MINNEAPOLIS — Officials canceled the Minnesota State Fair on Friday after its leader said the COVID-19 pandemic made it impossible for the show to go on.
“We all love the fair. And that’s exactly why we can’t have a fair this year,“ General Manager Jerry Hammer told the fair’s governing board shortly before the unanimous vote.
The cancellation came as state health officials reported 33 deaths from the coronavirus, up one from a day earlier and a new high, along with 813 newly confirmed cases. Minnesota has now had 842 deaths and 19,005 confirmed cases. The number of people hospitalized edged downward slightly to 534, but the number in intensive care rose from 229 to a new daily high of 233.
Even if it weren’t for the health considerations, he explained, all state fairs depend on huge networks of exhibitors, agriculturalists, volunteers, sponsors, ride operators and entertainers. But many major entertainers have already canceled tours for the summer, he said, and most agricultural exhibitors are now saying they might not come.
“This is the time of year when things need to really take off, and we can’t do it,” he said. “There’s just not time. ... If there was to somehow be a fair, it wouldn’t look like a normal fair at all.”
The “Great Minnesota Get-Together” is one of the most popular state fairs in the U.S. A record 2.1 million people packed the fairgrounds in the St. Paul suburb of Falcon Heights last year to eat foods on a stick, view farm animals exhibited by young people, enjoy thrill rides and see major stars perform at the Grandstand.
While some fair fans had argued that it should be held for healthy people willing to take the risks, Hammer said a significant number of visitors have health risks that make them particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus. If the fair can’t be held for everyone, he said, it shouldn’t be held at all.
This is the sixth time the Minnesota State Fair has been canceled since it was founded in 1859. The last was in 1946 due to a polio epidemic, one year after it was called off in 1945 due to World War II fuel restrictions. It was also canceled in 1861 due to the Civil War in 1862 due to the U.S.-Dakota War, and in 1893 because of scheduling conflicts with the world’s fair in Chicago.
“This about playing the long game,” Hammer said. “This is about the future of the fair. This isn’t about doing something now. This isn’t about risking everything on a bad bet. This is about doing the right thing for the future of the fair. We’ve been here before.”
This year’s edition was scheduled to run scheduled from Aug. 27 through Labor Day, Sept. 7. Next year’s has already been set for Aug. 26 through Labor Day, Sept. 6, of 2021. Hammer has dubbed it ”The Great Minnesota Get-Back-Together.”
JACKSON, Minn. — As more Minnesotans lose their jobs because of COVID-19, local food shelves are seeing a surge in first-time visitors needing emergency food services — and the demand doesn’t look like it’ll let up anytime soon.
Anti-hunger advocates say more people will be depending on emergency food services as a result of the pandemic, with aging seniors in particular helping fuel the trend.
Back in 2018, Minnesota’s food insecurity rate was about 1 in 12 households, according to Hunger Solutions Minnesota, a nonprofit that supports food shelves. However, a recent survey by Blue Cross and Blue Shield revealed that 1 in 3 Minnesotans are now worried about their ability to access affordable, healthy food.
In Jackson County, a small rural community in southern Minnesota, the local food shelf has become indispensable. An hour before it officially opened on a recent afternoon, a steady stream of cars lined up beside the curb. Volunteers rolled out metal shopping carts filled with eggs, canned vegetables, milk and bread.
“We almost doubled in the number of families that we served last year in March,” said Laura Stubbe, who co-manages the Jackson Food Shelf.
“It was 90 families that came for a monthly visit and this year in March, it was 160 families that came for a monthly visit. So, that was a huge, huge increase.”
Even before the pandemic, Jackson County saw a 775 percent increase in food shelf visits over the last five years, bringing its visit rate to among the highest in the state, according to Hunger Solutions Minnesota.
Visits to food shelves increased during the 2008 recession, and even after it ended, those rates continued to climb. Minnesota has seen more than 3 million visits to its food shelves for nine consecutive years.
Then came the pandemic — and monumental job loss. Since mid-March, when Gov. Tim Walz began ordering the closures of businesses and other institutions across the state to slow the spread of the virus, more than 692,000 people have applied for unemployment insurance, according to figures released Thursday from the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development.
Looking for work is Gary Colburn, a 66-year-old veteran from Jackson, who showed up at the food shelf to collect his box of eggs, vegetables, pork loins and condiments. Colburn has experienced homelessness three times during the last decade. Recently, he secured a car to get around while on a fixed income. However, COVID-19 added extra hurdles to the job hunt.
“I’m looking for a little part-time job, you know, I’m 66 years old but it’s hard,” Colburn said while waiting in his car. “I have a flip phone. I don’t have access to the internet. I don’t have a smartphone. And so, now being on lockdown, everything is geared to being on the internet. You’re locked out. Someone my age, I’m locked out of being able to participate actively in a labor market. I have to go an extra mile in order to accomplish the same thing.”
Without the food shelf, Colburn said he would be faced with the dilemma of whether he should give up groceries to pay the bills.
“We’re all just one paycheck away from the street,” he said. “We all just need to be aware that the need is in our community and we need to support it.”
Like just about everything else, the Jackson Food Shelf has had to adapt to the times. Normally, clients would be able to shop the aisles inside and pick out their own food. But with concerns about COVID-19, volunteers pack their boxes for them.
There are other challenges during the pandemic: Freezer items are scarce. Options became limited when nearby meat processing plants were closed due to outbreaks, which meant less variety of meat available for food banks like Second Harvest Heartland to source local food shelves.
“Usually before everything transpired, you’d have like nine pages to scroll through for items that they have available to you,” said Tara Hansen, co-manager of the food shelf in Jackson. “So during the pandemic, it was down to three pages, which was huge. ... But our philosophy is if you need food, we are going to provide it for you.”
Boxes of groceries are now wheeled out in carts to people waiting out in their cars. Many express gratitude to the volunteers. Each client has a different story about why they were at the food shelf, but keeping bellies full was one less thing to worry about.
Client Becky Cother, 66, of Lakefield, Minn., works as an in-home care specialist and for the last three months has been using the Jackson Food Shelf for groceries. Social distancing has been hard on people, Cother said, including her granddaughter who’s experiencing depression and is at home. Being able to get groceries helps Cother take care of their family.
“This place is just magnificent,” she said. “They helped so many people and they helped me and my family out. And without them, you know, sometimes we just can’t make it.”
Colleen Moriarty, executive director of Hunger Solutions, said that more Minnesotans are finding themselves navigating programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Applications in the state have doubled.
Transportation issues continue to be among the most persistent barriers to reliable food sources, especially for vulnerable communities like the aging population, she said.
“A world that has transportation issues in the time of the crisis is almost nonfunctional,” Moriarty said. As people are confined to their homes, the “need for mobile response for food is growing and will continue to grow,” she said.
When explaining food insecurity over the years to the public, Moriarty has often made the case that your own neighbor might be experiencing hunger.
“Well, now it could be you,” she said. “In fact, it probably is you who needs assistance to be able to make it through this. So, I think that the face of hunger changes. When we have experienced it ourselves, and even if we haven’t experienced this ... I don’t think it can be a hidden problem anymore.”
BRAINERD, Minn. — Two University of Minnesota researchers are aiming to track the spread of COVID-19 in the state — through human waste.
Glenn Simmons Jr. and Richard Melvin, both assistant professors at the U of M Medical School’s Duluth campus, teamed up for the study. They’ve also enlisted the help of almost two dozen communities around Minnesota to collect samples of untreated wastewater.
Simmons and Melvin hope to trace the virus’ spread across Minnesota in a way health officials aren’t able to with in-person testing. They suspect that, in many communities, the virus may be more widespread than the confirmed case numbers suggest.
“We’ve decided that one of the easiest ways to do that would be to noninvasively kind of scan the population for the presence of the virus,” Simmons said. “And one easy way of doing that would be to look at the wastewater.”
Simmons and Melvin were familiar with research dating back to the 2002 SARS outbreak that showed the virus was showing up in human waste. Earlier this year, scientists in the Netherlands detected traces of the new coronavirus in wastewater.
