Most local government officials are intimately aware of the continually changing, dynamic nature of governance in the 21st century. This has never been more true than since the global outbreak of the coronavirus, commonly referred to as the COVID-19 pandemic.
The City of International Falls, Minnesota, USA, is located in a predominantly rural region in the center of the North American continent. We sometimes live in the illusion of being insulated from the myriad of global events that rock our world. Other places experience severe storm events, fires, typhoons, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, drought, regime change, rampant poverty, economic catastrophe, and the like. Those things don't happen to me to my family; they happen to somebody else. The pandemic taught us the fallacy of that thinking.
The City International Falls is much like many rural communities in the United States. First platted in 1895, the City of International Falls was incorporated as a city in 1909. The area was well known to the hardy Voyageurs plying the wilderness waterways by canoe. They traveled in search of beaver pelts and trade with the native peoples for hundreds of years. The prospects for success were good, with an abundant supply of freshwater, wildlife, and timber. Over time the community slowly expanded due to the lumber industry's success, an extension of rail lines, and harvesting of timber for the local paper mill, the city's largest employer. However, our current population of roughly 6,000 persons has been slowly but steadily declining since the 1960s. Many in the "Baby Boom" and later generations have left to find their fortunes elsewhere in the growing regional and urban centers of Minnesota. Our focus as a local government is to meet the ever-increasing challenges of aging housing stock, deteriorating public infrastructure, slowly declining population, and efforts to stimulate further economic activity and growth.
Emergency services are provided by the International Falls Fire/Rescue/EMS department. You can read the International Falls Fire Chief Adam Mannausau's perspective of how the City's Fire Department handled the pandemic on October 24, 2020, iCHIEFS News publication.
As an example of our region's rural nature, the Fire/Rescue/EMS department covers an area of 175 square miles for Fire service, and the Ambulance provides Advanced Life Support within a 989 square mile primary service area. We have a small community hospital for immediate treatment and stabilization of persons with injuries. If trauma care and more intensive treatment is required, we conduct ground transfer of patients about 600 times per year to two other regional hospitals located 112 and 165 miles distant, one-way.
Interestingly, we have little mutual aid support in the immediate vicinity. The Town of Fort Frances, Ontario, Canada (population about 8,000) is located across the International Bridge immediately across the Rainy River. While the Rainy River is only a few hundred feet wide, the actual divide looms very large.
This is due to the somewhat artificial geopolitical barrier created as the Rainy River serves as an international border between the United States and Canada. While the two local governments complement one another very well through emergency mutual-aid support if needed, both communities had experienced significant economic change when the international border closed due to the pandemic. Since the pandemic, only essential and commercial travel is allowed to cross the border. Previously, over 900,000 vehicles and 12,000 pedestrians annually traveled across the international border. Our city was a significant benefactor of this border traffic due to the favorable monetary exchange rate. The pandemic and border closure have negatively impacted the local economies on both sides of the border. The prospect of opening the border soon is unlikely.
What has worked well? The outbreak of the pandemic brought quick responses to address the fear of community spread of the coronavirus. Our goal was to protect our staff and elected officials and preserve the city's ability to provide essential services to our residents and the large area we serve. The President and Governor declared emergencies on March 13, 2020, and the City Council did so also effective March 17.
By doing so, we assumed additional authority through state statutes to respond to the pandemic and protect public health. As a community, we responded immediately and closed schools, the courthouse, and city facilities. The City Council and staff implemented actions that worked well, including:
- Adopted a resolution declaring a local emergency that established the Fire Chief as the Emergency Management Director to implement the local Emergency Management Plan; identified containment and mitigation strategies; and identified critical agencies for coordination including government, medical, transportation, residential care facilities, education, pharmacy and medical service providers, and the Chamber of Commerce.
- Communicated safety protocols, procedures, and operational changes to staff and provided essential employees with letters certifying the essential nature of their work that exempted them from stay-at-home orders of the state of Minnesota.
- Developed Preparedness Plans that outlined department-specific protective measures and procedures to follow and train staff on new requirements such as hygiene and respiratory etiquette, social distancing, housekeeping, building access, communication and training, and management supervision implement the plans.
The initial plans included:
- Creating different shifts and staggered work schedules prevents the spread and allows work from home for persons vulnerable to contracting the coronavirus.
- Converted to one-week long work shifts for the few staff licensed in water plant operations with two weeks off to minimize the likelihood of spread among essential staff.
- Implemented protocols for the Council's virtual meetings with only the meeting recorder, Administrator, and Mayor in the Council Chambers with the Council members and public participating remotely via Zoom internet software.
Community organizations and the city made hard choices by canceling events such as the July 4th Independence Day parade and celebration, August Bass Tournament and boat parade, Elks Brat and Corn Feed fundraiser, and the September Labor Day celebration (fireworks were postponed to Labor Day weekend).
