Blue Sky Support Services Board President Steven Schmit said he is putting the health and safety of the disabled first, but the decision to remain closed has cost his employees their jobs.

The mission of the Brainerd site near the East Brainerd Mall is to enhance the quality of life for the disabled by providing community-based support services “founded on integrity, dignity, and respect.”

“We’re licensed ... to provide an array of services to people with developmental disabilities in the day training habilitation center,” Schmit said. “But we closed the week before the governor said to stay at home because we weren’t sure if we could protect everybody well enough.”

Gov. Tim Walz’s stay-at-home order intended to prevent the spread of the coronavirus resulted in Blue Sky clients unable to gather, which meant a loss of revenue.

The disabled clients of Blue Sky Support Services enjoy a picnic in the park every Friday during the summers. Jessie Layman / Blue Sky Support Services
The disabled clients of Blue Sky Support Services enjoy a picnic in the park every Friday during the summers. Jessie Layman / Blue Sky Support Services

“We develop crafts, so that they can make crafts and sell them as well. We volunteer at a number of nonprofits in the Brainerd area like Camp Friendship. We have a crew that goes out there, and they clean up the grounds, or they go and bag lunches,” Schmit said.

The suspension of most of the day programming for people with disabilities has left service providers such as Blue Sky without funds to support their infrastructure, and some may not reopen when the COVID-19 crisis ends.

“We simply cannot come back from this crisis with a decimated infrastructure for these crucial community disability services, where people with disabilities will not have access to innovative, individualized supports during the day,” said Julie Johnson, president of the Minnesota Organization for Habilitation and Rehabilitation, in a news release.

Johnson noted Minnesota has worked for more than four decades to transition from the institutional model of disability services into a community-based and person-centered array of supports and services.

The Minnesota Organization for Habilitation and Rehabilitation’s mission is to support its nonprofit members in providing meaningful services to the disabled and communities served.

The organization is encouraging people to ask state lawmakers to pass “Disability Day and Employment Services Fixed Cost Relief” as soon as possible. A legislative proposal has been drafted and is being circulated by the organization.

“We serve people from the age of 18 — I think the oldest person we have is 66 — and the variety of disabilities from cognitive disability to physical disability where the person was in a severe car accident left him with total care needs,” Schmit said of Blue Sky. “Most of the individuals that we serve live in residential sites — some live in their family homes — so we provide the transportation, or they will take public transportation to and from their residence.”

A Blue Sky Support Services client proudly shows off his colored Easter eggs. Jessie Layman / Blue Sky Support Services
A Blue Sky Support Services client proudly shows off his colored Easter eggs. Jessie Layman / Blue Sky Support Services

Productive Alternatives in Brainerd is another day program serving those with physical or mental disabilities that is under extreme financial stress due to closures brought on by COVID-19, leading some to question if they will be able to reopen once the stay-at-home order is lifted.

“We’re basically closed for the time being — ‘suspended’ services is probably a better word — because if we ever get to go back, we’re going to reopen,” Schmit said.

Minnesota added seven deaths and 103 lab-confirmed cases on Thursday, April 16, according to state Department of Health officials, bringing the state death total to 94. Six of the new deaths were recorded in Hennepin County and one in Ramsey County.

“Our population is very susceptible to the COVID-19 virus,” Schmit said. “These are very vulnerable adults, and we didn’t really know where the virus was, how widespread it is in Crow Wing County, and we were losing clients (to staying at home), and so we just shut her down.”

All of the day service providers in Minnesota are nonprofits and only get paid when clients attend their programs. With services suspended, most have no revenue coming in and have little or no cash reserves to cover fixed costs while people with disabilities stay home.

“We get paid like a school. If the student is there, we get paid. If they're not, we don’t get paid, so we had no money coming in. And as our numbers decreased, we had to suspend services. There was absolutely no income coming in,” Schmit said.

Day programs not only provide employment training and job support, but are a “bedrock to people’s social lives and interaction with wider society,” according to Johnson.

“Many of the people we serve need staff to get out in the community, attend events, take in a movie and do other things that many of us take for granted,” Johnson said.

The Minnesota Organization for Habilitation and Rehabilitation is working with the state Legislature and the Department of Human Services to ensure emergency funds are available during the service suspension period.

“If we can’t reopen safely ... I don’t think I could live with that,” Schmit said of the push to reopen businesses now. “I think it’s a gamble to put people's lives in harm's way, especially vulnerable adults … but if this keeps up, it’ll be a financial nightmare for us.”



FRANK LEE, county and features reporter, may be reached at 218-855-5863 or at frank.lee@brainerddispatch.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchFL.