by Dennis Dalman
Changes, adaptations, flexibility – those are the constant watchwords at the St. Joseph Police Department as its members cope 24-7 with the threat of the Covid-19 pandemic.
And it’s not just the police department; it’s the fire department, the ambulance crews, city hall, schools, businesses. The very fabric of daily life here, there and everywhere has been torn.
St. Joseph Police Chief Dwight Pfannenstein described the situation this way:
“It’s like just when you think you have a problem figured out, they shuffle the deck on you. We take things day by day because everything is changing all the time.”
This time of year, as spring is about to burst forth, St. Joseph streets – especially main street – is bustling with activity – people shopping, enjoying lunch and refreshments on the sidewalk by The Local Blend, college students and others gathered in groups or stopping for a beer or two.
Not these days – and nights.
Pfannenstein said the department’s officers have all remarked how eerie it is to see main street now. As soon as it gets dark, there is virtually no people, no activities going on, not even any neon lights. It looks like a ghost town hiding in the dark.
“You’ll see an occasional walker or jogger, but that’s about it,” Pfannenstein said.
And it may be eerie, but it’s a good thing too, he added, because it means people – most people – are staying put and/or practicing social distancing.
“Some businesses are hurting bad, though,” he noted.
“It’s been very good so far,” he said. “We have no exposures as of yet, not that we know of anyway. We have nine officers, and now they don’t change cars. The stay in their own assigned cars for every shift.”
All officers have personal-safety equipment, including professional masks, that they carry in their squad cars. When answering emergency calls, the department initiated several changes/adaptations. If they (and sometimes medical personnel) arrive at the scene of a medical call, such as a residence, they have just one person go to the door to find out what’s wrong. If the person inside is able, he or she might be asked to step outside and communicate with police and others from a safe distance. The fire department, Pfannenstein said, is following similar cautionary procedures at some emergency calls.
Like so many people in Central Minnesota, Pfannenstein and other public servants are holding their breaths, wondering if and when a serious virus outbreak will happen, all the time hoping that one does not.
Three weeks ago, for example, a young woman from Mexico, in her 30s, died in the area. St. Joseph police were at the scene, worried she might have had the virus and – sad as her death was – relieved when they discovered later she had not been infected.
About a month ago, college students were told they will have to leave campus. Recently, Pfannenstein met with college officials and learned there are only 40 students still living on the two college campuses – 20 at the College of St. Benedict, 20 at St. John’s University. They are foreign students, work-study students or essential workers. On each campus, the students live, separated, in one campus residence hall. In addition, there are perhaps about 100 college students living at rental places in or near St. Joseph, Pfannenstein noted.
He also met with the St. Joseph mayor, city administrator and the deans of students to discuss Gov. Tim Walz’s order to keep groups to 10 people or fewer. There is some concern that, when spring arrives in full glory, students or others, bitten by spring fever, might start holding celebratory gatherings here or there. Pfannenstein and other officials are hoping that does not happen.
“They would be putting people at risk, including those who work in emergency services,” he said. “They’re also putting themselves at risk as they could bring risk to others. That would be socially irresponsible.”
The police chief said he is gratified so many people are pulling together, concerned for others, eager to help in any way they can.
Many people, for instance, have donated face masks, and all area cities that receive such donations take them to emergency management headquarters in St. Cloud where they can be distributed locally based on need.
The former St. Joseph police chief, Pete Jansky, called Pfannnenstein to tell him that he is more than willing to help out in police work in any capacity when a need arises.
Pfannenstein and his significant other, Amy Bonfig, both have had to work mainly from home. Bonfig is the owner of Little Saints Academy in St. Joseph, a school with 131 students. She has a daughter, Amy, 15, who is a student at Rocori and who is at home with her mother and Pfannenstein, participating in distance-learning.
On the mayor’s advice, Pfannenstein has been limiting the amount of emergency calls he goes to and instead coordinates and directs policies and actions from his home office.
“There’s a lot of good things going on,” Pfannenstein said. “People are revamping, adapting and adjusting.”
He said he would like to spread the word, important advice, to one and all in the area: “Continue to wash hands frequently, avoid touching the face, keep at least a 6-foot distance from others and avoid congregating in groups of more than 10 people.”