As 2020 began on a mild New Year’s Day, just how different everyday life would become in a few short months couldn’t have been further away.
The top stories of the first day of the year in the Dispatch included a wintry mix creating dangerous roads and poor ice conditions, a focus on a new decade and a goodbye to the 2010s, and short-term vacation rental regulations or a lack thereof.
But across the world, on New Year’s Eve 2019, Wuhan Municipal Health Commission in China reported a cluster of cases of pneumonia in Wuhan. The World Health Organization reported a novel coronavirus was eventually identified. By March 11, the WHO states COVID-19 can be characterized as a pandemic. The coronavirus represented a new infectious virus that could be deadly and was without a cure. It brought to mind the worldwide immense losses during the 1918 influenza pandemic, known as the Spanish flu.
In March, the world stopped.
The quickly changing nature of the early response in the lakes area may have been most visible as traditional and large community gatherings approached. On March 12, two days before an annual event that packs the streets of Crosslake, officials decided the St. Patrick’s Day parade would go on. The following morning, the Crosslake City Council met in an emergency session and unanimously voted to cancel the parade amid COVID-19 concerns. The Brainerd St. Patrick’s Day parade was also canceled. A tidal wave of canceled events followed.
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By March 16, there were 54 cases of the virus in Minnesota. Gov. Tim Walz signed an executive order closing theaters, museums, gyms, community clubs and other areas where community transmission could occur. Bars and restaurants closed to dine-in customers. Workers went home to work. That same day the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended gatherings of no more than 50 people.
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The pandemic was expected to rock the economy. There were critics of the executive orders. Restaurant and bars owners said they would need significant aid from state and local governments. The Minnesota Grocers Association in a news release urged customers to remain calm and prioritize items of most pressing need rather than hoarding food or supplies. Shortages were everywhere for items like toilet paper, hand sanitizers and cleaning products.
Across the country there were shelter at home orders with people limiting their exposure to others. Minnesota’s stay-at-home order went into effect March 28 and continued into the spring. Food delivery workers gained new significance for their efforts to keep people supplied and fed. Face masks were required indoors in places open to the public.
The masks soon became politicized and at the beginning of the pandemic a minority of people wore them while shopping. After stores required face coverings and masks were mandated, face masks became the norm rather than the exception when shopping in many locations.
Closer to home, businesses responded by retooling their efforts as they began creating face masks and gowns and face shields. Plexiglass went up at area businesses to create a barrier between store employees and shoppers.
Businesses like grocery stores created shopping hours for essential workers and older or at-risk residents. One-way aisle markers, social distancing floor decals and even changes to store entrances and exits were all created to limit face-to-face interaction.
Local high school sports athletes faced the disheartening prospect of missing opportunities to play for state championships or finish their senior seasons and milestones like prom and even graduation.
“You just feel for the students that they’re not going to have the opportunity to compete and go after their goals that they have set,” said Kevin Jordan, Little Falls activities director, in April after the spring sports season was canceled. “I saw (Little Falls baseball coach Chad Kaddatz’s) tweet and he had nine seniors that he was tipping his cap to. Man, that was a good group and they could have gone somewhere. You feel for them.”
On May 22, the 2020 Class at Brainerd High School celebrated in cap and gown from decorated vehicles in a car parade as they drove around the track at Brainerd International Raceway. The event came together through the efforts of parents of graduating seniors. Possibly more than 300 vehicles took part in the event.
“I'm really proud of our community and the parents who stepped up to volunteer for this event. Volunteers put in a lot of time and then of course have to be grateful to BIR for allowing us to host this event,” said Andrea Rusk, BHS principal. “... “For some of us that are older and remember 9/11, I think we can see the significance in it,” Rusk said of the historical parallels. “These young adults are going off into the world. They've faced some adversity in many different ways, from 9/11 to our country being affected right now again, sharing this worldwide pandemic. And so I feel like it's only gonna strengthen them, because they are really a very gritty class and a very resilient class.”
Resilience was on display in area neighborhoods as countless people celebrated birthdays and a host of family events with socially distanced gatherings, outdoor get-togethers and drive-by parties. Hearts decorated windows of businesses and homes with a message of hope. Families visited their loved ones in nursing homes separated by glass panes. Brainerd Community Theatre actors performed on an outdoor stage wearing face shields. The Brainerd Lakes Music Festival provided virtual concerts and online discussions.
Businesses also adapted and came up with creative options. Curbside services abounded with dedicated parking spaces and protocols set up for pick-up orders. Signs offering curbside options popped up all over the communities.
For those spending more time at home than ever, there were home projects, baking, family time and significant lifestyle changes. Home became not only the refuge from the world, but the workout zone, the distance learning site and work from home location. Zoom meetings and virtual sessions for family, friends and work became part of daily life.
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The stay-at-home order for non-essential workers, ended May 18 with a phased reopening plan for businesses. The Lakes Country Cares campaign was established to focus on a safe reopening.
“We can be statewide leaders in that effort,” said Matt Kilian, Brainerd Lakes Area Chamber president during a Zoom meeting in May, adding the goal is to unite residents, businesses and visitors around a common message of public safety. “The businesses have to lead the way. Right now, the ball is in our court.”’
For reopening, businesses needed to have a COVID-19 preparedness plan in place, train employees and post the plan. Customers — anywhere from 25%-75% depending on the polling — say are very nervous about returning to normal life, Kilian said.
“We are all in this together and we need to make a promise to take care of each other safely as we move on to the summer of 2020 and beyond.”
There were bright spots as well like the random act of kindness at the Brainerd Dairy Queen where one customer started a chain reaction by paying for all or part of the food order of the car behind them. People in more than 900 vehicles participated. In an indication of how much people sought good news, the story went viral and was reported on the BBC, CNN, People magazine, in The Washington Post, just to scratch the surface. It was also featured on a segment of and was featured on John Krasinski’s “Some Good News.”
On Dec. 21, Essentia Health-St. Joseph’s Medical Center in Brainerd and Cuyuna Regional Medical Center in Crosby administered their first doses of the COVID-19 vaccine. More than 5,300 Minnesotans died of COVID-19 in 2020.
“This is the deadliest year in U.S. history, with deaths expected to top 3 million for the first time – due mainly to the coronavirus pandemic,” USA Today reported.
“U.S. deaths increase most years, so some annual rise in fatalities is expected. But the 2020 numbers amount to a jump of about 15%, and could go higher once all the deaths from this month are counted.
“That would mark the largest single-year percentage leap since 1918, when tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers died in World War I and hundreds of thousands of Americans died in a flu pandemic. Deaths rose 46% that year, compared with 1917.”