The pair decided to adapt that research to Minnesota, focusing particularly on rural communities that may not have the same access to COVID-19 testing as larger metro areas.
“We’re able to give them information hopefully that will allow them to change their strategies if necessary, or know that their strategies are working,” Simmons said. “So, they’re not just kind of sitting in that black box, just waiting for things to happen.”
The researchers enlisted the help of the Minnesota Environmental Science and Economic Review Board, a joint powers organization of 50 communities with wastewater treatment systems. As of last week, 18 had agreed to participate, including Rochester, Moorhead and Duluth.
Cities do regularly test their own wastewater. But often, they are monitoring wastewater after it’s passed through the treatment plant, which is designed to remove pathogens such as viruses before it’s discharged into a lake or river.
Simmons and Melvin are analyzing sewage before it’s treated. They’ll analyze it to detect genetic material from COVID-19, then use a process called polymerase chain reaction to measure how much of the virus was present.
Melvin said the study is similar to a fossil dig: It can tell the scientists what’s happened in a community in the recent past, and give a warning sign of what’s about to come. What they don’t know yet is how that relates to actual levels of infection in a community, he said.
Because the virus has been detected in wastewater even before a disease outbreak in other studies, a positive detection can serve as a warning sign to health officials — and the public, Melvin said.
“We don’t want to make it so that it’s a scary thing,” he said. “We want to make it an awareness … just how careful do we need to be? Well, it’s in our wastewater. It’s here.”
The pair say they plan to collect and analyze data over the next few months, then share it with the Minnesota Department of Health and the communities involved. They plan to continue their study through the fall or possibly longer to track changes in virus levels over time.
Simmons said the data they collect should be useful to health officials, because a person in the early stages of COVID-19 may not have symptoms, but actually is infectious and releasing a lot of virus.
“If, God forbid, they’re moving around like normal, not knowing that they’re infected, they’re actually spreading it,” he said. “So we, with this technique, potentially could be able to help track those things before they become full-blown.”
Simmons said Minnesota is one of the only universities in the country monitoring wastewater for COVID-19 on such a broad scale. He said their research will support the university’s efforts to increase COVID-19 testing in Minnesota.
One new COVID-19 case was diagnosed in Winona County, the Minnesota Department of Health confirmed Friday, breaking a six-day trend of no new cases or deaths in the county from the disease and raising the total of cases to 76.
No details about the new case has been released.
The total of the deaths in the county remain at 15.
In Minnesota, 19,005 of 180,971 tests have come back positive, with 12,696 of the patients no longer needing to be in isolation and 842 having died.
Statewide, 2,432 people have required hospitalization because of COVID-19, with 534 remaining in hospitals Friday.
For daily Minnesota COVID-19 situation updates, visit the Minnesota Department of Health’s website.
A man with connections to both La Crosse and Winona counties was sentenced Thursday in federal court to more than nine years in prison after he was accused of dealing methamphetamine in both Wisconsin and Minnesota.
According to the office of the U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Wisconsin, Jack Taylor, 35, La Crosse, was sentenced by Chief U.S. District Judge James Peterson to 114 months in federal prison for possessing methamphetamine with intent to distribute.
Taylor pleaded guilty to the charge Jan. 9.
The charge stems from a drug bust by the La Crosse Police Department in July of last year. Authorities searched Taylor’s residence July 24, 2018, and found more than 100 grams of methamphetamine, a drug ledger and a digital scale.
At the time, Taylor was on bond in connection with three felony drug trafficking cases, including one in La Crosse and two in Minnesota. He was also on supervision in Houston County stemming from a felony conviction for fleeing a peace officer in a motor vehicle.
In imposing the sentence, Peterson noted that Taylor has a disturbing criminal history, including multiple violent felony convictions, and was involved in selling a large amount of methamphetamine to the La Crosse community.
Peterson also expressed his displeasure that Taylor continued to sell meth even after an arrest in La Crosse in January 2019 for drug trafficking. In total, Taylor’s criminal history includes 14 prior felony convictions.