maskers and half-maskers.

If Randy gets COVID, I likely will, too. And I’d rather not test how my body will react. A severe case of whooping cough at age 50, which left me incredibly sick for three months, gasping for air, using an inhaler and taking a steroid, shows me just how awful an illness that affects the lungs and impedes breathing. I expect COVID would be worse. Much worse.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

About that “stupid mask…” October 26, 2020

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The reason the Rare Pair in Northfield, Minnesota, gives for wearing face masks. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

“…if I didn’t have to wear this stupid mask…”

As his words slid across me, I felt my anger and frustration flare as they too often do these days. I wanted to lash out at him, this guy who expressed his disdain for wearing a face mask. But I held back as I waited for the bank teller to return with my deposit slip. I suppressed the message I wanted to share with him that wearing a mask protects others from COVID-19.

I wanted to tell him, too, about the 87-year-old Faribault resident who died the day prior due to complications of the virus. Dave. Part of my faith family at Trinity Lutheran Church. A man of faith, character and integrity. Well-known in the community, he was the second-generation owner of a funeral home, operated since 1995 by his son Scott.

As I write, I picture Dave with his broad smile, his genuine care and concern for others. To run a funeral home, you have to be an individual of compassion and understanding, of grace and kindness. A listener and comforter.

“Protect the herd” plays off the city’s “Cows, Colleges and Contentment” slogan in Northfield, Minnesota. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

All these thoughts filter through my mind when I consider how too many people still fail to wear face masks, fail to follow social distancing guidelines, gather in crowds and/or criticize these public health efforts to stop the spread of COVID-19.

I see this every time I’m in public. The 40-something unmasked dad at the grocery store shopping with his unmasked elementary-aged son while nearby a 4-year-old has no problem masking up. The two men in another grocery store likewise without masks. The customer in the phone store who pulls his mask on and off with no concern for staff or other customers. And the young 20-something who walks into the phone shop like he owns the place, without a care for adhering to the many signs that call for wearing a mask and social distancing inside the business. The waitress at the end of the bar, standing with two other waitresses, her mask below her nose, as we pick up take-out. It is among the reasons I won’t dine at a restaurant. Half-masking doesn’t protect anyone.

I am beyond frustrated with what I perceive as selfishness, lack of care for others and lack of respect for science and our healthcare workers and so much more. At this point in the progression of COVID, I don’t expect opinions to change. I expect the “if I didn’t have to wear this stupid mask” attitude to continue.

Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo June 2020.

I expect my state senator will continue with his outspoken outrage over emergency measures taken in our state to protect residents during this global pandemic. After all, as he pointed out in a recent radio interview, his district has only tallied 20 deaths. (That number increased since the senator made that statement.) He continually terms the virus a metro problem. Statistics, facts, show COVID-19 is running rampant now in rural Minnesota. This is a disease that doesn’t distinguish between city or small town/rural, suburban or urban.

From the front page of the Faribault Daily News. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo April 2020.

That brings me back to Dave, now the 10th Rice County resident to die due to complications from COVID-19. But Dave is not just a number. He was a husband, a father, a grandfather, a man who for decades comforted grieving families. Just like the first person, the Rev. Craig Breimhorst, to die of the virus in my county in April.

This is so important to remember. Behind every number, every statistic, is a person. An individual who loved and was loved. Dave was part of my faith family, thus his death from COVID affects me personally. So when I hear someone say, “…if I didn’t have to wear this stupid mask…” or I see people without masks or half-maskers or I hear of people attending sizable social gatherings, I feel my blood pressure and anger rising.

Dave will not have the funeral he deserves, like so many who have passed during COVID-19. His will be a private family service “in consideration of family health risks.” I respect and appreciate that decision. Too many funerals (and weddings) have been the source of COVID outbreaks in Minnesota.

FOR OUR HEALTH AND YOURS, the #1 reason to mask up. Posted at a Northfield business. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

Yes, we’re all getting COVID weary. I get that. I understand the challenges, especially as we move into winter and the holiday season. This is not easy. But we have the power to, at the very least, do our best to protect ourselves and each other. To listen to the scientists and health experts. To don our masks. And to make smart, not stupid, choices.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

About those face masks… August 28, 2020

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A clown mask for sale at a Minnesota antique shop. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo

 

REMEMBER THOSE MOLDED plastic masks, popular Halloween costumes back in the 1960s? OK, if you, then you are younger than me. But I loved those masks because I could transform into someone other than the skinny farm girl I was in real life.

