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Serving up 'thanks' in a difficult time
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It’s been a difficult year for the restaurant and hospitality industry.

But as he contemplates the survival of his own business amid COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, Jeff Swanson knows there are plenty of others who are struggling.

So on Thanksgiving Day, the owner of Swan’s Café in Litchfield threw out the traditional model for business success and served turkey dinners with all the fixings to anyone who asked, for a price customer determined on their own.

“With all this COVID (stuff), It’s just giving back to the community, I guess,” Swanson said Nov. 25, amid the planning for the next day’s big dinner. “People seem to appreciate it.”

With COVID-19 case rates rising throughout the state, Gov. Tim Walz in a televised address Nov. 18 announced an executive order that closed for a four-week “pause” all restaurants and bars, except for take-out and delivery, beginning Nov. 21. The order also limited pick-up customers to no more than five at any one time.

Walz issued a similar — though more restrictive — executive order in March this year, then slowly loosened restrictions to allow customers to return to indoor dining and drinking in limited capacity. But as numbers spiked in early and mid-November, the decision was made to dial back again.

“This continues to be a devastating time for the hospitality industry that provides 1 in 10 jobs in Minnesota, but now sees half of its businesses facing permanent closure in the coming months,” Hospitality Minnesota, a lodging, restaurant, resort and campground association, said statement following the executive order. “While we appreciate that the governor is not shutting down restaurants, bars and events as some other states are doing, we are concerned about the economic and jobs impact on these businesses.”

The hospitality industry wasn’t the only area affected, of course. The order also paused high school sports for four weeks — forcing football and volleyball teams to move up scheduled games to get them in before the midnight Nov. 21 order went into effect.

In addition, Walz’s order banned social gatherings for anyone not living in the same household. That included urging people not to travel for the Thanksgiving holiday, leaving many to contemplate changing their family traditions.

A letter signed by more than 1,000 physicians and released Nov. 18 read, in part: “The growth is so rapid that health care systems are pushed to the brink. Daily, there is a scramble to find ICU beds and staff, non-emergent surgeries are delayed, emergency rooms are overwhelmed, and the transfer of patients in need of life-saving care between hospitals is increasingly challenging. This is true for COVID-19 patients and patients with other conditions.”

In an interview with the Independent Review, Dr. Deb Peterson, chief medical officer at Meeker Memorial Hospital and Clinics in Litchfield, said, ‘We all have to make sacrifices. If we all choose wisely, we would find ways to see family virtually or visit in some other fashion.”

Those words of caution, were part of Swanson’s motivation for the free-well offering Thanksgiving dinner. The majority of Swan’s Café’s customers are in the 50-plus age range, he said, the age group that would likely be without visiting family on the holiday. The pandemic’s effect on the local economy also has likely hit those people, he reasoned.

“There’s a lot of people that, you know, can’t afford …” Swanson said, his voice trailing off. “This town has a lot of elderly people in it, and their kids aren’t coming home. What better way to have a Thanksgiving dinner, in that case?”

So Swanson and a small-but-dedicated staff ramped up to serve hundreds a traditional Thanksgiving dinner. The meal would include turkey or ham, mashed potatoes, stuffing, gravy, green bean casserole, dinner roll and a pumpkin bar for dessert.

The Thanksgiving dinner was a repeat of the restaurant's free-will dinners for Mother's Day and Easter earlier this year, during the first state shutdown. Allowing customers to set their own price means Swan’s Café was likely to “break even” on the day, Swanson said, but he also felt it was doing an important community service while also reinforcing loyalty among his most frequent customers.

By the end of the day Nov. 25, through social media and word-of-mouth promotion, Swan’s had received reservations for nearly 200 takeout meals and by the time they began serving at 11 a.m. Thanksgiving Day, there were about 250 reservations.

“We always over-prepare,” Swanson said when asked what it was like preparing for Thanksgiving dinner without a count for the guest list. “We’re preparing for about 300 people, but … When it would get to a certain point, say 400 or 450, then we’d have to stop (taking orders).”

Stopping taking orders. It’s the one thing Swanson does not want to think about. But after 25 years of owning and operating Swan’s Café, he is worried about its long-term survival because of the financial strain the pandemic and associated restrictions have placed on it.

“It’s been …. I’ve been doing this since 1981, and I’ve never seen anything like this,” Swanson said. “We hope to be back (after the shutdown “pause”). I don’t know if we’ll make it another 25. We are part of the community. We want to keep going.”

