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County closes accesses; declares state of emergency

Four Koochiching County parks along Rainy River will be closed to vehicle access until further notice to help stop the spread of COVID-19.

Parks included are: Upper Sault, Nelson Park, Frontier Landing and Vidas Landing.

The Baudette City Council Monday met in special session and agreed to close all river accesses within city limits until further notice.

Commissioners Tuesday conducted their meeting by telephone, which was all Commissioner Wade Pavleck needed to drive his opinion on the issue.

“The fact that we're talking to each other by phone tells me all I need to know,” he said. “We can't even meet as a county board, how can we sanction big groups down at the river?”

The decision didn't come without empathy from commissioners for businesses that benefit from the catch-and-release spring walleye and sturgeon fishing on Rainy River, which lasts until April 15. However, officials predict large numbers of people both from the area and other parts of the region flocking to those sites for the season, and agreed it wouldn't be wise to allow that as COVID-19 continues to spread throughout the state.

Lake of the Woods County Board also joined the Koochiching County Board on discussions over the phone Tuesday. LOW Commissioner Jon Waibel said the counties don't want the influx of people right now.

“People are scared (of COVID-19),” he said. “Constituents have been hounding me for three weeks to try to cap the amount of people who are going to be coming up here... People are scared and we've got to respect that. This thing is killing people.”

Waibel also said pressure needs to be kept off area hospitals that would have to potentially handle additional sick people who are not from the area.

“I would really, really feel bad if someone's parents or grandparents got sick and they trace it back to something that we could have controlled,” he said. “We're doing this for everybody's health. It's not worth it to catch a 30-inch walleye and let it go.”

Koochiching County Commissioner Brian McBride agreed.

“Everywhere you look... people are saying to stay smart, stay healthy and please stay home and that's what we need to do,” he said. “We need to close these accesses.”

Koochiching County Sheriff Perryn Hedlund said while resources are thin, his department will deal with people who violate the closures.

“I know people are going to be upset, and I hope people in the coming days take a step back and see what's most important and that is health and welfare of themselves and their family,” he said.

State of emergency

The Koochiching County Board also Tuesday declared a county state of emergency for the next 30 days due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Officials stressed the action was not to cause panic, but to organize preparedness.

“What we are doing is protecting our citizens and to recoup some funding or reduce some costs,” McBride said of the action. “This is not to create panic.”

More than 40 other Minnesota counties have declared similar actions, Hedlund said.

“Although we've been told the federal (state of emergency) declaration alone grants us reimbursement, we can seek reimbursement at 75 percent of costs,” he said. “Right now we don't have a lot a lot costs but if this goes on for a certain amount of time, our costs will only escalate and aren't budgeted for this.”

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COVID-19: Anxiety normal, needs balance

During this unprecedented period in the world’s history, many have time on their hands to ponder the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s outcome, it’s consequences and future repercussions.

We asked local retired psychiatrist Jeff Hardwig about what to do with the extra time people are spending together and alone at home, and about the anxiety the pandemic is generating.

Hardwig, who retired from Essentia Health in September, wants people to know the anxiety they may be experiencing makes sense.

“Anxiety about a dangerous pandemic is a normal healthy and adaptive response,” he said. “Anxiety motivates us to follow the advice of experts in infectious diseases and epidemiology regarding social distancing and hand washing. When we do the things that keep us safe our anxiety can subside.

“Doing what it takes to stay safe is more complicated for front-line health care and other essential workers, however, who worry about having adequate numbers of masks and other protective clothing to be safe,” he said.

Problems with anxiety occur when you have too much, but also too little, Hardwig said.

“People who ignore the real risks may feel comfortable in their denial, but they are not safe and pose a risk to others if they get infected,” Hardwig said.

It’s understandable that some anxiety will remain even if we are doing everything we can to stay safe, he said, because of all the uncertainties surrounding this virus and because of concern for others.

“So we are in a one day at a time mode,” Hardwig said. “We can talk with one another to provide emotional support. Being at the end of the road in a rural community has its advantages. We are not in a hot zone of community spread of COVID-19 and we’re doing what we can to keep it that way.”

Hardwig said the pandemic “has the potential to pull us together after what has been a divisive period in our history. This virus doesn’t care about your politics and our response has to be with the welfare of others in mind. That alone can be good for our mental health.”

New time

Meanwhile, he urged people to remain safe in their actions, patient for answers, calm in their reactions and appreciative of the good things.

“This is new to everyone so we are learning as we go,” he said. “I think we can remember that staying home is something we do for ourselves but also for others. We are in this together and our job is to not give the disease to others.”

He said people with with extra time at home can start items on their “to-do” lists that they have been neglecting, among other things.

“Try to enjoy this break in social life to reflect on what is important, look for silver linings, stay physically active, connect with others in safe ways and remember this is going to end someday,” he said. “We just need to be safe and smart about it.”

He said he and others who do not need to go work now are lucky, and he feels compassion for health care workers and other essential employees, and also the many who must go to work because their employer is still open and they need the paycheck.

“For those who have lost their job at least temporarily because of the coronavirus, we need to do what we can as a society to support them through the rough times ahead,” he said.

He said charitable organizations for which he volunteers are trying to find “sliver linings” during these unprecedented times: “The Rotary Readers are moving ahead with a book giveaway to the students we had been reading to in the LORE program before schools closed; Koochiching Aging Options staff and volunteers are trying to reach out to people electronically and by phone and to try to continue our missions if we can do so safely.”

