Year in Review: Impacts of the pandemic continue to top the news

Published 1:57 pm Sunday, January 2, 2022

The year 2021 was filled with many ups and downs, though things continued to be exacerbated by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Though the pandemic was not new like it was in 2020, it still left a strong mark on the area, the nation and the world.

As the Tribune editor, publisher and staff sat down at the beginning of December to look back through the big stories of the year and narrow that list to the top 10, it was clear the pandemic was the  top story of the year for a second year in a row.

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Aside from these ongoing impacts, the area saw several notable court cases, weather and other emergencies, as well as new business openings and expansions. There was also the opening of two new clinics.

After reviewing the events from 2021, the following are the top 10 stories of the year as voted on by Tribune staff:


Effects of COVID-19 pandemic continue to be felt in most areas of life

Similar to parts of 2020, the year started with closures and limitations at many businesses, as well as limitations to in-person learning at schools to limit the spread of COVID-19.

Though the Albert Lea school district in January transitioned back to four days of in-person learning for the elementary school, secondary students started the semester in a hybrid model. The older students were later brought back for four days a week of in-person instruction.

All levels of students have attended school in-person during the 2021-22 school year, and the district was approved to open its own online academy to accommodate students who wished to be in a distance-learning format. 

Parents were split on issues such as whether to require students and teachers to wear face masks while at school, and ultimately the district implemented a face mask requirement  after a high number of new cases were reported at the start of the 2021-22 school year. The school board later in the year indicated it could lift that requirement when cases go down.

School concerts, plays and other events that had been on hold the previous year were back on this school year, much to the enjoyment of students and parents.

By the end of the first semester, the district began offering a voluntary alternative to quarantine program, which allows students identified as close contacts of someone positive with COVID-19 to still attend school as long as they complete daily testing, monitor symptoms and wear a mask.

Aside from the effects on the schools, the COVID-19 pandemic also continued to have a major impact on nursing homes and senior living facilities, though they saw much relief when vaccinations began rolling out. Aside from these residents, the vaccines were first available for health care workers and other front line workers. Other high-risk adults were next for vaccines,  followed by the remainder of adults, then older teenagers, mid-age youth and finally all children 5 and older. A vaccination has not yet been approved for children under 5.

As of Monday, there were 17,040 people in Freeborn County with the completed vaccine series.

In the first half of the year, Gov. Tim Walz lifted many of the business restrictions that were still in place, and in May, he lifted the state’s mask mandate. Masks are still encouraged while people are in indoor public settings and crowded outdoor settings.

This week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shortened the recommended isolation and quarantine period for the public tied to COVID-19. The change in guidance will surely have an impact on schools, workplaces and other area. 

As of Wednesday, 6,317 positive cases of COVID-19 had been reported in Freeborn County since the start of the pandemic, along with 51 total deaths and 317 total hospitalizations.

More than 1 million people have tested positive across the state.

People march down Clark Street in January as part of a peaceful protest organized by The Interchange Wine & Coffee Bistro owner Lisa Hanson and others to fight for reopening Minnesota businesses. Sarah Stultz/Albert Lea Tribune


Interchange Wine & Coffee Bistro charged with violating executive orders; she and others fight back

When Interchange Wine & Coffee Bistro owner Lisa Hanson opened her business in December 2020 in defiance of state executive orders that banned in-person dining to slow the spread of COVID-19, it set off a series of events in 2021.

At the beginning of January, Hanson and at least 200 other residents from both inside and outside of the area took to the streets to protest Walz’s executive orders in a march and rally. Hanson from the start has said she thinks the shutdown was unlawful and unconstitutional and that Walz did not have the authority to issue the order.

In addition to civil lawsuits against Hanson, she was charged in January and February with a total of nine misdemeanor charges — eight for violating state emergency orders and one for public nuisance when she opened her restaurant.

Hanson fought back, suing the city attorney, Walz, a city detective, three district court judges and other state agents, but those suits were later dismissed.

Hanson, who represented herself in both the civil and criminal cases, took her message across the country to various media outlets and even started a website to share her story.

She questioned many of the actions taken in court in the criminal cases and moved to remove several judges who oversaw the cases. In April she was arrested in Clear Lake after not attending one of her hearings. She argued she had not received a proper summons to attend the hearing.

A district court judge in November issued a default judgment against the restaurant in the civil case filed by the Minnesota Attorney General’s Office, ordering the company to pay $18,000 in civil penalties to the state, along with “reasonable attorneys’ fees and investigation and litigation costs.”

One of the two criminal cases came before a jury in early December, and after about one hour of deliberations the jury found Hanson guilty on six misdemeanor counts of violating an emergency executive order.

After the jury issued its verdict, Judge Joseph Bueltel sentenced Hanson to 90 days in jail plus a $1,000 fine. City Attorney Kelly Martinez had asked for 10 days in jail and a $500 fine.

Bueltel, before issuing his sentencing, said Walz’s executive orders had the “full force and effect of law” and talked about the state statute that was followed for the orders to be put in place.

Hanson, the week after, filed a petition in U.S. District Court in St. Paul to be released from custody, alleging unlawful detention in both Freeborn and Steele counties.

She argued her due process rights were denied under state and federal constitutions and questioned Bueltel’s conduct and ability to apply the law impartially.

She asked the court to vacate the judgment and for her charges to be expunged and that her other criminal case, consisting of three additional charges, be dismissed.

On top of the legal cases, the city of Albert Lea gave notice to Hanson in June it would not renew the lease for The Interchange for the lower level of the Jacobson building at the end of the year.

John Morrison cuts through the ribbon at the ceremony of the new MercyOne Albert Lea Family Medicine & Specialty Care clinic in July. Morrison and his wife, Susan, were key donors to the project. Abigail Chalmers/Albert Lea Tribune


New MercyOne clinic opens in former Herberger’s building; other health care businesses open in new medical plaza

A little more than four years after a group of residents joined together to fight for health care options in Albert Lea, many in the community in July celebrated the opening of the new MercyOne Albert Lea Family Medicine & Specialty Care Clinic in the former Herberger’s building at Northbridge Mall.

The clinic was a culmination of a grassroots effort that started after Mayo Clinic Health System in Albert Lea leaders in 2017 announced that most inpatient services would be consolidated between the Albert Lea and Austin campuses, moving overnight hospital stays, inpatient surgeries and labor and delivery to the Austin campus.

Though residents initially tried to save the services that were being moved from Albert Lea through the health system, they eventually shifted their efforts to instead recruit a new provider to the area. Nonprofit Albert Lea Healthcare Coalition was formed, and it purchased the former Herberger’s building at Northbridge Mall, partnering with MercyOne North Iowa Medical Center to open the new clinic in Albert Lea. The purchase of the building was made possible through a $1 million donation from John and Susan Morrison. The coalition will remain owners of the building.

The clinic will be built in phases, with the first phase that opened in 2021 including a primary care clinic, urgent care, a specialty clinic and MRI capabilities in over 14,000 square feet. Specialties include ear, nose and throat; urology; cardiology; sleep medicine, weight management/bariatrics; dermatology; neurosurgery; orthopedics; podiatry and plastic surgery. Potential specialty services include pediatrics, mental health, internal medicine and a dietitian.

As patient load increases, the clinic will expand, with the eventual goal of an ambulatory surgical center by the fifth phase.

“It is a testament to what a dedicated, unified community can do with a major health system in helping to conquer the crisis in rural health care that really is hitting all of America,” said Albert Lea Healthcare Coalition President Brad Arends in a small ceremony before the ribbon cutting.

The Healthcare Coalition and MercyOne continue to recruit new patients as the success of the clinic hinges on patient load.

The John and Susan Morrison Medical Plaza in 2021 also saw the opening of Big Stone Therapies and Hearing Associates.

Authorities have stated 40,000 gallons of hydrochloric acid spilled into Goose Lake and the surrounding area when a Union Pacific train derailed in May. Photo courtesy Matt Greibrok


Union Pacific train derails in Albert Lea

Twenty-eight Union Pacific train cars derailed in May, leading to the spill of about 40,000 gallons of hydrochloric acid into the soil and wetland area on the western part of Goose Lake.

Crews worked around the clock in the days that followed to clean up debris of the damaged rail cars and railroad tracks, and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and federal Environmental Protection Agency put together a mitigation plan with Union Pacific for how to deal with contaminated soils and the contamination in Goose Lake.

Crews had to neutralize the acid in the soil with the use of soda ash and in Goose Lake with crushed limestone to raise the pH to a healthier level for fish and other aquatic wildlife.

Responders prepared a lined cell in a nearby shallow area to serve as a staging area for the impacted soil and later disposed of it.

The train was back up and running within four days of the derailment.

Christian rock band Newsboys United, a collaboration of former and current members of the Newsboys, performs in August at the Freeborn County Fair. Bryce Gaudian/for the Tribune


Freeborn County Fair canceled and then called back on

With much uncertainty surrounding COVID-19, especially in the first half of the year, the Freeborn County Fair Board in April announced it had canceled the 2021 Freeborn County Fair a second year in a row.

“Along with concern for the safety of the public, the Fair Board is also responsible for the financial stability of the fair to ensure it will be able to continue for many years to come,” a press release stated.

COVID-19 restrictions in place through the Minnesota Department of Health and Walz’s office at that time limited the number of attendees at both indoor and outdoor entertainment events.

Because of these restrictions, the fair board had concerns about the financial risk of bringing in large entertainers without knowing whether they would be able to fill the Grandstand. The entertainment contracts alone, along with the stage, found and lights are typically $300,000.

After Walz reduced several of the COVID restrictions, the fair board in May reversed its decision and announced it would proceed with the fair as originally planned.

With Walz’s announcement, Fair Manager Mike Woitas was able to re-book the entertainers who had been scheduled to perform, as well as the Midway vendor, and preparations continued for other portions of the fair.

The fair went on in many ways like a typical year.

Crews clean up in the back of the post office in Hartland on Dec. 15 after an EF2 tornado came through the area. Sarah Stultz/Albert Lea Tribune


Rare December tornadoes bring destruction to the area

Freeborn County was part of the historic storm Dec. 15 that brought tornadoes to multiple states, including Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin.

As of press time, 20 tornadoes had been confirmed across Minnesota, including seven in Freeborn County — one EF0 near Hayward, one EFO south of Glenville, one EF1 near Myrtle, one EF1 near London, two EF1 tornadoes in rural Alden and one EF2 in Hartland.

Prior to that date, there had never been a tornado in Minnesota in December.

The fast-moving Hartland tornado reached wind speeds as high as 115 mph and was 55 yards wide. It damaged numerous buildings, trees and utility poles, with significant damage coming in the center of town to both residential and business structures.

The Hartland post office closed because of damage to its building, as well as Arcadian Bank, which saw major damage.

No injuries were reported.

Freeborn County commissioners on Dec. 21 declared a local disaster, which allows the county to ask the state for public infrastructure funds for storm cleanup.

Before the storms, strong southerly winds led to record high temperatures in much of the Upper Midwest. Temperatures exceeded 60 degrees across southern Minnesota, melting the remaining snow from the winter storm the weekend prior.

“Happy Days” actress Marion Ross smiles as she sits next to a statue of herself as Mrs. Cunningham from the popular television show after the statue was unveiled in July in a ceremony in downtown Albert Lea. Several hundred people attended the event to honor Ross, who calls Albert Lea her hometown. Abigail Chalmers/Albert Lea Tribune


‘Happy Days’ actress Marion Ross honored with statue, street renaming

In what could likely be her last visit to Albert Lea, “Happy Days” actress Marion Ross returned to the city in July for the unveiling of a statue in her honor in front of the Marion Ross Performing Arts Center.

The 92-year-old actress was all smiles and personality during the ceremony, which was attended by hundreds at the corner of Broadway and Marion Ross Street, which was previously known as Water Street.

The statue was made possible thanks to a two-year fundraising effort by local residents who raised $100,000 and wanted to honor Ross, who lived in Albert Lea in her youth and moved to Minneapolis to pursue her dreams at the MacPhail Center for Music when she was 15. She was later signed by Paramount and has played in numerous roles in the years since, her most prominent as Mrs. Cunningham on “Happy Days.”

The ceremony included speakers who had been impacted by Ross throughout the years. They commented not only on her success as an actress but also on the impact she has made as a person with goodness, ambition and courage.

The statue was made by Chad Fisher of Fisher Sculptures in Dillsburg, Pennsylvania.

Following the program, attendees were invited to have their photos taken next to Ross on the bench with her statue.

Ross was also honored as the grand marshal for the annual Third of July Parade.

Construction crews begin paving Nov. 8 on Bridge Avenue. Photo courtesy Freeborn County Highway Department


Major construction projects in Albert Lea ongoing

After two years of construction and several years of planning, the reconstruction of Bridge Avenue from Marshall Street to Hammer Road is mostly complete.

The $12 million project closed portions of the popular north-south thoroughfare for months both in 2020 and 2021 and reopened to motorists in November.

Work this year on Bridge Avenue focused on Minnie Maddern Street to Hammer Road, though Minnie Maddern to Richway Drive opened for the Freeborn County Fair in August. In 2020, the construction focused on the span from Marshall Street to Minnie Maddern.

Due to cold temperatures, final landscaping, such as sod work on the north end of the project, will not happen until spring, along with a final layer of blacktop on the whole stretch. 

Aside from the Bridge Avenue project, all eyes were downtown this fall as the landmark downtown water tower was removed and preliminary work began for the installation of a new tower, which is expected to take place primarily in 2022.

The demolition contractor took the old water tower down piece by piece, and many Albert Leans documented the process along the way.

The new one-million tower will look much different than the one that came down and will be a spheroid design, which includes a sphere-shaped steel tank on a narrow steel base.

Another noteworthy project included the demolition of the former Godfather’s Pizza building in November, in preparation for work on East Main Street in 2022.

The Albert Lea City Council approved the purchase of the property for $390,000, which will be reimbursed with state bonding dollars. The land is slated to be turned into a storm water retention bond when the street is reconstructed to help with flooding issues in the area.

A more unusual road project took place after rapid temperature increases and steady sun led to the buckling of a portion of Freeborn County Road 46, east of Freeborn County Road 26 near Hayward, in June.

The Freeborn County Highway Department cleaned up the concrete debris, and the road was repaired. Other problems were also reported on Stateline Road, which is both in Freeborn and Worth counties.


Driver, passenger sentenced in fatal crash near Glenville Beach

Freeborn County District Court Judge Steve Schwab on Dec. 27 sentenced the 19-year-old driver in the fatal crash last year on the gravel road near Glenville beach.

Dominik Boots-Ringoen was sentenced to 365 days in jail and up to 10 years of supervised probation for his role in the crash. He was also sentenced to a stayed 57 months in prison, meaning he will not have to serve time in prison unless he violates his probation.

Dominik Boots-Ringoen

The crash, on Aug. 27, 2020, killed 17-year-old James Joseph Amarosa III of Albert Lea and severely injured Cameron Michael Cunningham of Twin Lakes. Passengers Shelby Watkins and Chase Garza were also injured.

Boots-Ringoen, who didn’t have a valid license and had a pending DWI charge at the time, had been drinking prior to getting behind the wheel of the car. He admitted in July to losing control of the car while drifting on the road, a technique in which the driver intentionally oversteers to cause a loss of traction and causes the vehicle to drift sideways. The car was heading southbound on 795th Avenue when it went into the ditch and struck a tree.

Boots-Ringoen also will be required to pay back $17,489 in restitution to Amarosa’s family, and write a check to the family for $8.27 every week, a gesture symbolic of the day of the crash, plus other monthly payments.

He will be required to complete 40 hours per week of Sentence to Service for an indeterminate amount of time, which can be reduced hour-for-hour for full-time employment to a minimum of eight hours weekly. The service will be spent on opportunities that focus on the treatment, rehabilitation or assistance of victims recovering from traumatic injury resulting from serious crashes, assaults, illness, disease or disability.

In October, Schwab sentenced Watkins, the front seat passenger in the car, who allowed Boots-Ringoen to drive her vehicle. Watkins also admitted to hanging out of the passenger window prior to the crash.

She was sentenced to 10 days in jail and up to 10 years of probation.


Minnesota Court of Appeals rules in favor of sheriff on salary issue

After a lengthy court battle regarding Freeborn County Sheriff Kurt Freitag’s salary, the Minnesota Court of Appeals in July ruled a district court judge did not abuse its discretion when it calculated Freeborn County Sheriff Kurt Freitag’s salary in part by comparing the salaries of sheriff’s in neighboring counties.

Kurt Freitag

The court cited “statutory and other valid factors” and affirmed Freitag’s salary at $113,952.

The court case started after the sheriff appealed the board’s 2019 salary for him of $97,020, which was set without offering any discussion or explanation as to how the decision was made.

The salary case went all the way to the Minnesota Supreme Court after the district court initially ruled in favor of the higher salary, and the county appealed and the Appeals Court reversed course. Freitag then appealed that decision, and the Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals decision. After reversing the decision, the Supreme Court turned the case back over to the Appeals Court to determine whether the district court gave Freitag an appropriate new salary for 2019 when it set it at $113,952.

Following the Court of Appeals ruling, the Freeborn County Board of Commissioners in August approved an increased salary for Freitag for each year for 2019 through 2021. The action set Freitag’s salary at $113,952 for the first year, $114,521 for 2020 and $119,228 for 2021 and set the sheriff up to receive about $44,000 in back pay for those three years.

In November, the board approved a 3.6% increase for Freitag for 2022, which is an increase to $123,725.


Honorable mentions

Representatives from Freeborn County and staff and officials with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in March dedicated Albert Lea’s new community-based outpatient clinic in a small ceremony at the site. The Albert Lea VA clinic is the southernmost clinic in the Minneapolis VA health care system and signaled the VA’s continued commitment to Albert Lea, Freeborn County and 1st District veterans.

Winnebago Cooperative Telecom Association in March announced plans to expand fiber optic technology into all of Albert Lea, including telephone, long distance, broadband internet and digital TV services. The city has had only one franchise agreement in place for TV services for many years with Charter Communications, and a second provider would bring more competition to the area.

Voters approved the renewal of the Albert Lea Area Schools operating levy by a nearly two to one margin in November. The referendum generates around $2 million each year for operations within the district, equating to $580.99 per pupil. Before the vote, it had been set to expire at the end of the year.

After a time with limited events because of the COVID-19 pandemic, many of Albert Lea’s favorite events returned this year, including the popular Fourth of July Parade and fireworks and others. There were also many new and expanded events thanks to many partners, including the Albert Lea Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Despite challenges with the COVID-19 pandemic, Albert Lea saw several new businesses open or expand in 2021 across many industries. Among them, one of the most notable was the opening of Trumble’s 2.OH in November. Work is also ongoing on a new 170,000 square foot facility for Vortex Cold Storage in the southern part of the city. 


Top 10 stories on the Tribune’s website by pageviews in 2021

“Trumble’s building to get new owners in June,” 12,393 pageviews

“Residents fight back about Minnesota business closures,” 12,154 pageviews

“Into the Shark Tank,” 11,357 pageviews

“Albert Lea woman crowned Mrs. Universe is using her platform to share message on an international stage,” 10,627 pageviews

“Freeborn County 2021 fair entertainers announced,” 8,685 pageviews

“Firefighters battling house fire in Albert Lea,” 8,552 pageviews

“Alden-Conger teacher’s teaching materials at center of controversy,” 6,929 pageviews

“My Point of View: The difference between socialism, communism and capitalism,” 6,487 pageviews

“The Interchange owner arrested in Clear Lake,” 6,245 pageviews

“High school goes under lockdown; police take man into custody,” 6,154 pageviews