 

A Halloween mask for sale at Antiques of the Midwest. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

I still remember the year I pressed a gypsy woman mask to my face, pulled on my mom’s colorful, full skirt and a blouse, and slipped bangles onto my arms. I was not elementary-aged Audrey ready to race about town gathering Hershey candy bars, Tootsie Pop suckers and the occasional rock-hard colored homemade popcorn ball that threatened to break teeth. Rather I was this free spirit of a gypsy seeking new adventure.

 

An Archie mask for sale at an antique shop. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Yet, I wasn’t quite free. I felt trapped inside that hot Halloween mask. It was uncomfortable. It limited my vision as did my missing prescription eyeglasses. In between candy stops, I sometimes pulled the mask up, freeing my face. But I put up with all this uncomfortableness for the fun of Halloween.

 

Face masks crafted and sent to me by Penny, a blogger friend in Texas.

 

Now fast forward to today. Each time I leave the house to go to a public place, I grab a cloth face mask. And hand sanitizer. It’s become as routine as grabbing my handbag, as slipping on my shoes. Like Gypsy Audrey of decades ago, I feel conflicted, though, about that face mask. I absolutely, 100 percent, support the wearing of face masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and am thankful for the mask mandate in Minnesota. But I don’t like wearing a mask. Just like back in my gypsy days, I find face masks hot, uncomfortable and limiting my vision whenever my glasses fog. But I put up with all the uncomfortableness because I care about protecting others from a disease that has sickened and killed people in my circle or connected to my circle.

 

A sign posted at the Steele County History Center in Owatonna. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo June 2020.

 

So, when I head into public and see people without masks (still) or wearing them incorrectly (not covering their noses), my irritation rises. I don’t buy into the “you’re taking away my personal freedom” argument. If I enter a business, I need to wear a shirt and shoes or I won’t be served. If I get in a vehicle, the law requires I belt myself in. And, in Minnesota we also have a hands-off when driving cellphone law.

 

“Protect the herd” plays off Northfield, Minnesota’s “Cows, Colleges and Contentment” slogan. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2020.

 

While I’m limiting my public circulation, I’m still out and about. And I’ve seen, in Faribault, way too many people who are either not wearing masks or are “half-maskers,” a new term I just heard a few days ago in a media report. The report focused on the importance of covering the nose, where the virus thrives and can be spewed by simply breathing. You don’t need to be an infectious disease doctor to grasp that basic health concept.

 

Wearing a face mask the right way, covering your nose and mouth. I photographed this toy monkey in the window of an historic home in Dundas, Minnesota.

 

About two weeks ago when I went to the local dollar store to pick up greeting cards, I encountered a customer without a mask and saw both cashiers and the customer in front of me wearing their masks below their noses. That same day, I spotted two grocery store employees at two different stores with masks below their noses. And my last visit to the dollar store, I once again saw an unmasked customer and a different cashier with her mask not covering her nose. I’d had enough. I politely asked the cashier to pull her mask over her nose and advised her that the mask was doing no good if she left her nose exposed. She reluctantly pulled the cloth face covering up and then, even before I was completely turned away, pulled it back down, her eyes glaring dislike toward me. I reached for the hand sanitizer in my pocket and squeezed a generous amount onto my palm.

I don’t get it. I just do not get it. Businesses want our business. Yet I see employees wearing masks incorrectly. People want this pandemic to end. Yet, some are half-maskers or no maskers (and that includes customers who come into my husband’s workplace) and/or believe this pandemic is all a hoax. It’s not. It’s as real as the two sympathy cards I’ve sent to friends who have lost loved ones to COVID-19.

 

FYI: Click here to read the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention information on how and why to wear a face mask and more.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Don’t be an outlaw in Northfield: Protect the herd August 2, 2020

In the front display window of a downtown Northfield, Minnesota, business.

 

SUPERHEROES mask up.

 

The image represents the James-Younger Gang.

 

As do outlaws.

 

The reason the Rare Pair gives for wearing face masks.

 

And those who love others.

 

“Protect the herd” plays off the city’s “Cows, Colleges and Contentment” slogan. Northfield is home to Carleton and St. Olaf Colleges.

 

When I walked through downtown Northfield—the place of Cows, Colleges and Contentment—on Friday evening, I intentionally looked for signage on Minnesota’s new face mask mandate. This college city did not disappoint. I found signs ranging from serious to humorous.

 

More humor in a COVID-19 sign that relates to safe practices outdoors.

 

I especially welcomed those that made me laugh, something we all need in these days of living with COVID-19, when even leaving our homes sometimes seems like venturing into the Wild Wild West.