And he said technology for conducting meetings electronically is being put into practice nationally and locally. The social distancing mandate has prompted an effort to hold and develop that capacity going forward.

What to do?

Hardwig said he’s always tried to include physical activity as a way to stay healthy.

“The difference is that now as a retired person, I have the time,” he said. “I either walk, ride my fat tire bike or cross country ski every day. This is essential for me to feel well.”

The social distancing needed during the pandemic has canceled some of his volunteer work, which he said he missed.

“Rotary meets electronically only, and the Koochiching Aging Options board has canceled some of its meetings and educational activities,” Hardwig said. “I very much miss reading to preschool and kindergarten students as part of Rotary’s Love of Reading, LORE, program. That has been pure joy.”

In addition, he said he, like many others, is missing one of his favorite social activities: To go out to restaurants and have lively conversations over dinner.

“That is all on hold. So what is left?” he wondered.

Plenty, he answered.

“I am reading more and have been making wood carvings once again,” he said. “This is something I started as a young adult but it was largely set aside when work got so busy. It feels good to be creative again and it takes me away from the TV, which can be a bit addictive.”

However, he said a little TV can provide some respite from the worry of the pandemic. “They have some of the best writers in America making shows on Netflix, Showtime and HBO,” Hardwig said. “These are not typically family entertainment, but are good for when the kids go to bed. It’s the binge watching that is not good for health.”

He noted he and his wife have put together jigsaw puzzles all winter. “And the neat thing about them is that you get a false sense of accomplishment,” he said. “You feel like you’re getting something done but... not really. Puzzling, however, requires an active mind and in that way is preferable to TV watching.”

Hardwig obtained is medical degree at Mayo Medical School in 1985, and completed his psychiatry residency at The Mayo Graduate School of Medicine in 1989. He was board certified in psychiatry and neurology in 1991. He served in the United States Navy at Naval Hospital San Diego and at Naval Hospital Camp Pendleton during the first Gulf War. He returned to International Falls in 1992.

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Delicious delivery

Cars lined up behind Falls High School Monday to receive free lunches and breakfasts for district students during temporary school closures.

RuthAnn Reller and Angie Hoopman packed up the number of meals requested by drivers and quickly delivered the food through the passenger window. It appeared they’d had this routine down for months.

Instead, Monday marked the third day of food service delivery since Falls public schools temporarily closed March 16 because of the growing COVID-19 pandemic.

“We prepared about 250 meals today,” Reller said Monday as she loaded milk into a bag. “So far, it’s been busy.”

Local school officials last week said the Minnesota Department of Education will fund one breakfast and one lunch per child in grades pre-K through 12th grade on days school would have been in session.

Karla Line, Independent School District No. 361 food service director, said the service is provided regardless of income.

“This federally funded program is intended to help all families during this time of national emergency,” she said, adding meals are delivered by school staff if transportation isn’t available. “If people can’t pick up the food, we’ll bring it right to their doorstep.”

When speaking with The Journal last week, Line was overcome with emotion talking about ISD 361 staff who are making the effort successful.

“I work with the most amazing group of people in food service,” she said. “They step up to get whatever is needed done for these kids. It’s incredible.”

Last Wednesday, about 100 people took advantage of the school’s food service and it jumped by about 40 the following day. Now that meals are free regardless of income, Line expected the number to increase even more.

“We’re ready,” she said, adding that providing meals is more that just making sure kids have something to eat. “These kids are seeing familiar faces dropping off meals. They need to see (staff) and know we’re OK and that we’re going to help.”

Line said while staff already take proper sanitary precautions when preparing food, they are doing everything they can to keep themselves and those receiving meals safe and healthy.

“Kitchen staff is gloved at all times... even when handing out food,” she said. “We are also being temped as we walk in the school by the nurse... We’re in this for the safety of everyone and won’t compromise anything during this time.”

Line said for now, only cold meals are being provided, but said she could eventually see hot food being added.

“We just aren’t prepared for hot food just yet,” she said.

Allergies are also being considered and staff is separating certain food items in specific colored bags for allergy needs.

While the service is free, food service staff still wants to have an estimate of numbers needed for food and encourage families to call or email that information to foodservice@isd361.org or 218-283-2571 extension 1102. Official ask that requests be made before 10 a.m.

When contacting via email, include if drop-off will be needed, how many meals and if there are any food allergies.

Food can be picked up from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. at door No. 7, located in the back of Falls High School.

“People need to and should use this service,” Line said. “It is not income based. We want to feed the kids and make sure they’ve got some normalcy right now.”

Other schools

Similar efforts are also being done in other school districts in Koochiching County.

At Littlefork-Big Falls School, meals are also provided. If a a family is in need of food pick-up or delivery, they need to fill out a survey found on the school’s Facebook page or website, http://www.isd362.k12.mn.us/

In Indus, lunch serves are free for students ages 4-18. For forms and information, visit https://www.indus.k12.mn.us/blogs/3285-school-closure-updates

Northome School students in pre-K through 12th grade are also eligible to receive a free breakfast and lunch that officials will deliver to homes. To sign up and find more information, visit https://www.northome.k12.mn.us/blogs/3576-northome-high-school