Sorry, you need to enable JavaScript to visit this website.
Time to read
8 minutes
Read so far

COVID-19 AND ITS IMPACT HERE

Posted in:

In the interest of public safety and good information, the Courier is making this article free. If you support this kind of community journalism, please consider subscribing to the Courier.

  • Article Image Alt Text

Schmeckfest is postponed, schools are closed and officials from Freeman Regional Health Services are watching closely. Like everywhere around the world, the coronavirus is hitting home.

It has taken 61 years, but something has finally come along powerful enough to derail Schmeckfest as planned: the coronavirus.

Freeman Academy officials announced late last week that they were postponing the popular festival amidst growing concerns about the spread of the COVID-19 illness; new dates have not been determined.

Schmeckfest was scheduled to start this Friday, March 20 and continue March 21, 27 and 28. In an eerie coincidence, the school’s announcement came on Friday the 13th of March; the very first Schmeckfest in 1959 was held Friday, March 13.

Although weather has had an impact a number of times over the years, never before has even a day of activities been canceled.

The statement issued by the Schmeckfest Auxiliary Executive Board, Freeman Academy Board of Directors and its administration last Friday said new dates would be announced once the longer-term impact of COVID-19 become clearer. Tickets already purchased for both the meal and the production of “Matilda the Musical” will be transferable to the new dates.

“This has been a difficult decision,” the statement read. “However, we cannot risk the safety of our students, faculty, volunteers, community and Schmeckfest visitors. We also feel a personal responsibility to help stop the spread of this contagious virus. We have been strongly encouraged to take preventative measures, not just for ourselves, but for all those who enter our campus, and especially those with weakened immune systems.”

Concerns that coronavirus would have an impact on Schmeckfest grew the middle part of last week, as the spread of the worldwide pandemic became a hard reality in South Dakota and across the United States. The first cases in South Dakota — five, including the death of a Pennington County man in his 60s — were reported Tuesday, March 10.

Worry went from zero to 60 in the days that followed; the NBA announced Wednesday night that it was canceling the rest of its season and the majority of the sports world followed suit with action the following day, including the cancelation of the NCAA men’s and women’s basketball tournaments. That unprecedented development revealed just how serious the COVID-19 threat had become.

Sioux Falls declared a state of emergency on Thursday and on Friday South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem asked that all schools be closed the week of March 16-20. Schools across the area, including Freeman Academy, Freeman Public, Menno, Marion and Canistota, are all following the governor’s recommendation.

On Tuesday, Noem ordered all South Dakota schools now be closed through March 27.

Also last Friday, the South Dakota High School Activities Association (SDHSAA) announced the remainder of the State B Girls Basketball Tournament was postponed, as is this week’s State B Boys Basketball Tournament in which Cornbelt Conference teams Canistota and Viborg-Hurley are set to play. All region music contests and All-State Band, scheduled for March 28, were all canceled.

The SDHSAA has canceled all of its high school sports through at least April 5.

Two sports banquets involving Freeman residents have been postponed: the South Dakota Sports Hall of Fame, into which Laverne Diede was to be inducted on March 25; and the South Dakota Basketball Hall of Fame, into which Bob Pidde was to be inducted on March 27, have both been moved to 2021.

In a presidential address to the nation Friday afternoon, amid growing concerns about how the spreading pandemic will impact the health care profession — including the availability of beds — Donald Trump declared the United States in a state of emergency.

And on Sunday night, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) discouraged groups larger than 50 from meeting for the next eight weeks. That recommendation was reduced to 10 by President Trump on Monday.

“If that’s what it takes to keep this from spreading, so be it,” Freeman Mayor Sam Sorensen told the Courier Monday morning. “I don’t think we’re in a place where we need to quarantine everybody — at least not around here — but that can change in a matter of hours.”

City Hall has been conducting normal business hours, but officials were asking the public to use the drop box inside the front door or call to schedule a brief appointment; the phone number is 925-7127. The council was scheduled to discus at its Wednesday night meeting what to do going forward.

Freeman Public Library has suspended all programming and is distributing books and DVDs only by advance orders and delivered in the breezeway.

