Gordon Pennertz greeted each parishioner as they gathered Sunday morning for First Presbyterian Church of Litchfield’s worship service.
That Pennertz, the church’s lay pastor, said a cheery “Good morning,” or “Welcome to worship” to each individual was not at all unusual. But the setting in which the greetings were offered — on computer screens spread from Litchfield to Oregon — was far beyond the norm.
Although, after three weeks of worship via the Zoom computer app, many members of the congregation seem to be adapting well to the new normal of coronavirus pandemic-forced separation.
“We’re making do the best we can,” Pennertz said. “It’s not the same as having people there (in the church), but it works.”
That thought was echoed by other pastors in the area, all of whom have had to find new ways to tend their flocks during a time unlike any have seen — or could prepare for — in their lifetimes.
The important thing, repeated by each pastor in conversations last week, was trying through all means possible to maintain the bonds of faith and community that are built when congregations gather in person on Sunday mornings.
“We continue to gather, we just gather in other, virtual ways,” said the Rev. Christian Muellerleile, pastor at Zion Lutheran Church in Litchfield. “I’ve been using the language of gathering, just different than we have in the past. That seems to be a helpful framework for people.
“It’s a difficult time, but when we think of what do we still have — we can still gather,” he added. “Churches are still gathering, just in different ways.”
Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz issued an executive order March 15 closing schools throughout the state, then on March 16 issued an order that bars and dining establishments be closed. Schools have adapted by implemented distance learning plans. Many restaurants have implemented take-out and delivery options to maintain at least some of their business.
Churches have had to find ways to continue their mission, as well, as guidelines for group gatherings and social distancing became more stringent, and the governor’s stay-home order which went into effect March 27 solidified the restrictions.
The orders, “to the governor’s credit,” said the Rev. Troy Pflibsen, co-pastor at Zion Lutheran Church, have excluded ministers and church administrative staff from the stay-home restrictions. That made it possible for worship teams to organize not just Sunday services, but other outreach ministries.
As he spoke with a reporter by telephone Wednesday afternoon, Muellerleile said he was preparing a lesson for a youth class he would teach via Zoom video conferencing.
Some churches have used Facebook Live to broadcast their Sunday services, others have recorded their services and made them available on You Tube or streaming from the church website.
Zion Lutheran Church has, for many years, broadcast its Sunday service over the airwaves at KLFD-1410, and on the local cable access channel on taped delay basis. But the church has upped its commitment to new communication platforms in recent weeks, including Pflibsen sendsing email “words of encouragement” a couple of times a week to the congregation.
“It’s just a time of great experimentation,” Pflibsen said.
Cornerstone Church has offered live-streaming of its services the past three weekends. While it can be difficult to feel the personal connection during a video stream, Cornerstone employs a messaging application and designated discussion hosts, allowing congregation members to greet each other and offer comments or praise during the service.
“I would say this … God has imbued human beings with the ability to be creative and to be adaptable and use the resources available to continue to do His work,” the Rev. Paul Jorgensen said. “Our people that are involved in worship ministries (and) student ministry … they’ve been invaluable. On March 16 at 10 o’clock before the governor issued his order, we didn’t know how to stream, but by 2 (p.m.) we did. That’s a credit to that team and what they were able to put together.”
And everything is in play, Jorgensen said, when it comes to Cornerstone’s outreach programs —from video conferencing for Bible study, to instant messaging prayers, even the “old” technology of telephone calls for counseling.
“It’s really something,” Jorgensen said. “People are really, truly wanting to experience God, maybe even moreso now, and we have people finding ways to make that possible. We are using technology to fundamentally change how ministry is done.”
The Rev. Jeff Horejsi said that adapting to life without Mass inside the churches of the Shepherd of Souls Area Faith Community, which includes St. Philip’s in Litchfield, Our Lady in Manannah and St. John’s in Darwin, has been difficult for staff and members of the congregations.
