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Vaccine distribution, economic aid on mayors’ minds

MARSHALL — While there’s hope on the horizon for the end of the COVID-19 pandemic, communities in southwest Minnesota are still waiting for wider vaccine distribution, a group of area mayors told U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar this week.

“Getting the vaccine out quicker has to happen,” Luverne Mayor Pat Baustain said. While front-line hospital workers and residents of some nursing homes in the region have received their first doses of COVID-19 vaccine, other vulnerable residents have yet to get theirs.

“I think there is frustration about the timing and availability” of COVID-19 vaccines, especially for residents of nursing homes and assisted living facilities, said Marshall Mayor bob Byrnes.

In the Marshall area, regional hospital systems have vaccinated medical workers, and residents and staff in their nursing homes. Some nursing homes are working with pharmacy chains to vaccinate residents, but not all are, he said. Assisted living and hospice facilities haven’t received vaccines yet either, although they are scheduled to, he said.

Klobuchar held a conference call with mayors of southwest Minnesota cities on Friday afternoon. She asked mayors to weigh in on economic issues facing their communities, as well as the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines. Knowing Minnesotans’ needs will be important in shaping possible future coronavirus relief, she said.

“Joe Biden has committed to another package,” Klobuchar said.

Area mayors said small businesses have been hurt the most by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I’m worried about our small businesses. In a community our size, we depend on them,” said Worthington Mayor Mike Kuhle.

Pipestone Mayor Myron Koets said it will be important to be able to direct aid payments “down to people who need it.” Koets and other southwest Minnesota mayors said it’s been helpful for cities to offer grant funds directly to small businesses. In Pipestone, the city was able to use some of its CARES Act funding for grants to a total of 68 local businesses.

“The businesses that have been closed, obviously they’ve been hurting the most,” Koets said.

Baustain said there was a “huge gap” in how big box-style stores and small businesses have been affected by the pandemic.

Byrnes said economic competition with surrounding states is another factor affecting communities in southwest Minnesota. Looking at Marshall, Pipestone, Luverne and Worthington, “We are all border cities,” he said.

Byrnes suggested enhancing the Opportunity Zones program as a possible way to help the Marshall area economy. The program was meant to encourage capital gains investment in underserved areas.

The city of Marshall approved an opportunity zone in 2018, but it has not seen investments come in for that zone, Byrnes said.

Byrnes also said infrastructure investment was still needed in southwest Minnesota. While there have been improvements to Minnesota Highway 23 in recent years, the Marshall area still doesn’t have access to a four-lane highway.

Kuhle and Baustain agreed with Byrnes on the need for infrastructure improvements in the region. Improvements in rural broadband access and education technology are both crucial, they said.

Klobuchar asked about industries in the region, including meat processing plants in Worthington and Luverne, and Schwan’s Company and Schwan’s Home Delivery in Marshall.

“Both companies are healthy,” Byrnes said. Schwan’s Home Delivery has been doing well as more people stay home during the pandemic, and Schwan’s Company parent company CJ has been making investments in production facilities around the country, Byrnes said.

Kuhle said the JBS pork plant in Worthington was operating at full capacity, and was working on expanding its freezer capacity. In Luverne, the Premium Minnesota Pork plant was running, and workers were waiting for their first dose of COVID-19 vaccine, Baustain said.

During Friday’s call, Klobuchar briefly commented on the violence in Washington on Jan. 6, when a mob of protesters stormed into the Capitol.

“I was horrified by what happened,” Klobuchar said.

One police officer was killed, and the process of certifying the 2020 presidential election was interrupted. However, senators later came together in support of the nation, “regardless of party,” she said. A total of 93 senators verified the election of Joe Biden as president.

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