- Associated Press - Monday, May 11, 2020

MANKATO, Minn. (AP) - Larger cities have lengthy written plans to ensure they can continue to provide water, sewer and other vital municipal services even in a pandemic.

Mankato’s plan, for instance, is 34 pages long.

Lake Crystal’s is 542 words.

In St. Clair, the continuity of operations plan is more informal, and its most critical element comes down to one sentiment: Don’t let Thad and Deb get sick.

“It’s just the two of us,” Public Works Supervisor Thad Baker said of St. Clair’s water department, its sewer department, its streets department, its parks department.

Baker and Deb McCollum work side by side every weekday. So if one happened to catch COVID-19, they would both end up on quarantine and St. Clair’s municipal workforce would be down to City Clerk/Treasurer Catherine Seys.

That scenario prompted St. Clair and nearby Mapleton, which has only a slightly larger city workforce, to have a discussion.

“It must have been early March, right after the first case in Minnesota, we did meet with Mapleton Public Works,” Baker told the Mankato Free Press.

Their Mapleton counterparts came to St. Clair, got a tour of the water and wastewater facilities, learned the basic operations and maintenance routine, took notes and photos. Then Baker and McCollum traveled to Mapleton and became the students, learning how to run that city’s water and sewer utilities if Mapleton’s municipal workers end up sick or quarantined.

“We’re not going to run it forever, but we got enough information to keep things going,” Baker said. “… In an emergency, we’re just looking at keeping the water and sewer going.”

With a population of 831, St. Clair’s municipal government is a lean operation. The Blue Earth County Sheriff’s Office handles public safety, and the city relies on contractors or other agencies to handle tasks such as water main repairs, engineering and economic development.

St. Clair Mayor Marvin More is hopeful that efforts at social distancing by staff and residents alike will keep the pandemic from becoming a problem there. Residents are taking the crisis seriously, even as spring weather and a desire for conversation bring them out for walks.

“But when they stop and visit on the street, they stay a good distance away - more than 6 feet from what I can tell,” More said.

A member of St. Clair’s volunteer fire department, More said the duties of that organization are more worrisome. With a volunteer department, every available firefighter responds to a major fire. And the department is also the first-responder to medical emergencies in St. Clair and surrounding townships. Social distancing just isn’t part of the standard procedure.

“Everyone would climb into one vehicle (traditionally),” he said. “Now we take multiple vehicles.”

If one of those medical calls ended up being a COVID-19 patient, though, multiple members of the department could end up in quarantine.

“It’s a concern,” More said. “The last few meetings, that’s all we’ve talked about.”

Proper personal protective equipment, or PPE, is in short supply, even for an agency that rushes to medical calls. At a recent meeting, the members were mulling over the options with an anything’s-better-than-nothing mindset. Maybe they could pick up some plastic rain ponchos to wear on the medical calls.

“We even talked about a plastic bag,” More said. “You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do because some things are hard to come by.”

Mankato, with more than 300 employees, has a complex pandemic-response plan. The goal, though, is the same as St. Clair’s - ensure that backup workers are ready to continue the most essential services even if the municipal workforce falls ill.

“We did start planning in early March for this,” said Deputy City Manager Alison Zelms.

Across the spectrum of city departments, staff are working from home when possible or distancing themselves - physically or with staggered shifts - when they must work from municipal buildings, Zelms said.

Public works crews and emergency responders need to work in teams but efforts are still made to avoid cross-contamination. Pods of workers are kept separate from other pods, even being encouraged to use different restrooms or avoid having lunch with workers outside their group.

If firefighters or police come in contact with a member of the public who turns out to have COVID-19, the city has set up housing options so the first-responder can quarantine without risking their family’s health.

Firefighters working in one station can be kept apart from another team of firefighters working in a different station. And they’re putting in shifts of 48 straight hours, followed by 96 hours off, to avoid unnecessary contact between different crews.

“They’re all aware it’s for their safety and the safety of the public and the ability to serve the public,” Zelms said.

Mankato even has a succession plan for each major service area. If a department head is waylaid by illness or quarantine, there’s a specific underling identified to step into the leadership role. And there’s a backup to the backup and a backup to the backup’s backup.

Lake Crystal, in some ways, has the challenges of both St. Clair and Mankato. With a population of 2,500, Lake Crystal has a limited workforce of 17. But the city offers a wide variety of services, including water, sewer, police, streets and a relatively extensive park system. It even has some services - a city-run electrical utility, a city cemetery and a municipal ambulance - that Mankato leaves to private companies and nonprofits.

With a lot of expectations to meet and a minimal staff to accomplish them, Lake Crystal can’t afford to see a major segment of its workforce sidelined.

“It’s trying to do everything you can, use everything in your toolbox to be cautious, and contain spread and continue to offer services,” said City Administrator Taylor Gronau.

Some procedures have changed, such as prohibiting employees from work assignments in private homes unless it’s an emergency. Employees are working from home offices when possible, and shifts are being staggered for those who can’t. More cleaning and sanitation of equipment are being done as one employee comes on duty to replace another.

And city workers are being taught some of the essential duties performed by other departments.

“We’ve had some cross-training, so other employees are able to take on those tasks,” Gronau said.

One advantage of a small police department - Lake Crystal has just three full-time officers and a handful of part-timers - is that social distancing isn’t an issue: “We only have one on at most times anyway.”

Running an ambulance service is a particular challenge, however, when the next call might involve someone with a fever, a cough, shortness of breath. If it turns out to be a COVID case, a substantial percentage of the Lake Crystal Ambulance Service, which handles calls from Vernon Center to Cambria, could be sent home for a couple of weeks of mandatory isolation.

Multiple precautions have been added for the ambulance crew, which for now has the recommended personal protective equipment for EMTs.

“At this point, it looks like we’re going OK on gear,” Gronau said.

Back in St. Clair, where the first-responders were considering cutting arm holes in plastic bags, they’re relying to some degree on small-town values.

“We had a lady, she sewed a bunch of masks and donated them to the fire department,” More said. “Everybody’s trying to do their part.”

For the St. Clair Public Works Department - aka Thad and Deb - some personal sacrifices are being made to ensure residents don’t have to worry about whether the faucet will run or the toilet will flush.

“We’re kind of keeping ourselves isolated from Mankato and keeping from talking even to people around town,” Baker said. “Just doing our own thing and hoping we stay healthy.”

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