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City discusses possibility of opening bars

Bars and taverns could reopen soon in St. Joseph after a City Council discussion Thursday night.

This week, most businesses were allowed to reopen in St. Joseph with new guidelines for social distancing. A work session Thursday was set to review those guidelines and discuss whether or not restrictions should be retightened or if they could be relaxed further.

Several bar owners who feel that it is unfair that restaurants are allowed to reopen, while bars are not, approached the council to make their case during the virtual session, and the majority of council members seemed to be in favor of allowing them to open up.

No vote was taken, but the City of St. Joseph Health Department and city attorney’s office were tasked with creating new guidelines for bar owners to follow if they are to be allowed to open.

River Bluff Brewing co-owner Edison Derr told the council that he feels his establishment is ready to allow the public back inside due to a carefully thought out social distancing plan.

Derr said their idea involves only allowing one person at a time to approach the bar, seating being spread out, an earlier closing time going into effect and a time limit on how long a party or individual can be inside being enforced. He also said his bar has stocked up on personal protective equipment and sanitizer, which will be placed at each table and around the bar, where costumers will not be allowed to sit.

Mayor Bill McMurray told News-Press NOW that he would be inclined to vote to allow the bars to reopen if the Health Department can come up with an effective plan. He said he wants to use Derr’s suggestions in that plan.

“It just depends on the guidelines that the Health Department and city attorney come up with,” McMurray said. “I really liked the proposal that River Bluff presented. They thought this out very carefully.”

Health Department Director Debra Bradley did not seem to be in favor of allowing bars to reopen due to a continued presence of the virus in St. Joseph.

She said she would not state her opinion, but hopes strict distancing measures are followed effectively.

At time of writing, there are more than 400 cases of COVID-19 locally and 10 people are being treated for the disease at Mosaic Life Care. Of those 10, three are in the ICU, two of which are on ventilators.

McMurray said the actual number of new cases may have already peaked in St. Joseph with the discovery of many cases at Triumph Foods. He said the daily rise is back down.

“The actual rise in case numbers is going down. So that’s encouraging,” McMurray said.

McMurray said he is more interested in watching the number of cases admitted to the hospital, which could lead to a new lockdown if they see a heavy increase.

“We do need to watch the hospitalizations number and, if that thing spikes precipitously, then we’re going to have to make a few more restrictions into this order,” McMurray said. “We absolutely have to be responsible if we have a big spike.”

Councilmembers Brenda Blessing and Russell Moore were both strictly against allowing bars to reopen. They both expressed that it would be difficult to enforce social distancing rules with intoxicated patrons.

Councilmember Brian Myers, who is a bar owner, said he did not agree with reopening the city this week at all, but sees how it can be considered unfair for bar owners. He said he will not be reopening his bar until at least June 1.

The City Council will review the issue next Wednesday and expects to see a plan from the Health Department by then.

The council also looked at the possibility of restricting recreational sports in the city. A representative from the Pony Express Baseball league said they believe there can be changes made to the layout of players on the field that would allow distancing, but they are not allowing practices until June.

The Parks Department has plans to meet with recreational leagues in St. Joseph and could suggest halting any organized team activities until next month.


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Retired farmer, hailed for generosity, gets long-desired ag degree

TROY, Kan. — Dennis Ruhnke fell just a couple of credits short of getting his college degree nearly a half-century ago. An act of compassion put him over the top this week.

Kansas State University conferred a bachelor’s degree upon the Troy resident at the State Capitol in Topeka on Tuesday, and Gov. Laura Kelly praised the retired farmer as “a quintessential Kansan” for his generosity of spirit.

“He has proven to us all that he has mastered the most important lesson that a university has to offer,” the governor said. “Today, it is about reflecting that spirit back on to him.”

This spirit got national attention after a letter he sent and a gift he proffered to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. In the early weeks of the coronavirus crisis in Cuomo’s state, with personal protective equipment in short supply, Ruhnke sent an N95 mask that he owned, hoping it would help someone.

It’s just what you do, he figured. You help where you can. In fact, he had called a relative, an EMT, to offer the high-grade protective device, but she had a good mask already.

He appreciated Cuomo’s straight-forward appearances on television.

“So I thought, OK, here I have (this mask), what am I going to do with it?” Ruhnke said. “So that’s when I made the connection. No place in the United States that I know of needed it more at that time.”

Ruhnke found an address and shipped it with a letter.

“He’s a believer in the good, old-fashioned, handwritten note,” Kelly said in honoring him.

The New York governor stood mightily impressed. “This is humanity at its best,” he wrote.

Soon, national media outlets began calling. Ruhnke only answers the phone for a couple of numbers he recognizes. He does not text. (“I’m a little bit too old for it.”) Yet the retired farmer soon understood the reach of the governor’s response.

On another track, something began brewing in Topeka. Ruhnke had been a student at Kansas State and, in 1971, had been two credits shy of a degree in agriculture. A laboratory class was all that remained.

In soils class one day, the undergraduate got notified by a university official that he should return home to Troy. A couple of hours later, he walked into a quiet house.

“My mother, she teared up and she ran into the living room. My dad’s brothers were all sitting around the kitchen table. They just looked down,” he recalled. “You knew what had happened. No one had to say your father died. It was just obvious.”

His obligations seemed clear. He stayed home to take care of the family and the farm. When he eventually checked into completing his degree requirements, the class no longer existed. As years passed, it became obvious he would almost have to start from scratch to get a diploma.

It ate at him, being the first generation in the family to attend college. But he took pride in his sister, his wife and two sons getting degrees.

This became known in Topeka. His wife, Sharon, who taught school more than 40 years, thought if some honor might be given to Dennis, it should happen on Tuesday, his birthday.

At first, Kelly contacted Kansas State President Richard Myers about the possibility of an honorary degree. Myers investigated the matter and determined that an honorary degree implies that the usual rigors of academic work have been waived.

But Ruhnke had worked decades in agriculture, far exceeding any work requirements of a lab class. In short, the governor and the university president agreed that he should get the degree he earned.

“Along with his fantastic demonstration of kindness and generosity, Mr. Ruhnke’s academic work at K-State in his chosen field of agriculture qualifies him to receive his degree,” Myers said.

As he and Sharon sat on their porch, Ruhnke expressed appreciation for all that has happened.

“I did not know until they said it at that moment that it wasn’t going to be an honorary degree,” he said. “Any degree, I would have been happy with. But when they said this is the real thing, that was kind of exciting.”


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Hopes for COVID-19 vaccine with Missouri roots

Along with antibody testing, vaccines are said by health officials to be the next step in moving forward to fight the COVID-19 pandemic. With human testing of one possible vaccine starting in Chesterfield, Missouri, some hope for a vaccine to be available in months.

While Dr. Anthony Fauci of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases has said he could see vaccines being available nationwide by January, Dr. Randall Williams, director of the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services, said he believes vaccines could be available within four months.

“With so many people working on it (the vaccine), you can imagine the market for a vaccine for COVID-19 would be in the billions,” Williams said. “My suspicion is that there will be a tremendous amount of effort to get one to market quickly.”

Williams said about 100 different vaccine tests are being conducted around the world, with some already starting in humans. One of those starting human trials is Pfizer in Chesterfield.

Christine Smith, vice president of Pfizer and in charge of the Chesterfield site, gave information regarding the trials during Gov. Mike Parson’s daily COVID-19 briefing.

Smith said the test is a Messenger RNA test.

“Once the messenger RNA of the vaccine is inside these cells, the cells use those instructions to produce protein antigens, which are recognized by the immune system of the vaccinated individual, which in turn generates an immune response to the antigen,” Smith said. “We are currently investigating whether the vaccine candidates we are studying will be safe and effective in creating this immune response against COVID-19.”

The Chesterfield site will be manufacturing a biosynthetically made template, which is required for each manufacturing run. The template starts in Chesterfield, then the messenger RNA will be made in Andover, Massachusetts, and the formation and filing will be done in Kalamazoo, Michigan.

“Pfizer is actively scaling up our manufacturing capacity and distribution infrastructure to be ready to make the vaccine available as quickly as possible,” Smith said.

Williams said once the vaccine becomes available it will be manufactured in a yearly cycle and distributed by the federal government.


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More than 400 COVID cases in Buchanan County, 9,341 statewide

Missouri recorded 9,341 cases of COVID-19 on Thursday, according to the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services. The number of cases is up by 239 from 9,102 on Wednesday, resulting in a 2.6% increase.

The number of deaths increased from 396 to 418.

Meanwhile, Johns Hopkins University, which also counts presumptive positive cases, is reporting 9,399 cases in Missouri and 428 deaths.

In Buchanan County, 404 people have tested positive for the virus as of Thursday, according to the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services.

Mosaic Life Care has issued 2,480 tests its service area, with 112 returning a positive result, 2,334 a negative result and 34 still pending. Ten people are inpatients. Of those 10, three are in the ICU, two of which are on ventilators. All others are outpatients.

Kansas is recording 6,144 cases of COVID-19, up from Wednesday’s number of 5,734, according to the Kansas Department of Health and Environment. A total of 147 people have died.