At 10 every weekday morning, cars and vans pull up to the loading dock at Concordia College in Moorhead.
They’re there to pick up hot lunches that have been prepared in the college’s kitchen and packed up, ready to be delivered by Meals on Wheels drivers to recipients around Moorhead and Clay county.
Thousands of senior citizens across the state depend on daily meal delivery to help them stay in their homes. But those drivers are typically volunteers — and many are seniors themselves.
And now, the spread of COVID-19 is forcing many seniors, who are especially vulnerable to the disease, indoors and away from crowds in an effort to stay healthy. So the city of Moorhead has asked its public transit bus drivers to help fill the void and keep the meal deliveries going.
Lukas Danuser usually drives a paratransit bus, giving rides to people with disabilities.
But on Tuesday, he arrived at the loading dock in a van, ready to pick up a dozen meals to deliver around town.
"This is just us helping out during this time of need in the community," he said.
The bus drivers volunteered to take extra shifts delivering the meals. A transit official said that, because colleges and universities are closed, some routes are reduced, making drivers available for meal delivery duty. Danuser started this week.
So did Osbert Duoa, who’s been driving city buses for five years. His reason for helping is simple.
"These people are in need, so if someone's in need it's better [that] you go there and help out if you can,” he said. “And do it in a safe manner. That's what I'm trying to do today."
The bus drivers say they are taking basic precautions to protect against the coronavirus, which is spread through respiratory droplets, much like the flu. They’re avoiding interactions with people when they drop off meals, and transit vehicles are being cleaned and disinfected daily. They joined several longtime Meals on Wheels volunteers, some who have increased their work with the program in recent weeks.
Ron Mueller, 71, has been delivering meals for a couple of years. He said he's always enjoyed interacting with people when he dropped off meals. But now, at a time when the highly contagious coronavirus is spreading throughout communities at an alarming rate, things have changed.
"I used to talk to people, but now I mostly just leave [the food delivery] in front of their door and walk away,” he said. “I used to check on them and and make sure they're okay, but now I take a little precaution."
On his route, Danuser said, meal recipients kept their distance, too.
"Half of them were not coming to the door — they would have a quarantine sign on their window,” he said. “[For] the other ones, it [was] as simple as saying hello, how are you, good morning, take care."
Andrea Pollock has been working with Meals on Wheels for more than 10 years. She works for a company that provides jobs and training for people with disabilities. Normally, she'd be supervising while they deliver meals.
“Since we've closed, there were no volunteers, really,” Pollock said. “So a lot of us continued to just come and volunteer for them."
Pollock loaded nearly 50 meals in her van to drop off in several small towns along State Highway 10 between Moorhead and Hawley, about 20 miles away. She plans to keep doing it as long as she can.
"If we couldn't get it to them, then they wouldn't have a way to get a lunch or a supper,” she said. “They do depend on us."
About 20 drivers deliver some 200 meals a day for Nutrition Services, the company that provides the meal program in Moorhead. R.J. Kinzler, the program’s coordinator, said that, for the past few years, she's struggled to find enough drivers get meals delivered. But since the pandemic began, she's been overwhelmed by the community response.
"It has just been astoundingly amazing,” she said. “I'm just so grateful that these people are so caring. Because we are working with a vulnerable population, and Meals on Wheels is a blessing to a lot of people."
Kinzler said that, at the moment, she has more volunteers than she needs — but she expects the demand for meals to increase as more seniors stay home.
Health officials for weeks have been increasingly raising the alarm over the spread of the novel coronavirus in the United States. The disease is transmitted through respiratory droplets, coughs and sneezes, similar to the way the flu can spread.
Government and medical leaders are urging people to wash their hands frequently and well, refrain from touching their faces, cover their coughs, disinfect surfaces and avoid large crowds, all in an effort to curb the virus’ rapid spread.
The state of Minnesota has temporarily closed schools, while administrators work to determine next steps, and is requiring a temporary closure of all in-person dining at restaurants, bars and coffee shops, as well as theaters, gyms, yoga studios and other spaces in which people congregate in close proximity.