And on Tuesday, the Hutchinson County Commission voted to close the county courthouse to the public indefinitely.

A number of other local entities have taken preventative steps.

Extended care facilities were among the first to take action, with Oakview Terrace and Freeman Medical Center, the Salem Mennonite Home, the Tieszen Memorial Home in Marion and the Menno-Olivet Care Center all deciding to go into lockdown Tuesday night.

Rural Medial Clinics, which has a main office in Freeman with satellite locations in Bridgewater, Marion and Menno, remain open to see patients by appointment. See the story above.

As of Tuesday afternoon, March 17, there were 11 reported COVID-19 cases in South Dakota; all were related to international travel.

SCHOOLS ACT

With schools now closed through next week, Freeman Public is making sack lunches available to enrolled students by request; on Monday, the federal government gave the OK to distribute those lunches to students for free. The lunches consist of a sandwich, fruit and vegetable. Those who would like one should call the junior-senior high school at 925-4214 between 9 and 10 a.m. The lunches are available for pickup around noon.

Freeman Public is also making plans to develop an alternative educational process via the internet and Superintendent Kevin Kunz said he hopes that can be in place by Monday. The district continues to use an automated phone messaging system to relay information to families with students in the school system.

In Menno, all elementary students were sent home with their schoolwork for the week last Thursday in anticipation of the shutdown, said Superintendent Dr. Charlene Crosswait. Middle school and high school students, meanwhile, will be connecting with their teachers through both email and/or Google Classroom and another eLearning system called Teams.

“We’re in the best shape we could be in given the circumstances,” Crosswait told the Courier on Monday. “Everyone in our district is ready for the week. Beyond that, we’re trying to figure out where we’re headed.”

In addition to the school, Menno’s city/school gym, wellness center and library are all closed until further notice.

Growing Dreams Learning Center, which operates out of a wing of the Freeman Elementary School, remains open.

Little Blessings Daycare at Freeman Academy is closed.

IMPACT ELSEWHERE

As is the case across the country, retailers in Freeman have seen a significant increase in the sale of items like toilet paper, hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes. Freeman Shopping Center was out of all three on Monday

“We’ve had a lot of people walking in and then walking straight out,” said Lori Uecker. “Our order is in, but we don’t know if we’re going to be able to restock until the truck shows up.”

Uecker said the store has also seen an uptick in staples like bread, eggs, potatoes and milk, and that a lot of the customers are coming from out of town.

Norm Kaufman, who owns Norm’s Thrifty White Pharmacy on Main Street, has seen the same thing.

“They don’t want to be around the craziness (of the biggest cities),” Kaufman said. “Here, there are fewer crowds, they’re more likely to find product and not come in contact with as many people.”

Still, he said, the high demand had nearly cleaned him out of Clorox disinfectant wipes Monday morning, and he has been out of hand sanitizer since Thursday, March 5; he placed an order for 60 packages to arrive the following Monday and he received none.

“People are going crazy,” Kaufman said. “Fear is a strong motivator.”

Bob Pidde of Jamboree Foods has been taking precautions that includes extra cleaning like wiping down surfaces. He said Tuesday morning he has seen an uptick in traffic that includes people who live outside the community.

“It’s almost like Christmas,” he said.

Pidde says he ran out of bathroom tissue on Monday and that other staple foods and supplies are limited. The truck that was scheduled to arrive on Tuesday was delayed until Wednesday; “A lot of that stuff will be gone by the end of the day,” Pidde said Tuesday morning.

Freeman Dental Center issued a statement last week saying they were following recommendations from both the CDC and the American Dental Association. Those with appointments who have experienced symptoms of fever, cough, shortness of breath or general aches and pains should reschedule their appointment, the statement read; those concerned about being out are invited to reschedule their appointment.

The Et Cetera Shoppe, which is staffed by volunteers who are of the age most susceptible to the virus, is also closed until further notice.

Sorensen said there’s no telling what kind of long-term effect coronavirus will end up having, but it will be significant.