ACGC switches to distance learning
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ACGC switches to distance learning

A sharp increase in the number of COVID-19 virus cases in the Atwater-Cosmos-Grove City area prompted the ACGC School District to move to a distance learning model for most of its students. Following three days’ preparation, the district today started distance learning, in which most students will learn virtually four days a week at home, via Chromebook computers.

An exception to this will be some special education students, as well as children of Tier 1 “essential workers” who will be educated and cared for via special day care programs. Activities Director Marj Maurer told the ACGC School Board on Nov. 23 that, to date, 51 children had requested enrollment in the child care for essential workers. Mauer also noted that student activities such as athletics are being “paused” to at least Dec. 15. This follows a modified fall sports season that saw average participation numbers, with the exception of high school football, where participation was down slightly.

At the Nov. 23 ACGC school board meeting, Principals Robin Wall, Kodi Goracke and Supt. Nels Onstad outlined changes slated to begin today. Students will be expected to check in to “virtual” live classes on their computers. Teachers will be available for private consultations and messaging early in the day and for about an hour after classes end at 3:15 p.m.

The program will not look exactly like “distance learning” did last spring.

"We had a number of students from last year who did not do well in distance learning or engaging with their teachers… .some special education and ESL (English as a Second Language) students will continue to be in the building part-time," Onstad told the board. “We may have to do some rebooting, monitoring and readjusting as time goes on.”

Onstad acknowledged that “we anticipate issues the first few days or weeks.”

Materials will be both “paper and pencil”-based and computer-based, depending on the skill level of the students.

The week before buildings closed to in-person classes, teachers spent time familiarizing their students with the technology. Onstad added that the district has acquired 100 “hot spots” to lend to families who lack adequate broadband at their homes.

Most teachers will lead their classes from the school facilities, but there are some individuals who are in a “high risk” medical category or have family members who have conditions, and some adaptations are being made.

Health department data shows a tenfold increase in cases among residents of ACGC ZIP codes, Onstad reported. ACGC students and staff are themselves becoming ill. On Nov. 23, a large number of students (180) were quarantined and eight students had tested positive. (One entire sixth grade pod was quarantined.) Among district staff, 10 were quarantined, with six testing positive.

School food service is also being changed. Families will have a choice of picking up weekly meals at a daytime location in each of the three cities in the district or picking up meals at the junior/senior high during an evening time slot.

The COVID-19 pandemic has also affected completion of the construction work at the Atwater and Grove City sites. There have been crew absences due to illness, plus windy weather conditions and other delays, but Onstad expects the remaining work to be completed shortly. There has also been some turnover among district custodial staff due to a retirement, illness and other factors.

School officials reviewed the Tuesday-Friday student distance learning schedule with the board before taking care of routine business. They also discussed potential for re-opening the buildings and starting the winter sports schedule later this winter. To date, the district has received no direction from the state on what measures would need to be met before that could occur. There is also uncertainty about how long an individual person’s immunity can last after they recover from a COVID illness.

Support staff contract ratified

Board Vice Chair Megan Morrison reviewed details of a new two-year contract with district support staff that has been approved by their union and the district’s negotiating team. There have been adjustments in some benefits, longevity pay and sick leave payouts. Otherwise, salaries will increase by 55 cents an hour the first year and by 75 cents the second year.

The full board unanimously approved the agreement.

In other personnel matters:

  • The board approved hiring two paraprofessionals, Amanda Anderson and Jennilee Pearson, and a custodian, Kristin Esposito. The resignation of custodian Kami King was accepted. Paternity leave was granted to Mike Amsden.
  • The new district Dean of Students, Mark Stier, introduced himself to the board. Prior to this assignment, Stier had been working for the district as a teacher in Atwater.
  • The pay of non-certified substitutes was raised to $14/hour for kitchen help, and $15/hour for other non-certified staff.
  • At the end of the meeting, the board met in closed session to conduct an evaluation of Supt. Onstad.

Cosmos building sold

After a decade of leasing portions of the district’s Cosmos facility to the Southwest/West Central Service Cooperative, the board and SW/WC have finalized a purchase agreement that will transfer ownership of the recently remodeled structure and its surrounding acreage to the cooperative. (The cooperative and a grant from the state of Minnesota fully funded recent renovations there.)

Terms call for the co-op to assume ownership before Jan. 1, 2021, upon payment of $1. The agreement still needs to be approved by the Minnesota Department of Management and Budget.

Contracts for snow removal will also be transferred to SW/WC.

“This has been a long time coming, and it’s in the best interest for all parties involved,” commented Board Clerk Jeanna Lilleberg.

