Concern in Moose Lake, where prison has COVID-19 outbreak

Leslie Cota mailed Easter cards at the post office Thursday.

Cheryl Fitzgerald made a takeout patty melt on the grill at Art’s Cafe.

Across the water from the prison, Rick Cisar wore insulated Carhartts to brace against the wind on the Moosehead Lake pier, pulling in a bucketful of suckers.

“It was a whiteout here earlier,” he said during his fourth hour of fishing.

They all had ideas about the COVID-19 outbreak at the prison, where more than 40 infections have been reported to date, including 10 staffers and 32 inmates — seven of whom had recovered as of last report.

For Cota, of Barnum, there was concern about what she termed “complacency” in town. She’d been wearing a mask for four weeks, receiving disapproving glances when she started. She still doesn’t see a lot of masks being worn, and observations around the town proved her mostly correct. Her late husband had worked at the prison. He saw the best in people, she said, and when he died she received letters from inmates expressing condolences.

“We’re sheltered here,” she said. “It’s not like being in the big city, or in Duluth or even Cloquet. I feel for everyone. I feel for the inmates and the guards.”

Cota, a grandmother to six, noted a high number of senior citizens in the area.

“It’s a concern,” she said, hoping people would grow more conscientious to protecting against the spread of the virus.

Fitzgerald is a retired paramedic and now a cafe owner. She’s been delivering takeout meals ordered from prison staffers.

“They’re not taking any chances,” she said, describing how deliveries to the prison are met with people in gloves and masks.

The prison employees support her and her business. Around town, their presence is notable for correctional officers wearing uniforms, and she’s heard about instances of them being “shunned” in places.

“They’re doing a job and that’s no way to be treated,” she said, growing passionate about the topic. “I have a lot of love for this town and its people.”

Masked and gloved along with her two employees, she’s followed the spread of coronavirus enough to know that congregated settings are high-risk places.

“That’s what happens in those small places,” she said. “If one gets it, it spreads.”

The prison houses more than 1,000 inmates, and the correctional officers come from all over — from Duluth to Mora, Fitzgerald said.

Rick Cisar fishes the Moosehead Lake Thursday. He’s not overly concerned about COVID-19, because he was encountering few people other than when buying worms. (Steve Kuchera /

Cisar’s son and daughter-in-law both work at the prison. Cisar said he knows the 10 infected staffers have been quarantined away from the prison.

“I’m not overly concerned,” he said, as gulls floated on the gulf of water and ice that remained between him and the prison. “I’m more concerned for my son. I don’t really go anyplace other than to grab worms.”

From what he hears, the prison continues to plan ahead for more cases to come. But he’s just as wary of the grocery store as any place, he said.

“Everybody ends up there,” Cisar said.

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