Minneapolis Star Tribune, July 6

Don’t dismiss risk of air travel in the pandemic

Despite assurances that all is well, overconfidence isn’t helpful as the pandemic rages on.

Good afternoon, and welcome aboard Perfectly SafeAir. We know you’d rather not be on any aircraft just now, even one that’s been freshly sterilized from wingtip to wingtip. We appreciate your choosing to fly with us today! And we want you to know that you are safer on this aircraft than you would be anywhere else. Now sit back half an inch, keep your seat belt buckled, stop thinking about viruses, and enjoy your flight.

There is something in overstated assurances of safety that deflates confidence, rather than inspires it.

People have every reason to be cautious about flying during the days of COVID-19. With flights to many foreign destinations banned, getting on a plane probably means travel within the United States — and the pandemic in a number of U.S. cities is getting worse, not better. The governors of some states in the East now require that visitors from 16 other states enter a 14-day quarantine upon arrival. The U.S. military has restricted service personnel from visiting Florida, Michigan and California.

It’s a simple fact that, at a major airport, one is likely to encounter a crowd of other people, some of whom could be coming from a place with high rates of infection. It’s not hyperbole to say that it’s safer to stay home.

Yet the damage to the U.S. airline industry is potentially devastating. Among the sectors of the economy being ravaged by COVID-19, air travel stands out. The industry is losing hundreds of millions of dollars a day, and although it has begun to creep back toward normal, no one knows when it will recover.

So it makes sense that the airlines and the airports that serve them would go to lengths to protect passengers, and even greater lengths to inform them of those efforts. They point to the energetic air-handling systems on modern aircraft, and the high-efficiency filters that trap viruses. They list the objects that people most often touch, in airports and on airplanes, and describe the exacting care with which they disinfect them.

Some airlines point out that they are leaving middle seats empty, except in rows occupied by families traveling together. They tout their use of electrostatic fogging machines. They say they’ve placed social-distancing markings in the jetways and hand-washing stations at every gate.

All of it is welcome news to a prospective traveler, but it’s undercut by overly optimistic assurances like this statement by Brian Ryks, CEO of the Metropolitan Airports Commission:

“We are here today to answer this question many people are asking, and that is: ‘Can I feel confident that appropriate steps have been taken to make it safe for me to fly again?’ And the resounding answer is, ‘Absolutely yes.’ … What we are saying is that if you do travel, we have a safe environment. We are implementing steps to ensure that you can be confident in your travel experience.”

There’s nothing wrong with asserting that the airport is as safe as any other public facility, or that aircraft are as safe as a train or a bus. In fact, the air-handling system on an airplane may make it safer. But there is something amiss in asserting that any enclosed place where strangers gather for extended periods is a “safe environment.” The word “safe” connotes a knowledge about how to manage the novel coronavirus that no one yet has.

It would be better for airports and airlines to grapple with the uncertainty and admit that they are doing the best they can. Rather than promising a “safe environment” that they can’t deliver, they should say something like: We’re making your environment as safe as we know how to make it. When we learn of something else we can do, we’ll do that.

Thanks for flying with us.

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St. Cloud Times, June 27

Time to pay attention to candidates close to home before you have to decide

We get it.

It’s summer in Minnesota. The skies are blue, the lakes are cool and the fish are biting. All any of us really want is some bonfire time with the family.

But we’re going to ask you to peel a little bit of your attention away in the next few weeks and give it, instead of to the pursuit of happiness, to the pursuit of good leadership.

Almost everyone is aware that Americans will choose a president in November. Most news consumers, at least, know that we’ll also be choosing our representatives to statehouses and local governments. Some don’t know that the decision-making time is now, not five months from now.

In wise words commonly ascribed to Buddha, “The trouble is, you think you have time.”

In reality, your choices will narrow in just 6 weeks. Local primaries happen Aug. 11, meaning some candidates you might like if you got to know their platforms will be wiped away from your options.

And in cities with no primary voting — Waite Park, St. Joseph and St. Augusta among them — your chance to recruit a new candidate or join the race yourself is open only from July 28-Aug. 11.

Primaries aside, now is the time to start paying attention to the people who want to occupy seats in the Legislature or who have already declared their candidacies for offices including the St. Cloud, Sartell and Sauk Rapids city councils and school boards and the county commissions of Central Minnesota.

Why now? Because there’s still time to ask questions and get answers of substance. There’s time to look for an alternative candidate if you don’t like the answer you get.

And because the inevitable election shenanigans (who stole whose yard signs?) haven’t muddied the waters with emotion yet.

In short, it’s time to pay attention because the campaigns are still (relatively) pure. The paid letter-to-the-editor writers haven’t ramped up their word factories yet. No one has lobbed accusations of criminality at a local campaign opponent yet. You’re still likely to get a chance to interact with a candidate who isn’t exhausted and stressed from campaigning, meaning you’ll get a look at who they truly can be, not who they are just in the thick of the fight. You get a chance to assess their leadership potential, and reassess as the campaigns go on.

We want the best leadership we can get for our cities, schools, counties and state — and if 2020 has shown us anything, it’s that local leadership matters in a crisis. It matters in managing a pandemic, quelling a riot, preventing a breakdown in policing, ensuring protection of the rights of every American, born or naturalized, and putting together a plan to teach kids when their school is closed.

The decisions we make about who will lead us here, close to home, are as important as who we send to Washington. This year has taught that lesson, yessiree.

The catch is that you have to work harder to make those good decisions about local leadership. No cable pundit is shouting their opinion about the Rice City Council race. No national columnist is weighing in on who should join the St. Cloud school board. No TV stations are broadcasting a candidate forum for Stearns County Commissioners.

So you’ll need to pay attention and make an effort — even more this year as COVID-19 quashes some of the traditional summer parades and events where candidates and voters met up.

We’re here for you, with many local candidate profiles already published and more to come. But don’t stop there. Call your candidate for a quick chat. Email them with questions. Grab your mask and hit up a forum, if they happen.

Don’t let the time slip away, and with it a chance at creating the best local leadership possible.

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The Free Press of Mankato, July 6

Feeding the hungry a priority as the economy struggles

Why it matters: As the economy limps along during the pandemic, feeding more and more hungry Minnesotans needs to be a primary focus.

As many of us make another shopping list to get groceries, maybe making sure to hit the minimum purchase for curbside pickup popular during the pandemic, others will wonder how they will continue to eat at all.

The prediction from recent data is that many Minnesotans will see hunger by this fall in numbers and intensity not experienced since the Great Depression.

Second Harvest Heartland, the Upper Midwest’s largest hunger-relief organization, released a study done by consulting firm McKinsey and Co. that predicts an additional 275,000 Minnesotans will face food insecurity because of the hit the economy is taking during the COVID-19 pandemic. The price tag to food banks for that increased demand across the state is estimated at $21 million.

The extra federal unemployment benefit expires at the end of July, and Second Harvest is expecting a jump in food aid requests. Food shelves, already bustling before the pandemic, have noticed an increase in demand. That’s not going to fade anytime soon. Blue Earth and Nicollet counties are considered among the 25 most food insecure counties in Minnesota.

Complicating the situation is that some of the traditional community fundraisers and drives to benefit food shelves have been canceled because of the pandemic, including the in-person collection normally held during the popular St. Peter Old-Fashioned Fourth of July and North Mankato Fun Days parades.

So often it is the children that suffer the most when it comes to food shortages. Growing bodies and developing brains need nutritious meals to keep them on track. Programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, and the Women, Infants and Children Special Supplemental Nutrition Program, or WIC, need additional support during this trying time as well as meal programs that feed children and the elderly year-round.

Food deserts also continue to be a problem, especially for those with limited transportation, such as many of the stranded international students in our community during the pandemic.

State and federal lawmakers need to do all that they can to make sure government benefits for the hungry are beefed up during this economic crisis. Their constituents need to make the rallying cry for the hungry loud and clear.

And, as always, those who have plenty should consider giving to those who don’t by donating to area food shelves and nonprofits that support the hungry. Most are set up to take online monetary donations, which actually stretches their food supply power because they can buy needed goods through a food bank.

The pandemic and all its repercussions will be with us a long time. The hungry can’t put off eating.