The impacts on interactions with our staff, other agencies, and the public have been noteworthy. We have suspended routine training and in-person meetings to minimize spread. Consequently, there have been more communications via remote, virtual meetings, and e-mail/texting. In the emergency management realm, the County Public Health Dept. and Sheriff's office have set up weekly (now every two weeks) virtual meetings with the hospital, clinic, emergency services, local government, Red Cross, school, chamber of commerce, and business officials county-wide. The value of these meetings is to share updates on the spread of the virus, best practices for protection, testing protocols, what works or does not work in various communities, and distributing updated advice and information from the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and Minnesota Department of Health (MDH).
Forty or more persons regularly participate in this effort that promotes communication and coordination.
We found that the business financial assistance program and distribution of picnic tables were most appreciated in our community. The county led an initiative with the cities to pool financial resources and create a financial assistance program for businesses negatively affected by COVID-19. Each county's local jurisdictions contributed about 10% of their CARES Act monies to develop a financial assistance program for businesses that documented need. Business applications were submitted, and funds up to $10,000 per business and $5,000 for nonprofits were distributed. The program disbursed a total of $400,627 to 78 businesses and nonprofits. The average contribution was $5,136 per entity.
The City of International Falls immediately mobilized our Public Works Dept. to deliver picnic tables/benches from parks to hospitality businesses that had restricted or limited bar and food sales indoors. The outdoor seating areas successfully maintained social distancing, allowing people to enjoy such services, and businesses remained open and kept employees working. Both programs were very well received and generated positive TV media coverage.
What has worked not so well? The Emergency Services personnel suspended training. Some staff responds better to the changed routines, but most miss the added value and comradery of a shared training venue and networking among other staff. Due to this pandemic's extended nature, my preference will be to commence staff training in a safe manner to remain current and skilled in critical areas of expertise.
In-person appointments for the public to meet with staff have curtailed significantly. I expect we will look for other ways to open communication with the public. Currently, our remote meeting technology and the system is a temporary, makeshift set-up that is cumbersome and unreliable.
Early in the pandemic, the governor instituted an executive order that limited indoor bar/restaurant occupancy to minimize the coronavirus's community spread. Soon after that, the City Council adopted an emergency ordinance prohibiting customers from entering restaurants or other places with food or beverage preparation for consumption because the public was not observing the executive order's conditions. The ordinance allowed drive-through service, curb-side delivery, and off-site delivery service with only business employees entering the building. Access was later allowed when the governor permitted access to such businesses. Parks and boat launch/landing facilities were also briefly closed, then allowed to reopen after signs were posted with best practices to inform the public of proper precautions. Some persons have not appreciated these limitations on their freedoms.
Like many communities and the country as a whole, our citizenry has been divided about how to react to the pandemic. For Halloween, the City Council adopted best practices and educated the public about low, medium, and high-risk activities for this holiday. Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays also offer many risks for exposure, with family gatherings and meals a common occurrence. Our community is divided about the real significance of COVID-19 and the real need for taking any precautions. Some persons wear masks religiously and firmly embrace the value of protective measures. Others remain nonchalant about the risks associated with not wearing a mask or maintaining appropriate separation from others when in public. We are doing so here and ensure our staff wear masks, sanitize, and maintain social distancing as much as possible. COVID fatigue has lulled many into being complacent and unconcerned, which, in my opinion, is a contributing factor to the recent increase in community spread, locally and globally. Medical professionals warn about a likely spike in cases as people congregate for the upcoming elections, holiday shopping, weddings, funerals, or other events.
Unfortunately, I don't think we have seen the last of the positive COVID-19 diagnoses with our staff or within the community.
Where are we now? The initial precautions worked well. We are known as the "Icebox of the Nation" due to our cold temperatures in the winter months. Winter's onset is upon us (it was 12 degrees F. in mid-October with snow already accumulating at the time of this writing). With additional protective measures in place, such as Plexiglas barriers and sanitation protocols, we have opened our public building to be more welcoming and service-oriented for our citizens, yet still promoting public and employees' health and safety.
The governor's office has directed federal CARES Act funds to local governments, which we have welcomed, and among our priorities are building security and communication enhancements. We ordered and are awaiting technology installation to allow improved audio/visual capabilities to conduct virtual meetings. The enhancements will much improve transparency and public participation in city council and advisory board meetings. We have purchased software to allow on-line applications, payment of fees, and issuance of permits. I see this operational initiative continuing to be utilized for the foreseeable future.
The challenge for all of us is to remain committed to quick responses to rapidly changing conditions and guidance. Our goal to protect our staff and citizens has been unwavering. But we must have a long-term perspective and strategy for dealing with this pandemic. As positive cases and deaths continue to rise, expectations must be tempered by the pervasive impacts and relentless possibility of contracting the coronavirus – the true reality of this pandemic.