HIBBING — The store manager for Super One Foods in Hibbing confirmed Wednesday that an employee had tested positive for the new coronavirus, less than two weeks after L&M Fleet Supply said that a staff member was the first in the city to knowingly become infected with the virus.

The announcement came as 99 cases of the virus and 12 deaths were confirmed in St. Louis County.

The county’s Department of Health has made it a policy to refrain from reporting the exact whereabouts of cases, citing privacy concerns. But regional business owners have been publicly sharing confirmed cases on social media websites, a move inspiring local community members to applaud businesses for being quick to address sanitary concerns.

The first known positive test on May 1 came from an employee who works in Hibbing, said the ownership and senior management at L&M Fleet Supply.

“We can report that the individual’s last point in our store was in excess of the 14-day incubation period for COVID-19,” according to a business press release sent to the Hibbing Daily Tribune last week. “Following guidance from federal, state and local governments, we implemented our COVID-19 response plan and took immediate steps to minimize the risk of exposure to our store staff and guests.”

Representatives at L&M Fleet Supply store said they temporarily shut down the store to have professionally-hired cleaners sanitize the “affected area and employee common areas.” They said that the store remains “committed to keeping the health and safety of our employees and customers a number one priority.” The company has increased cleaning and sanitization, promoted social distancing procedures, reduced store hours to allow for extra cleaning, provided employees with masks and gloves as requested and offered curbside pickup for online and phone-in orders.

The news also came two days after the Dairy Queen in neighboring Ely announced it temporarily shut down after an employee tested positive for the coronavirus. Store owner Paul Ivancich took to the business Facebook page to announce that the employee’s last shift was on May 4 and all 15 workers were notified and tested as of Monday morning at the Ely Bloomenson Community Hospital. All of the test results have since come back negative.

The store temporarily closed to give the owner ample time to “deep clean out of an abundance of caution to protect our community,” Ivanvich wrote in his post Monday, adding that the store follows guidelines from the Centers of Disease Control and Protection and the Minnesota Health Department and all employees have been required to wear gloves and face coverings.

On Wednesday morning, Mike Fahey, who has been the manager at Super One Foods in Hibbing for the past three years, told the HDT that an employee told management they tested positive for the virus Sunday, May 10.

“We’re treating it as a confirmed case,” Fahey said. “The employee in question has not worked in roughly a week. The employees that we have that came in contact with the employee are doing temperature checks the last few days at the store.”

Fahey hired a professional cleaner to come into the store on Monday and use an “electro-static system to remove any possible contaminants that regular sanitizer may have missed.” He continued, “We’re taking this very seriously. All of our protocols are in line with suggestions from both the CDC and the state of Minnesota. We’re using an abundance of care to ensure everyone’s safety and our prayers are with the employee who tested positive and hopefully a quick recovery and come back full strength.”

Since mid-March, Super One Foods has rolled out a sanitizing program for the 115 employees and customers in accordance with federal and state guidelines, cleaning all surfaces, including registers and breakroom tables and restrooms.

Like other essential stores in the region, the supermarket has posted signs throughout the store encouraging customers to practice social distancing. The store installed shield guards at registers and bagging stations and has required employees and vendor partners to wear masks on the sales floor. The manager has also reserved the first two hours of the business day for health care workers and high risk customers.

“This is a first time situation for all of us here and for everybody in the community the last two months have been very unique,” Fahey said.

Debate on reopening Iron Range economy amid spike in coronavirus cases

Elected officials, business owners and citizens of the Iron Range have expressed frustration with Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz over the stay-at-home order implemented in mid-March that restricts non-essential businesses from entirely opening to the public. The order had been executed to restrict non-essential outings and travel, so the state could acquire enough personal protective equipment and intensive care beds to meet the needs of an increased number of coronavirus cases.

Since then, business owners have publicly discussed financial problems due to closures and bars and restaurants being restricted to dine-in services, limiting them to serve food via delivery and curb-side pickup.

In recent weeks, the owners of Adventures Restaurant and Pub in Virginia unabashedly erected a sign reading “Walz Sucks!!!” on Highway 53, seemingly displaying annoyance with the governor’s position on closing dine-in services. Photos of the sign have been circulating on local social media pages, generating support and disdain for the views against the governor.

More recently, Sandra Rohwer of Palmer’s Tavern in Hibbing took to Facebook to opine about the governor, criticizing him for a lack of communication with business owners on how he will modify orders. In an open letter, Rohwer said she’s operated the bar for 11 years and, unless the order is modified, is scheduled to open again Monday. “With that, it means that tomorrow morning I need to order stock. The beer in my cooler is expired, my freezers are empty, and I don’t have the capital to completely restock,” she wrote in a post Sunday. “There has been ZERO communication to us business owners as to what our restrictions are and if we are actually opening or extending the shut down. You need to communicate with us, you can NOT leave us hanging in limbo.”

On Wednesday evening, Walz announced that he will extend the peacetime emergency order to June 12, but let the separate stay-at-home order expire on Sunday night.

