OLIVIA — Renville County believes it got the attention of bad actors operating bars and restaurants when it announced plans last week to publish the names of businesses found to be repeatedly in violation of COVID-19 restrictions.
Now it hopes to get the attention of the general public as to the seriousness of the pandemic with a straightforward message: Stay home.
“We came to the conclusion that we’re at the point of saying people should stay home if they can,” Jill Bruns, director of Renville County Public Health, told the County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday.
Bruns said members of the county’s Emergency Operations Center decided when holding an emergency meeting on Monday to get that message out.
The county recently received a letter from the Minnesota Department of Health advising that its COVID-19 case numbers were concerning and urging the county to act.
The county had 537 confirmed cases of COVID-19 as of Tuesday, with 218 of the cases being reported in the past two weeks. The case rate of infected persons per 10,000 population was at 149.19, its highest yet. The death total stood at 15, Bruns told the commissioners.
The numbers have made it clear: This is very much a community-wide spread, she said.
Bruns issued a memo to churches in the county on Saturday urging them to return to online services due to concerns about the spread of the virus.
One week earlier, the commissioners heard Bruns and Dave Distad, environmental health specialist, outline plans to publish the names of those businesses that continued to violate COVID-19 protocols.
Bruns said they have not yet published the list, but word about the plans has definitely gotten attention, according to the commissioners. They’ve heard both support and complaints about the plans.
“Busiest my phone has probably ever been,’’ said Commissioner Greg Snow.
Commissioner Randy Kramer noted that the point of the list is to allow the public to make an informed decision on the health risk they are willing to take, as well as to motivate offenders to correct their behavior.
He said that the problems encountered by Distad are issues that business operators are responsible to correct: Bartenders and waiters not wearing masks, and placing seats together and allowing patrons to line up virtually shoulder-to-shoulder being among the most prevalent.
New directives issued by Gov. Tim Walz aimed at bars and restaurants may address many of the concerns, he said.
One of the county’s top goals right now is to slow the spread of the virus and reduce the demand on the health care system.
Mike Hennen, emergency manager director, said the Olivia Hospital and Clinics has only a limited number of beds available as it copes with staffing shortages, no different than the case at other health centers in the region.
He said there is a statewide concern for meeting staffing needs for ambulances to transport COVID-19 patients as well.
Bruns emphasized that the health care system should be viewed as the last line of defense. The community is on the front lines and needs to take responsibility for slowing the spread.
The public health director said the county's recent effort to reach out to newly infected COVID-19 patients and families and inform them about the need to isolate and quarantine is helping fill the gap as the state falls behind in contract tracing.
“Overwhelmingly, people are answering,” said Bruns of the phone calls being made by her staff to infected households. “They are eager for information. They really want to know.”
She said the response from those contacted has run the gamut.
“Some totally don’t understand what it means to isolate and quarantine and continue to go on with their lives oblivious to the fact that they could be spreading (the virus),” she said. Others have been very knowledgeable and are being very diligent to avoid contact with other people.
She’s made some calls herself to people who were weeping. Their spouse was in the hospital and they were home quarantined, she said.