 

Site of the famous bank raid, now a museum.

 

Tour the museum and learn the story of the bank raid.

 

Northfield Historical Society face mask humor..

 

At the Northfield Historical Society, the historians draw on Northfield’s claim to fame—the defeat of the James-Younger Gang during an 1876 robbery of the First National Bank—to get across the mask mandate message. Please Don’t Be an Outlaw, states the message on museum doors.

 

A message posted on the front door of Antiques of Northfield.

 

At Antiques of Northfield, a personal note from Carole about the store’s temporary closure made me simultaneously laugh at her comment and then reflect. Too many of our seniors have died as a result of contracting COVID-19.

 

The sign on the door of The Contented Cow, a British style pub in downtown Northfield.

 

Some mask signs are more straightforward, like at The Contented Cow, with a please added to the request.

 

This Northfield business wants to stay open.

 

At a home furnishings and floor covering store, they want customers to mask up so businesses can stay open, as good a reason as any for masks.

 

The #1 reason to mask up.

 

I appreciate, too, the signage that states the clear and obvious scientific reason for wearing a face mask during a global pandemic: for our health & yours.

 

For those who forgot their masks… Note that a new Minnesota state law went into effect on August 1, raising the age to buy tobacco to 21. These signs were photographed on July 31.

 

At the tobacco shop, customers can even get a free mask inside the store.

 

Customers can’t possibly miss all the signage at this Northfield business.

 

Whatever it takes. We all need to get the message loud and clear that masks help stop the spread of this virus. Yeah, they’re uncomfortable and hot and diminish social interaction. But we can manage those minor inconveniences because, you know, this is something simple we can do to show our care for others and protect each other.

 

Just do it. Wearing a mask is required in indoor public places in Minnesota.

 

And masks are mandatory in Minnesota, along with 32 others states (as of this writing).

 

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Mask up, Minnesota July 22, 2020

A sign posted at the Steele County History Center in Owatonna. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo June 2020.

 

A PRESS CONFERENCE WEDNESDAY afternoon led by Minnesota Governor Tim Walz could have passed as a persuasive speech when he announced a statewide mask mandate effective at 11:59 pm Friday.

I needed no convincing as I listened and took notes. I’ve consumed enough reliable information from health officials and others to long ago recognize the value of wearing face masks during this global pandemic. Common sense also tells me that masking up helps limit the spread of the potentially deadly COVID-19 virus.

Other state officials, including Lt. Governor Peggy Flanagan who lost a brother to COVID, two infectious disease doctors and two small business owners joined the governor as he announced executive order 20-81 requiring face masks to be worn in all indoor public places in our state.

 

A woman attending an outdoor band concert in Faribault last week masks up in this edited file photo.

 

I’ve awaited this announcement for weeks as city after city in Minnesota—most recently Northfield in my county of Rice—adopted ordinances requiring face masks. The governor and his team are aiming for a 90-95 percent compliance rate to help slow the spread of COVID and save lives.

“This is a small sacrifice for a potential big gain,” Walz said as he referenced health and economic benefits.

The lieutenant governor called for Minnesotans to make wearing masks a part of their routine, to “normalize this” and to help kids get comfortable in masks to prepare for schools reopening. Children under five don’t need to wear masks, although masks are encouraged for anyone over age two.

At times, the news conference sounded like a pep talk. “Minnesotans, we can do this,” Walz said. “…we are good at doing things for others.” Wearing a Paul Bunyan buffalo plaid mask, the governor also urged people to be kind to one another in adopting this “science based solution.”

 

Social distancing remains part of the safety protocol to protect ourselves and others from COVID-19 as noted in this sign posted at the Steele County History Center. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo June 2020.

 

Yet, several, including Minnesota Commissioner of Health Jan Malcolm warned that “A mask is not magic.” People still need to stay home when sick, avoid large crowds, practice six-feet minimum social distancing, wash/sanitize their hands frequently, avoid touching their faces… The state health department weeks ago recommended the mask mandate and Malcolm reiterated the importance of wearing face masks to help protect others and control the spread of COVID-19. She also noted that masking presents a psychological benefit in reminding people that “COVID is still with us.”

She echoed the governor’s sentiments with an encouraging, “We can do this.”

While Malcolm focused on the health aspect, Steve Grove, who leads the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, focused on the economic side. Wearing masks will keep the Minnesota economy open and pave the way for further reopening, he said. The Minnesota Retailers Association earlier backed a mask mandate. He urged individual responsibility in wearing masks while also pointing out the need for businesses to assure employees are following the order and that signs are posted requiring customers to be masked. To that end, the state is shipping disposable masks to one Chamber of Commerce in each of Minnesota’s counties for dispersal to businesses.