After weeks of pressure from statewide Republicans, the DFL governor tossed the stay-at-home order and instead instituted a ‘Stay Safe Minnesota’ order that allows small retail stores to reopen next Monday and encourages people to keep group sizes to 10 or fewer and to stay home when possible. “Starting on May 18, we’re turning the workplace dial,” he said in his speech, adding that retail shops can open with a safety plan and at 50 percent capacity. “We can make a turn of the dial and keep people safe.”

The new order continues to restrict dine-in services at restaurants and bars and keeps gyms, salons and theaters closed. State agencies are expected to present plans for a “limited and safe” reopening of establishments on June 1 to the public by May 20. The governor asked citizens to continue working from home when possible and to wear masks and practice social distancing when in public. “We are still in the heart of this pandemic and this can go in a bad direction quickly,” Walz said.

The Walz administration had noted that extending the stay-at-home order for two more weeks would not significantly reduce the number of potential deaths, as social distancing has not proven as effective a tool in curbing the spread of the virus as previously considered.

Elected officials on the Iron Range have touted community efforts to practice social distancing and the sporting of masks when in public. But that has not been entirely the case in cities such as Hibbing. Some citizens reportedly wear masks and practice social distancing when shopping at Lowe’s Home Improvement and Walmart and other stores, based in Hibbing. But others do not and venture into public with groups of people bearing no face coverings.

The notion of whether the state government can fully reopen businesses in safe ways has become a politicized topic on the Iron Range, as it has in other regions across the state and country.

Some citizens have commented on the HDT Facebook page or to the newspaper staff that rural cities on the Iron Range offer safer chances for reopening businesses outside the metro with proper social distancing measures. Some note that the 80 percent of people infected by the coronavirus show mild or no symptoms and others maintain that the virus affects people in similar ways to influenza, though that point has been disproven by local, state and federal health care officials. Several have even suggested publicly that the coronavirus is a hoax fabricated by the media.

Other citizens are saying that rural communities here are bound to be hit by the virus as the state models show that COVID-19 cases will peak in the summer, with cases already confirmed at The Emeralds nursing home in Grand Rapids, the Ely Dairy Queen and now both the L&M Fleet Supply and Super One Foods in Hibbing. Others say that, although most people recover from the virus, they worry whether the regional medical care might be inadequate for a population largely consisting of older adults with high rates per capita of underlying health conditions.

And while locals have welcomed the restricted yet available comforts of national and state parks and access to fishing opportunities, such activities have drawn unexpected challenges to a region once thought far removed from becoming infected with the coronavirus.

Last week, Walz asked Minnesotans to “stay close to home” when venturing out for the state’s fishing opener over the weekend which garnered record sales in permits. “This is not about defying an order that I put out. This is about defying public health warnings. This is about defying the science of how this stuff spreads.”

Despite the governor’s pleas, regional hotels became hot spots for fishing enthusiasts from the Twins Cities, North Dakota and states as far as Nebraska, Tennessee and Florida, according to hotel staff, who asked to remain anonymous out of fear for their job security.

Increase in statewide coronavirus testing, jump in Iron Range cases

The state of Minnesota continues to report an increasing number of cases of COVID-19 and related deaths.

As of Wednesday, the state reported that 122,035 of the 5.6 million Minnesotans have been tested for the coronavirus. At least 12,917 people tested positive and 638 of them died. Nine deaths are being considered “probable COVID-19 deaths” since the virus was listed on their death certificate but a positive test has not yet been documented.

At least 1,851 have required hospitalization since the state reported its first coronavirus case. The most recent update shows that 494 people remained in the hospital, with 199 being in intensive care units.

Considering counties surrounding St. Louis, Aitkin confirmed two cases; Carlton, 65; Koochiching, two; and Lake, one. Itasca County has 40 cases and two deaths.

The majority of deaths statewide come from long-term care of assisted-living facilities. That reality has been worrisome for regionally elected officials who note the large population per capita of older adults in the northeast part of the state. Coronavirus cases have been reported at St. Ann’s Residence and Superior View Apartments, both assisted-living facilities in Duluth, according to the state Health Department. Cases have also been documented at The Emeralds in Grand Rapids, a nursing home where 18 people were reportedly infected with the virus as of last week.

Itasca County Public Health on Monday confirmed that two men over the age of 80 died of the coronavirus, though officials did not provide more details citing privacy concerns.

The uptick in cases in northeast Minnesota are becoming known as the state increases its testing capabilities across the state. Medical facilities such as Fairview Range in Hibbing and Essentia Health in Virginia are now offering tests to people expressing symptoms of the virus.

The state has been trying to ramp up the number of tests distributed. Last month, the Walz administration announced its partnerships with the state Health Department, Mayo Clinic and the University of Minnesota to perform 20,000 tests daily. The effort has ramped up testing with the state performing 6,700 tests on Wednesday alone, but equipment has been back-logged and so the state remains lacking in test kits.

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