Editor’s note: Several residents have risked their own safety and/or overcome personal obstacles in order to help keep the community going during the coronavirus pandemic. This series provides a glimpse into their lives and work. They are ... The Essentials.
When the coronavirus pandemic began shutting down public gathering places, stores, nonprofits and government offices across Minnesota in March, law enforcement officers such as Becker County sheriff's deputies Ryan Aho and Brandon Meyer really didn't have the option of not working.
"The sheriff’s office is open 24/7, 365 days a year and there was no option to not work," Meyer said.
"Our deputies are still patrolling Becker County and responding to calls as usual," said Sheriff Todd Glander. " Even though traffic stops may be lower due to less traffic, other calls have been keeping them busy — domestic violence, thefts, burglaries, suspicious activity and so on."
Neither was it practical for them to work from home: Instead, the deputies' squad cars have served as mobile offices.
"With a take-home squad car, I sign on and off duty from my driveway," said Aho, a Becker County native who grew up in the Wolf Lake area, but now makes his home near Frazee with his wife and five children.
"Since deputies can drive our squad cars home, we do not have a commute, per se," added Meyer, who lives in the Detroit Lakes area with his wife and son. "We jump in our squad cars for our shifts and we are already at work, in a sense."
What has changed, he said, is the office protocols that have been put in place: "We have measures in place that allow only a certain number of deputies in the office at a time, we don’t get out and visit with the public as much on breaks due to the restaurants being closed, and we’re just being more cautious in general so it’s always on your mind."
"Since the pandemic, we only go to the sheriff’s office if we need to type a lengthy report, download photos, or complete other paperwork," Aho added.
While in-office service requests are also handled by phone as much as possible, Glander said, social distancing protocols are observed in those instances where face-to-face contact becomes necessary.
"My job duties as a deputy are multiple," Meyer said, and include — but are not limited to — "answering calls for service that come into the dispatch center, regular patrol of the county and traffic enforcement." While his job has remained much the same since the pandemic shutdown began, he and his fellow officers are now taking all the recommended extra precautions when interacting with the public, "just like everyone else."
"The biggest change for me during the pandemic, has been conducting traffic stops," Aho said "I have come to terms that stopping someone for a 'minor' traffic violation is not worth potentially spreading or catching the coronavirus. However, I will still conduct traffic stops if I believe someone’s driving conduct is a threat to the public’s safety."
"If a phone call can resolve questions or issues that a person is experiencing, we maybe do that a little more now than before the virus but all in all, we’re still out doing our jobs for the citizens in Becker County," he said.
Though both deputies are among the department's newest recruits (Meyer was sworn in April 2019; Aho joined the department in June 2019), each has prior law enforcement experience: Aho spent four years with the Frazee Police Department while Meyer has previously worked for both the Mahnomen County Sheriff's Office and the White Earth Tribal Police Department, the latter including a stint as patrol sergeant.
Since the pandemic shutdown began, Meyer said, his home life hasn't been that different.
"I tend to keep busy at home with different projects or playing with my son," he said. "I think as Minnesotans and living in a cold-weather state, we probably have an advantage because it gets so cold here and we’re inside more during winter anyway, so it resembles a form of distancing."
His biggest concern in that regard, he added, is the idea of possibly bringing the virus home to his family unknowingly, so he takes a lot of extra precautions. "I don’t bring my work boots inside the house and my uniforms get washed right away, along with sanitizing my duty belt and equipment."
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Brandon's wife, Krystal Meyer, says their everyday routine has changed "dramatically."
“Now, his work boots are off outside, and his uniform goes directly into the wash and he goes through a routine before he interacts with any family members," she said. "Besides the normal concerns of the job, now we must wrestle with him possibly being exposed to COVID-19 and bringing it home.”
The biggest challenge may still lie ahead, Meyer said, as warmer weather encourages everyone to get outside, socialize and enjoy outdoor activities together — yet the threat of the virus still looms.
Aho says his home life may be busier than ever.
"My wife and I have had to adjust to the distance learning as two of our five children are in elementary school. Due to social distancing we stay home more and don’t get out as much," he said.
Not being able to join his fellow officers at Shorty's Cafe for Saturday morning breakfast is what he'll remember about this time. But his lasting memory is something more personal.
"The thing I will remember the most about COVID-19 is the birth of our fifth child on March 19, 2020, and not being able to have visitors at the hospital," he said.
The essentials of Ryan Aho and Brandon Meyer
Title: Becker County Sheriff's Deputy
Job duties: Responding to calls for service/911 calls, protecting life and property, enforcing laws, apprehending criminals, and preparing reports for the county attorney's office.
The impact of social distancing: "The distancing really has not affected me that much personally, it is just more of a nuisance, but I understand the reasons behind it," Meyer said. "I tend to keep busy at home with different projects or playing with my son. I would say the idea of possibly bringing the virus home to my family without knowing it is a major concern of course, just like with anybody else."
What you've done to cope: "Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have started to handle more calls over the phone," Aho said. "This is so we don’t accidentally contaminate anyone, and so we don’t get contaminated with the coronavirus. If we do respond to a call that cannot be handled over the phone, we attempt to remain outside, keep 6 feet away, and wear the proper personal protective equipment, if needed."
"I would replace the word 'cope' with 'adjust' because to me I think that’s a better fit of how I view this pandemic, and I know it may be different for others in different situations," Meyer said. "For me, the one big adjustment was getting used to keeping distance and not being able to shake hands with people you see or meet."
What you’ll remember most about this time: Aho says he will remember the birth of his fifth child on March 19, and not being able to have visitors at the hospital. "I will also remember not being able to stop at Shorty’s with my partners, for Saturday morning breakfast," he said.
Favorite quote: Meyer: “Courage is not the absence of fear but rather the judgement that something else is more important than fear.” — James Hollingworth