“I know everyone is concerned and a bit upset in their life, I would say,” Horejsi said. “It has been exceptionally different, especially not having gatherings for the Masses on the weekend. We’re struggling to adjust and adapt to ways we can reach out to people.
Horejsi and senior associate pastor the Rev. Brian Mandel have celebrated Mass the past two weekends, with the service recorded and uploaded to You Tube and available on the church's website.
Though the latest guidance from Bishop John LeVoir of the Diocese of New Ulm called for all Masses to be suspended through Easter, Horejsi said, he expects that to be extended again. And that will mean continuing to refine the technology and various methods of outreach employed by the church.
“It’s going to be a very different Holy Week, that’s for sure,” Horejsi said of the coming week, which includes worship services for Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter. “We will be encouraging people to celebrate as they’re able, within their households and to take time for prayer.”
“I’m already hearing from folks who are grieving, I mean really grieving that loss,” Pflibsen said of no in-person worship during Holy Week. “It is a big family time. That won’t happen now, so there’s a lot of loss, a lot of grieving.”
And yet, while faith life has been turned upside down during the past few weeks, positives can be found without looking too far.
“In the midst of the struggle, I think we’re finding blessing,” Pflibsen said, repeating stories of families who have found more time to be together.
“The message of Easter weekend … is, it’s Friday, but Sunday’s coming,” Cornerstone’s Jorgensen said. “I think we carry that over to our lives. It’s Good Friday, it’s difficult. But Sunday’s coming … it will be good.”
The first confirmed case of COVID-19 in Meeker County announced this week is bound to bring a heightened sense of awareness and worry for some.
But Meeker Memorial Hospital stands ready to meet the local challenges presented by the coronavirus pandemic, according to members of the administration and emergency preparedness team.
In a sense, the staff and administration have been preparing for it for nearly two decades.
“The past 20 years there has been a lot of work being done that has been supported by the federal government to prepare for emergency … be it chemical (or) infectious disease,” said Ann Lien, chief quality officer at Meeker Memorial.
The emergency planning and training has been in place since the days after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks among many agencies, including the South Central Coalition, of which Meeker County is a member, Lien said.
And the threat of a pandemic has been talked about and planned for in some corners even longer than that.
“Mike Osterholm has been talking about this for 30 years,” Lien said of the director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota. “We were overdue.”
As of Wednesday afternoon, Minnesota had 689 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 17 deaths, with an estimated 21,191 completed tests by either the Minnesota Department of Health or external laboratories, according to the MDH website. The state also had 342 cases in which the patient no longer needed to be isolated. Worldwide the virus had infected nearly 1 million people and killed more than 46,000.
Those numbers can be frightening, even to health care professionals, acknowledged Marc Vaillancourt, vice president of development and operations at Meeker Memorial Hospital.
“Like everyone in the community, our staff are experiencing all of the emotion all of us are having,” Vaillancourt said. “Key staff are getting ready to address this on the front line, while at the same time thinking about preparations they have to make at home. Like everyone else, we’re concerned about how this will affect our families.
“Through all of that, our staff remains committed to the mission of the organization,” he added. “At the end of the day, all of our staff have chosen to be in this profession and are here to care for and serve in our community. We do that to a ‘T.’” Everyone is ready for this.”
The first confirmed case of COVID-19 in Meeker County sets in motion additional action steps for the hospital.
“We are in incident command all day long,” Vaillancourt said. “Up to (Monday, it has been planning), when COVID-19 appears in our county, what will happen next? We are going to be ready for the surge. (The confirmed case) clearly allows us to move forward and continue more intentionally to finalize details around the surge plan.”
Meeker Memorial Hospital’s preparation has been based on data from the South Central Healthcare Coalition, which serves Meeker, McLeod, Blue Earth, Brown, Faribault, LeSueur, Martin, Nicollet, Sibley, Waseca and Watonwan counties. The coalition’s members include hospitals and clinics, public health, emergency management, emergency medical services, as well as long-term care facilities, fire, police and non-governmental agencies and business.
The South Central model is based on 20 percent of the population having or being affected by COVID-19, Vaillancourt said. With Meeker County’s population of about 23,000, that would mean 4,000 cases of COVID-19. Most of those cases (3,000-3,200) would be mild, 560 severe, and 200 would be “critical,” requiring some sort of hospitalization, potentially intensive care.
“We planned based on that (scenario),” Vaillancourt said. “The reality is, our facility is a 35-bed hospital … 25-bed critical access.”
Part of the preparation was to look at “all the space in the facility and look at how we could care for the maximum number,” Vaillancourt added. “If the surge hits and all models come to fruition … (it) would require us to leverage the resources we have in the region, in the state in order to care for people in our county.”
Alternate care sites have been investigated, including other hospitals in the region.
In addition to hospital beds, the planning has included attempting to ensure enough personal protective equipment, or PPE, for doctors and nurses.
“As part of daily operations, we are constantly managing PPE,” said Nicole Siegner, MMH chief financial officer. “As part of our mandate, we are required to have certain things in place (and) actually ramped up purchasing on a number of PPE items we consider most critical.”
Still, Vaillancourt said, “We are like every hospital in the state, every hospital in the country. As the surge comes, PPE will become an issue. It is a nationwide issue … not enough PPE, not enough beds, ventilators.”
But hospital staff and administrators feel that businesses, organizations and individuals in the community have their back, Vaillancourt said.
“I will say that our community, countywide, has been exceptionally gracious to us,” he said. “We have had offers to sew cloth masks. We put out a call a week ago for people with scrubs (and) people were willing to donate. And organizations, companies emailing, calling, saying ‘hey, we’ve got 10 N95 masks. That happens on a daily basis.
“It’s the beauty of living in the community we live in. We have generous people who keep us in top of mind.”
It has been a relatively normal winter in Minnesota this year as in years past. There wasn’t a ton of snow and much if not all of it has already melted away, which hasn’t led to flood concerns this year.
The conditions bode well for farmers this spring planting season. Since it was a short winter, farmers are optimistic they can begin planting their crops earlier this time around than in previous years, but there are still some unknown factors.
“It’s really going to be dependent on how much rain we get the next couple of weeks to determine when everybody is going to be able to get into the field,” said Karen Johnson, University of Minneosta Extension educator for Meeker and McCloud counties.
Johnson believes that if everything stays on course, farmers should be able to start planting as early as mid-April. Right now, farmers are beginning to apply fertilizer and their small green seed. For the last two years, there hasn’t been any planting done until May because of the snow.
That is a big difference for a farmer who grows oats and wheat. Those are cool season crops and need to be planted in April so they can get the right amount of heat to grow. If exposed to too much heat, the crop can be damaged.
“You’re behind the eight-ball from day one,” Bryan Thalmann, co-owner of Thalmann Seeds in Plato said of late winters.
But as the weather warms up, that doesn’t look like it should be a problem this season. Farmers are still waiting for the next week or so to see how much more rain there will be, but the top soil is nearly ready for planting.
“It’s going to take a bit for the field to properly dry out before spring work starts,” Thalmann said. “But I think because of those different rains, we had some thawing weather back in February and it helps to break apart some surface clouds that are on top of the soil. I think when we start working in the fields, the grounds will be quite nice.”
With the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, many businesses have been forced to shut down. But Thalmann said that the agriculture business has been “attempting to proceed as normal as possible.”
“Agriculture has to move on,” he said. “We can’t put things on hold for three weeks and then start blending in at a later date.”
Another big challenge for some farmers are travel restrictions for goods coming into the country. Thalmann is expecting corn and soybean seed to arrive from South America within the next 30 days, but he’s not sure whether it will be allowed to cross the border or not.
“Just lots of uncertainty,” he said.
To stay updated on information ahead of the spring planting season, farmers should look to the Extension, where local educators specific to corn and soybean production post up-to-date information, according to Johnson.
“I know a lot of local producers have crop consultants that they work with,” Johnson said. “They’re excellent resources as well to help further address any issues that might pop up here early into the growing season.”