Future meetings

There will be two new school board directors on the ACGC Board in 2021, Sarah Blom and Katherine Cunningham. Diane Rivard and Randy Kaisner will be retiring. A brief re-organizational meeting is scheduled for Fri., Jan. 8, 2021, at 7 a.m. in the district office board room.

The board’s annual reports to the three district city councils are being deferred until after the first of the year, due to issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The annual Truth in Taxation hearing will be conducted at 6 p.m. Dec. 21. The next regular school board meeting will precede that hearing at 5 p.m. The board also plans to meet at 6 p.m. Dec. 14 to hear a report from its auditor.

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Meeker County will restrict access to facilities due to COVID-19 surge
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Meeker County government facilities will have controlled entrances beginning this week.

Rising COVID-19 cases prompted county leaders on Nov. 24 to adopt a policy of locking doors at the courthouse, Family Services Center and transportation facility — similar to restrictions the county enacted in March when the pandemic first hit Minnesota.

“Our focus continues to be keeping both the public and county staff safe from being exposed to, or contracting, COVID-19 at one of our facilities,” Administrator Paul Virnig said in a news release. “While we continue to serve Meeker County, changing how we deliver services to the public will help us accomplish this goal. We are doing our part to help alleviate the stress the current surge in COVID cases has placed on our health care, nursing and school facilities and staff.”

Those who need to do business with the county can still do so by telephone, email, through the county website, or by scheduling an in-person appointment when necessary.

County staff contact information is available on the website at www.co.meeker.us. Additionally, drop boxes are located near the courthouse parking lot entrance and near the main entrance to the Family Services Center for delivery of documents. When using drop boxes, people should clearly mark to which department the documents are to be delivered.

Notes posted at the entry to county facilities tell the public that the doors are locked “as an appropriate prevention and protection measure in response to the rise in COVID-19 cases” in the county, state and country. The notes also include a department directory with phone numbers for various leaders and areas of county government.

The Meeker County Law Enforcement Center lobby will remain open all day, every day, but people are encouraged to conduct business via telephone as much as possible. Additionally, jail visits will remain by appointment only to allow for social distancing and disinfecting between visits.

All Eighth District Court hearings also will be conducted virtually beginning Nov. 30.

Audit shows Litchfield Public Schools finances are solid
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Litchfield Public Schools’ finances look solid, according to an audit discussed during the school board meeting Nov. 23.

The audit, which encompasses the fiscal year ending June 30, 2020, shows the school district with total assets of about $63 million. That’s up about $34 million from 2019, almost entirely because of the influx of revenue that resulted from the issuance of capital bonds, according to Justin McGraw of Conway, Deuth & Schmiesing, who presented the audit report. Those assets will be spent down as construction at district buildings is completed.

The district’s average daily membership, or enrollment, was 1,562 for fiscal year 2020, but the district has projected a 2.5 percent to 3 percent decline in 2021, which will affect its revenue.

The district’s projected revenue for 2021 is $19,206,724 with projected expenditures of $18,729,058.

The majority of the district’s revenue comes from the state, which provided 84.26 percent of its revenue in 2020, with local property taxes providing 9.09 percent.

School food service is projected to have a fund balance of $192,043 in 2021, up about $14,000 from the current fiscal year. The Community Service, or Community Education, fund balance is projected to drop by nearly $20,000, to $107,852 in fiscal year 2021.

McGraw acknowledged the challenges that the coronavirus pandemic has put in front of the school district, as enrollment has dropped and other changes affect the financial picture.

“I don’t envy you at all, trying to budget in the era of COVID,” McGraw said, “because who knows what could happen.”

The audit uncovered no significant issues, though it mentioned a need for greater internal control. This has been mentioned in past audits, pointing out the need for a segregation of duties in the district business office that would allow for greater checks.

“Some people are asked to wear a lot of different hats,” McGraw said. “That creates a fraud risk.”

McGraw added, however, that segregating duties so much would be difficult from a staffing standpoint.

“We do apply mitigating factors to cut the risk,” district Business Manager Jesse Johnson told the board. “No matter what controls we put in place, it does not take away my ability to create a voucher (and) cut a check.”

Still, while that’s a possibility, Johnson said, “I would suggest it would not go unnoticed” for more than 15 to 30 days.

Without hiring or outsourcing, which would create additional expense, Johnson said, the internal controls compliance is likely to continue to show up on district audits.

“We do have cross training. We’ve done all that, but we don’t shift responsibilities,” Johnson said, because that isn’t efficient. “We do work with vendors to enhance our controls, as well.”