Cities Step Up As COVID-19 Hits MN
EDITOR’S NOTE : Minnesota had its first known case of COVID- 19 on March 6. Prior to that date, the content plan for this issue of Minnesota Cities magazine was quite different from the issue you’re looking at now. By mid-March, the League was preparing to close its building, and cities across the state were working to figure out how best to keep their residents and employees safe.
We weren’t quite sure what was coming, but by all accounts, it wasn’t going to be over anytime soon. So, we changed our plans for this issue to bring you relevant information and analysis about the pandemic, how cities are stepping up to deal with it, and how city officials can provide the best leadership during this uncertain time. We’ve also dedicated this edition of Bits & Briefs to some of the creative things cities have done in the wake of the crisis. As this situation evolves, upcoming issues of Minnesota Cities will continue to share more stories about how cities are adapting to this strange, new reality.
48-Hour Flash Food Drive
After the announcement that schools would close to students, the Roseville Police Department held a two-day “Flash Food Drive” to benefit families from Roseville Area High School. Organizer Erin Reski, school liaison officer at Roseville Area High School, said she was concerned about kids who had received meal support during the recent spring break and were already considered “high need.” Reski quickly got approval from school and Police Department administration, and 48 hours later the plan was in motion.
Within 24 hours of announcing the drive, Reski had scheduled more than 100 pickups. To participate, residents put their donations on their porch at a scheduled time. Reski and community service officers Alex LaPierre and Abdiaziz Warsame completed pickups. The squads completed close to 150 pickups, and the school district coordinated delivery to families in need. “I’m very thankful,” says Reski. “The citizens of Roseville were so amazing.”
The City of Jordan is coordinating volunteers through their Errands to Reduce Risk program. Recipients still pay for their goods, such as groceries, pharmacy items, and pet food, but are able to lower their risk of exposure by staying out of public spaces. The first week that City Hall closed to the public, the city produced a COVID-19 newsletter distributed to residences, including senior centers, to share the service and other information about the city response and public health. City Administrator Thomas Nikunen reports that 36 residents volunteered in the first week — exceeding requests for help. The city may branch out to assist with food shelf deliveries next.
Keeping Senior Living Residents Connected
The City of Henning is encouraging the community, especially kids, to send positive letters, photos, and colored pages to tenants of the city-owned Willow Creek Senior Living. The goal is to help Willow Creek residents stay connected while their doors are closed to visitors and congregate living activities are suspended. The Henning community, including local businesses, has met the challenge.
A local church group wrote letters to every tenant. First National Bank sent Easter coloring pages and envelopes to all their First Savers Club kids, and encouraged them to send their masterpieces to Willow Creek. Community donations have also provided tenants with Easter lilies and bouquets of flowers. Willow Creek staff have received donations of homemade masks. Lisa Augustus, RN executive director at Willow Creek, says she is encouraging the tenants to write letters back, and to stay connected or reconnect with family and friends.
Virtual Ride-Along Shares Pandemic Perspective
Several Minnesota police departments participated in a virtual ride-along on Twitter in March, using #MNcopsVRA, and tweeting about various calls they were responding to. They provided some insight on how the pandemic is affecting calls. For example, the Eagan Police Department’s calls included a child custody issue that was addressed through a phone call rather than a face-to-face visit. Osseo officers spotted four cars oddly parked together and found several high school students practicing socially distanced social time before curfew — and just before Gov. Walz’s first stay-at-home order took effect.
Librarians Serve Up ‘Can Do’ Skills
The City of Austin allowed library employees to work with the United Way of Mower County to deliver meals to seniors instead of being laid off during the library closure. The volunteer organization is getting a much-needed boost of people power and capacity with their help, and library staff were able to count those hours as regular work hours for payroll. City Administrator Craig Clark says Austin has a strong culture of collaboration between the city, school district, businesses, and nonprofit community.
The senior meal program had been serving about 250 meals a day at the local senior center prior to the COVID-19 outbreak. Once the stay-at-home order was announced, that need quickly grew to 950 delivered meals a day by mid-April. Library staff have also been able to lend a hand with administrative support for the police and assist the school district with deployment of 200 mobile hotspots provided by the Hormel Foundation to help with distance learning.
The City of Chanhassen put out all their American flags in the downtown area as a sign of solidarity and to show that their community is united in facing the pandemic. The gesture was a suggestion of Mayor Elise Ryan, and has received a wave of positive response on social media and in conversation. Usually the flags are only flown on federal holidays. The city was also quick to launch virtual recreation programs for when a stroll under the stars and stripes isn’t an option.
First responders and public works departments from several cities, including Richfield, Crystal, and Hopkins, have been brightening the days of birthday kids stuck at home with “Birthday Patrols” or “Birthday Brigades.” Upon request, these cities are scheduling any available fire trucks, squad cars, dump trucks, and more to the homes of birthday kids to put on a show of lights and horns to be enjoyed from the front yard. Watch a video report of one birthday event in Crystal at https://bit.ly/bdaybrigade.
Supporting Downtown Businesses
The City of Rochester stopped enforcing parking meters in its downtown zone, and signed or bagged spots in front of restaurants to allow for easier food order pickup, drop-off, and delivery, according to the Post Bulletin newspaper. The Police Department is working with restaurant owners to ticket anyone abusing the short-term parking areas. The city also promoted its Art4Trails collaboration with the Rochester Art Center to walkers and bikers. The public art initiative has installed sculptures created by artists with regional ties along the city’s downtown trail system to provide a more scenic route and arts access to all.