When customers don’t comply, Grove suggested “thoughtful conversation.” He doesn’t want, he said, for businesses to become “the mask police.”

 

I photographed this mask wearing local while attending a car cruise in downtown Faribault in mid May. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo, May 2020.

 

At one point, the governor called not wearing a mask “reckless and not neighborly.” I could sense his frustration with how masks have become a political issue. “My responsibility,” he said, “is to follow the best guidance and the best science.” But then the Democratic governor noted that “President Trump is telling you to wear a mask.” Walz had hoped Republican leaders in Minnesota would support him in issuing a mask mandate. Up until now, they have not. I feel the governor’s frustrations, too, with those who make this a political issue.

I’ve felt incredibly frustrated also with the lack of mask wearing in my community among the general public, but especially by employees in several local businesses. They want our business, yet fail to recognize the importance of protecting customers. I recently decided that I would no longer shop at local businesses where staff do not mask up. Those include local hardware/farm supply stores and two bar/restaurants (where we’ve done take-out only). I also determined to no longer allow a mask-less grocery store cashier to check out my groceries. She wore a face mask around her neck, where it did absolutely no good.

Now all that changes with executive order 20-81, an order which DEED Commissioner Grove says is “rooted in health and growing our economy.”

Mask up, Minnesota. It’s the right thing to do for yourself, your family, your friends, your neighbors, your community, your county, your state and your country.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

A child’s perspective on face masks with notes from Grandma May 28, 2020

Some of our face masks, crafted by a friend in Texas.

 

“I like your face mask, Grandma.”

Her words nearly broke my heart. But I didn’t let on to 4-year-old Isabelle who sat behind me, buckled in her car seat, waiting for Grandpa to exit the convenience store with a gallon of milk.

My cotton print mask, dangling from the cup holder, was in her favorite color, pink. I grabbed the mask and pointed to the colored circles thereon—yellow, green, white, pink, blue, orange.

“Mine has lady bugs,” Izzy said. “And the other is brown.”

I knew about the masks, which had just arrived in the mail from my granddaughter’s great aunt in New Jersey. I was grateful for that gift. But, still, the thought of a preschooler aware of face coverings made me profoundly sad. Her parents had already talked to Izzy about COVID-19 in terms she could understand—that people are sick. She accepts that as the reason she can’t see her friends, go to the library, visit Como Park or the Minnesota Zoo and much more.

 

Izzy rides her scooter along the trail in North Alexander Park in Faribault.

 

I followed that same simple explanation when we were at a Faribault park with Izzy. I kept a watchful eye as she zoomed ahead of Randy and me on her scooter. When I saw others approaching on the trail, I called for her to stop. She listened. We moved to the side and I formed a barrier between myself and passersby. I feel an overwhelming need to protect my sweet granddaughter.

Isabelle never once asked to play on the playground. She understands that, for now, for her safety, she can’t.

 

Baby ducks are so so cute.

 

Mama duck watches her babies.

 

The drake swims nearby.

 

We tried to make our park visit as ordinary as possible, pausing to watch a family of ducks along the shoreline. It was a moment of grace, observing downy ducklings guarded by their mother. Not unlike me with Izzy. We listened to their incessant cheeping and I wondered what they were communicating to one another. Warnings perhaps.

 

A long row of lilacs in various shades grows in North Alexander Park.

 

We stopped also so Grandpa could clip a spray of lilacs.

 

There are plenty of picnic tables alongside the Cannon River.

 

And we picnicked beside the Cannon River, listening to the noisy chirp of birds. Izzy nibbled at her turkey sandwich, ate too many grapes, tried a few of Grandpa’s chips and enjoyed a chocolate chip cookie we’d baked the day prior. When she was done, I wet a napkin with an ice cube pulled from the cooler and wiped away the melting chocolate circling her lips. I love that sweet little face.

On our way home, we stopped at the convenience store. And had that conversation about face masks. When Grandpa pulled open the van door to set the jug of milk and bananas inside, Izzy watched as I squirted hand sanitizer into his open palm. “I don’t like your face mask, Grandpa,” she said. His is black-and-white checkered like a racing flag. No pink anywhere on the fabric.

Preschoolers are, if anything, honest.

And they need us to protect them and those they love. Like their parents. Their siblings. Their grandparents. Their aunts and uncles and cousins. Their friends. They need us to wear face masks.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling