WILLMAR — It has been unnaturally quiet at day training and habilitation centers since the COVID-19 pandemic upended operations. Normally these centers would provide programming and employment for developmentally disabled individuals. Instead they have been shut down since at least March 16.

"It is hard, we miss them," said Renee Nolting, executive director of West Central Industries in Willmar. "It's been pretty lonely."

The governor's stay-at-home order did not list day centers for the disabled as essential services, though many were seeing reductions in clients prior to the order. Many clients live in group homes which stopped allowing residents to attend programming due to the threat of spreading COVID-19.

"Everyone was scared," said Karen Borden, executive director of Adult Client Training Services Inc. of Olivia.

With no clients coming to programming, there is no revenue. The Department of Human Services pays the centers for the services they provide clients, but only if those services are running and clients are attending. With no income, all have had to make difficult decisions.

"We laid off the majority of our staff," said Joan Macik, executive director of Kandi Works Developmental Achievement Center Inc. in Kandiyohi.

Adult Client Training Services in Olivia also furloughed most of its staff.

"Now I'm down to a skeleton crew of about six people out of about 25," Borden said.

Thankfully, Paycheck Protection Program loans were secured. Those funds, along with reserves, are allowing some work to continue, mostly administrative.

"That helped a lot," said Alethea Koehler, Swift County Developmental Achievement Center executive director. "It is a short-term band-aid."

Koehler said the Swift County DAC is holding on and made the decision not to furlough its employees when business shut down.

"We want to be ready to serve on Day 1," Koehler said.

West Central Industries was able to bring all of its staff back after a two-week furlough and they are providing remote services to some of their clients, but are also stepping in to do the work usually completed by clients. WCI has contracts with businesses around the community and that work still needs to be done or the contracts could be lost.

"We are going to need those when our clients come back," Nolting said.

Staff at Swift County have also been lending a hand, specifically fulfilling lawn mowing contracts.

Macik also has concerns regarding contract work and there has been talk about bringing staff back to help out.

Adult Client Training Services, where most of their work contracts are for cleaning with the city of Olivia, isn't as worried.

"Our city administrator is amazing," Borden said. "He has a soft spot for the people we service."

As the buildings remain closed, leadership is planning for the future and what programming will look like once clients can return. That will mostly likely mean mask wearing, social distancing, increased cleaning regimens and changes in how clients do their jobs. Transportation will be difficult as most is done by bus or van.

"How do you do social distancing in a van?" Nolting asked.

Each organization has been putting its emergency plans into action, or creating brand new policies and procedures, to respond to a situation no one ever imagined.

"We are fine-tuning that language," Borden said.

If members of the public wish to assist, donations are accepted. This could be monetary assistance or even donations of personal protective equipment such as face masks and shields. Those interested in helping should contact one of the centers or check their websites.

"Any little bit helps," Koehler said.

While the financial implications are a huge concern, the most difficult part of the shutdown has been missing the clients. It has also been very difficult for those clients, who are missing out on not only paychecks, but also time with friends and activities.

"They are used to the routines, coming to work, talking with their friends and enjoying the day," Macik said. "For some we serve, it is not understandable of why they aren't able to go."

While Gov. Tim Walz has relaxed some of the pandemic restrictions, how that impacts day programs is still uncertain. The Minnesota Organization of Habilitation and Rehabilitation, to which all four centers belong, will be speaking with the Department of Human Services to try and get those questions answered, Koehler said.

"It opened more questions than answers for us," Koehler said of Walz's newest order.

All are hoping they'll be able to open soon, even at reduced capacity. Many clients are medically fragile, so it will probably take some time before programming is back to full strength.

"The clients will slowly trickle back I hope," Borden said.

The goal of everyone is that when clients can come back, the programs they rely on will be ready to receive them, even if it might not look exactly the same.

"We plan to be here for our clients," Macik said. "Hopefully we'll be back at it sooner rather than later."