WILLMAR — Kandiyohi County, like every county across the state and nation, is at war. The enemy? COVID-19.

"This is a war," said Commissioner Harlan Madsen at Tuesday's County Board meeting. "I don't care how you describe it, this is a war."

The County Board, along with the Willmar City Council at its Monday night meeting, discussed possible next steps in the battle against the raging pandemic. In just two days this week, there were 175 newly confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Kandiyohi County. Of the 2,873 total cases in the county, 1,731 are from Willmar. There have been nine deaths.

"It is a very frightening trend that we can not continue," said Willmar City Councilor Shawn Mueske.

One of the greatest worries is overwhelming the local health care systems, which are already struggling.

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"With these increases, our local health care systems are reaching capacity, both with bed availability and staffing," said Jennie Lippert, Kandiyohi County Health and Human Services Director.

In an effort to slow the spread of the disease and help keep hospital beds available to those who need them, the Willmar City Council passed a motion on a 5-to-3 vote asking staff to strongly consider shutting down city buildings to the public through January.

"We have a duty to protect the welfare of our community," said Willmar Mayor Marv Calvin.

Voting against the resolution were Councilors Julie Asmus, Rick Fagerlie and Andrew Plowman.

If the buildings are closed, it could have far-reaching impacts on activities at the Willmar Community Center or Civic Center. Questions were raised at the council meeting regarding senior meals at the Community Center and the Willmar Warhawks hockey team which plays at the Civic Center.

"There are a lot of things that will be affected," Calvin said.

City Administrator Brian Gramentz said he welcomed any guidance from the council on how the city can help decrease the spread. Gramentz said he will be speaking with city staff over the next few days on how each department will be able to dial back in-person activities.

"We can take a step back," Gramentz said.

The County Board decided against making any motions at their meeting, though they did give County Administrator Larry Kleindl the power to decide to close county buildings to the public if he feels it is necessary, based on both community COVID-19 numbers and whether there is enough staff available. Approximately 10 percent of county staff have been impacted in one way or another by the virus.

"At this point we are not closing," Kleindl said, but that could change in the days and weeks ahead.

Kleindl also urged the public to use the county's online system to make an appointment with the department they need to see before coming to any of the county's buildings.

Kleindl will also be making a decision by next week on whether the County Board meetings need to again be held remotely. The board has been meeting in person since July, though the increase in cases lately has some questioning whether that is the right thing to continue.

The majority of the board wishes to continue meeting in person, feeling the steps the county has taken, including required mask wearing and social distancing in the board room, have been successful.

"It is setting an example on how to do business," said Commissioner Rollie Nissen. "We still have to do business."

Commissioner Corky Berg said he felt the County Board should be setting another example by limiting in-person contact, as both the state and Kandiyohi County Health and Human Services are urging the public to do.

"If we continue meeting in person, that is not a good message," Berg said. "As leaders we have to show the community what is important and that we really care."

The Willmar City Council, which has been meeting in a hybrid style under which people can either attend in person or through remote means, decided Monday night to go back to fully remote meetings for now. The Willmar Municipal Utilities Commission is also returning to remote meetings.

"I think people are going to understand this is a real serious concern," said Willmar Councilor Fernando Alvarado. "We have to be proactive and set the example for the community."

Both the city and county are asking for the public's help in beating back the virus, even though the measures needed, such as limiting holiday gatherings or outings, can be challenging and upsetting. Getting tested for COVID-19 is also imperative, no matter the symptoms one might have.

"We need your help in slowing the spread of COVID-19," Lippert said. "Make smart and conscious decisions."

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