Some city leaders on the Iron Range have started reconsidering their emergency plans put in place last year amid the start of the coronavirus pandemic, as statewide restrictions were loosened in recent weeks and overall surge indicators remain at more stable, post-peak levels.
The Virginia City Council on Tuesday unanimously approved ending its emergency declaration at the suggestion of Allen Lewis, the city’s fire chief and appointed emergency manager, who said the measure was no longer necessary and residents would still need to abide by masking, social distancing and gathering restrictions contained in Gov. Tim Walz’s executive orders.
Virginia is the first known city on the Range to end its emergency after nearly a year in effect, marking a notable transition toward normalcy for city operations. The Chisholm City Council considered its emergency declaration Wednesday but continued it, and Ely councilors indicated they could end the city’s emergency status in early April, according to the Ely Echo.
Most cities enacted emergency measures in March 2020 in an effort to close city buildings, follow Centers for Disease Control guidelines, allow councils and public boards to meet virtually and to qualify for grants and funding mechanisms that required an order be in place.
The Virginia City Council met in person Tuesday. Councilors were socially distanced throughout the chambers at city hall and behind plastic glass with masks.
Lewis made the recommendation following a meeting with fellow emergency managers in northeastern Minnesota. The group, he said, couldn’t provide a solid enough reasoning to keep city powers in place and saw it as a duplicative effort with the state.
“We don’t need to be under two,” Lewis said. “The council was fine meeting in person, and it was just no longer something we needed to exercise.”
He added that the decision was not a statement on the governor’s emergency powers, which Republicans and two Iron Range Independents have voted to end several times in recent months. Rather, Lewis continued, case rates and key surge indicators are down and vaccinations are up in the region, and this was a step to “balance the needs of public health and the freedom of people.”
Rescinding their emergency plan came one day after the Minnesota Department of Health recorded zero COVID-19 related deaths for the first time in more than a year. St. Louis County hasn’t registered a death from the virus in almost a month.
On Thursday, the Minnesota Department of Health reported 1,875 new COVID-19 cases and 16 deaths related to the coronavirus. A total of 43 new cases were linked to St. Louis County residents, who are seeing clusters form in the northern and central parts of the region that include the Range, and infection rates back at January levels.
Still, the pandemic’s toll is well-below the November 2020 peak and new outbreaks have largely been contained to sports teams and groups, while hospitalization, ICU and death rates remain low. State and county health officials, however, caution residents of new, more contagious variants as they wait to see if those surge indicators rise with the spread of the new strains.
“I think it’s safe to say we’ve turned a corner,” Lewis said, noting the lower rates of severe illness and access to vaccines, which are showing efficacy against the new variants. “You’re going to see a few little spikes here and there.”
He added: “Sometimes government bodies are quick to impose regulations and restrictions, but very slow to lift them. This was like an umbrella under an umbrella. It no longer served the purpose it was passed under to begin with.”
Last year, as pandemic mitigation measures took hold, city leaders on the Range started adopting states of emergency and put operations in place to monitor the coronavirus’ spread and move meetings virtually while still complying with Open Meetings laws.
The City of Biwabik, in enacting its measure last March, said it held off on declaring an emergency until city officials fully understood the mechanisms it would provide beyond the executive orders of the president and governor.
In Chisholm, councilors on Wednesday unanimously extended the local emergency to April 14, following the same timeline as Walz’s executive powers, which are set to expire the same day. The council was among the first cities on the Range to enact an emergency declaration, dating back to March 17, 2020.
Much of Chisholm’s previous discussions around the local emergency centered around the ambulance service. The peacetime order allows people who aren’t certified to drive an ambulance to serve as backup in the event of a COVID-19 outbreak or shortages among personnel.
St. Louis County could also choose to roll back a small portion of its state of emergency on April 6, when commissioners will consider an amendment that would rescind powers granted to county administration to approve certain contracts and handle other business without County Board approval.
On Nov. 24, 2020, the board continued its state of emergency and authorized emergency powers to the Deputy County Administrator and Director of Human Resources. If the amendment is passed, those powers will expire on April 15, but the broader state of emergency will continue.
Meanwhile, St. Louis County health officials have sent three reminders to as many Iron Range cities in recent days to remind residents of testing and quarantining guidelines after recent clusters were found in Hibbing, Ely and on the East Range, primarily stemming from large gatherings and youth sports.
They said on Wednesday that Ely’s 33 new COVID-19 infections from March 18-24 accounted for 15.4% of the county’s 214 total cases in that timespan. Ely schools made the decision to send grades 6-12 back to distance learning until at least April 6, pending the local infection rate, after 87% of its high school population was in a two-week quarantine.
It’s unclear how — or if — that spike will impact the city’s plans of potentially reopening the Ely Public Library. The city council is set to meet again on April 7, the Echo reported last week, with the Library Board meeting a day later.
Back in Virginia, the transition to pre-COVID times started before the city ended its emergency status. City hall and council meetings have been open to the public for several months, though the city has encouraged residents to watch on public access television, unless they need to attend, to allow for social distancing.
The Virginia Public Library opened for express pickup and borrowing services a few months back and plans to return to normal hours and operations this spring if outbreaks are avoided.
“I think you’ll see other cities do that soon,” Lewis concluded. “We no longer need that tool in our tool box, so we’re just putting it away.”
Marie Tolonen contributed to this report.