“What scares me is the impact this is having on all our towns,” the mayor said. “People are staying home; they’re not going out and that’s a loss of revenue. There’s going to be a big impact throughout this nation, and that’s too bad. We’re already suffering because of last year’s flooding and a bad farm economy.

“This is going to have a big, big impact.”

THE HOFER FAMILY

One Freeman family that has felt the direct and dramatic impact of coronavirus as it relates to international travel is Kerry and Lori Hofer and their four young children, who have been oversees the past six weeks. The Hofers left for Europe in early February after Lori was granted a sabbatical to the Czech Republic through Mt. Marty College, where she works as an assistant professor of business in the social sciences department.

While the family is back safely — they returned to their home west of Freeman around 11 p.m. on Sunday — Lori’s sabbatical and their overseas trip was cut short by about three weeks and their journey back to the United States was very much in a state of flux for about 48 hours.

Lori, who used Facebook to document the family’s journey, posted on Tuesday, March 10 that while they were well aware of the worldwide pandemic, they really hadn’t felt a direct impact of coronavirus until that day.

“This morning the Czech Ministry of Health took a big step and closed down all schools, universities and events where more than 100 people are present,” wrote Lori, whose family was living in a small apartment in the city of Ceske Budejovice, which is about 90 minutes south of Prague. “We want to stress to everyone back home that this isn’t because there’s an epidemic here. Instead, the country is being very proactive. They are taking sweeping measures in an effort to prevent what’s happening in Italy.”

Lori’s post noted that her sabbatical at the University of South Bohemia had taken a hit; she told the Courier on Monday that she was able to complete about half of her lectures, but was cut short of completing any of her research through observation and forums.

“I am very disappointed, but during the last week the writing was on the wall, which helped to soften the blow,” she wrote. “We went to the store to stock up on food in case of a shortage. With only two dorm-sized fridges and no car to haul groceries, we are really hoping the situation doesn’t get out of hand.

So for now, we‘ll continue to enjoy our apartment, the town and the last three weeks of this crazy ride. We appreciate your prayers and will plan to come home coronavirus-free on our scheduled April 1 flight.”

But things didn’t go as planned.

By last Thursday morning, the Czech Republic had ordered all restaurants, bars and stores be closed by 8 p.m. that night, and public transportation was running on a limited schedule. The Hofers then received word Friday morning that, after midnight, there would be no cars, buses or trains allowed out of the Czech Republic until April 13.

Calls to both the U.S. Embassy and United Airlines initially went to an automated system, but they finally got through to the Embassy and were advised to leave Europe ASAP. They initially made plans to take a train to Germany to get out of the shutting-down Czech Republic but were told by a family friend who had worked for the U.S. Embassy that if they did so, leaving Germany would be nearly impossible. Instead, they managed to catch a train to Prague and then a flight to Paris Friday evening.

The Hofers arrived at an Airbnb in Paris late Friday, finally made contact with United Airlines on Saturday — in a Facebook post titled “Eye of the Story,” Lori called it “the voice of an angel” and “an answer to prayers” — and scheduled a flight to Chicago for the following morning.

The Hofers left on schedule and landed at O’Hare at 8:30 p.m. Sunday.

“What did we find in Chicago?” Lori wrote. “No lines, a quick health check, incredibly helpful employees who’ve been working around the clock and a slew of reporters. Good work, O’Hare! We were preparing for the worst and got the best.”

The next post was a picture of Kerry and their four children in Sioux Falls Regional Airport standing in front of a Terry Redlin painting depicting a pheasant hunt up against the sun low in the sky.

“Sioux Falls — a beautiful sight after a 22-hour travel day,” wrote Lori, who is now at home self-quarantined with her family for two weeks per a presidential order for all international travelers returning to the United States.

MOVING FORWARD

As has been the case since things worsened the middle part of last week, this continues to be a fluid situation with new information and instructions being shared on an hourly basis. The Courier will continue to use its website, freemansd.com, to update the public on developments in our local communities. That will include information about health care related matters, school, business closings and cancelations and/or postponements.

Any business or organization that would like to share information should call or text 605-351-6097 or email courier@gwtc.net.