Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by 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

 

The disappearing toilet paper & other COVID-19 updates from Minnesota March 13, 2020

We were running low on fruit. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

I PROMISED MY ELDEST daughter I would pick up hand sanitizer for her while on routine grocery and big box store runs Thursday evening. We were running low on bathroom cleaning supplies, fresh fruit, bread, milk and other items. This wasn’t a stockpiling outing due to COVID-19, just a regular shopping trip. And picking up sanitizer for her—because she lives in the Twin Cities metro and can’t find any there—would be no big deal. Or so I thought.

 

A look at the toilet paper aisle at Aldi in Faribault on Thursday evening.

 

But upon entering Aldi, my go-to grocer, I immediately realized this would be anything but a typical visit. For one thing, the place teemed with people, unusual for a Thursday evening. Then I started noticing the empty and emptying shelves. We’re talking everything from almonds to bread to no spinach. But it was the toilet paper aisle that caused me to pause and take a photo. The toilet paper shortage repeated itself at Walmart and then at Fareway Foods.

As Randy and I waited to check out our groceries (no hoarding by us and no hand sanitizer for the daughter), I commented to the clerk about the sold-out merchandise and the crowd. She informed me that Aldi expected to do $21,000 in sales that day, typical for what she termed a “slow day.” But when we checked out at 7 pm, that total had already reached $42,000. They were unprepared, she said, explaining the emptying shelves. An Aldi semi pulled into the parking lot while we loaded our purchases into the van and then headed for Walmart. The Aldi clerk warned us of long lines there.

But we needed cleaning supplies and I was still searching for the elusive hand sanitizer. At Walmart I grabbed a package of bar soap, not anti-bacterial, but found no hand sanitizer. Back in the cleaning supplies aisle, Randy experienced the same issue with no Lysol wipes and none of the brand of bath or toilet bowl cleaners I use. There were few choices on the nearly-cleared shelves. And good luck finding toilet paper.

For probably the first time ever, we left Walmart without buying anything. I didn’t need three bars of soap bad enough to wait in line. Not that the lines were horrendous, but long enough to cause us to exit empty-handed.

We had one last stop, at a smaller grocery store which has a meat counter we especially like. That presented one final opportunity to purchase hand sanitizer and the elusive cleaning supplies. But before I got to the cleaning aisle, I bumped into a friend who blames the Chinese and U.S. governments for getting us into this current pandemic. And then I met a woman who stood in disbelief before the empty toilet paper shelves. She wondered aloud about what she termed “media-driven hysteria” and lack of concern by the general public regarding the 18,000 (her number, not mine) deaths caused by influenza. I engaged in a brief conversation, quickly realizing that, if I didn’t want to get into an altercation in the toilet paper aisle, I best not continue talking to her.

In the end, I found the cleaning supplies I wanted at Fareway Foods, but no hand sanitizer. And I grabbed two containers of ice cream to add to the few items in our grocery cart. I wasn’t hoarding. The ice cream was on sale. And I like ice cream.

 

This sign along I-90 welcomes travelers to Minnesota along the Mississippi River by La Crosse, Wisconsin.

 

UPDATES FROM MINNESOTA: Five more cases of COVID-19 were confirmed in Minnesota today, bringing the total number to 14 with two of those individuals hospitalized. One is “acutely-ill,” according to Minnesota Commissioner of Health Jan Malcolm

The commissioner shared that information during a 1 pm news conference in which Minnesota Governor Tim Walz declared a peace-time state of emergency. This declaration gives him the power to mandate community measures to protect health and safety if need be. Currently, Minnesota officials are recommending canceling gatherings of 250 people or more, social distancing of six feet, limiting visitors to senior care centers and many other strategies we’ve already heard implemented elsewhere. Both Walz and Malcolm stress that we are in this together and must do our part to keep each other safe. Walz called the community level strategies “science based” and “societal measures.”

In my community, at least one school, Shattuck-St. Mary’s, a private college prep school with students from around the world, is transitioning to distance learning, according to an article in the Faribault Daily News. At this point, state officials are not recommending school closures. But, as the governor stated, decisions related to the Coronavirus are “evolving decisions.”

 

Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

So what do we do? Stay calm. Prepare, within reason. Recognize the vulnerability of older people and those with underlying health conditions. Follow the guidelines for gatherings and social distancing. Wash our hands. Cover our coughs. Stay home if we’re not feeling well. And, plain and simple, use common sense.

And if it helps, eat ice cream.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling