Before long-term care facilities began restricting visitors back in March to keep the new coronavirus at bay, Tim Gilberg of Duluth would join his 89-year-old father nearly every evening for dinner at Ecumen Lakeshore's assisted living facility.

After work, he'd hop in his vehicle and make the drive from Verso paper mill to the large campus across town on London Road to share a meal with his father, Derry Gilberg.

"Some people thought I lived here," Tim said. "It worked out well for me. I didn't have to go home, cook and do the dishes. I got to visit with everybody, all the workers and the residents."

More than 100 days have passed since the father and son have been able carry out their routines: going for drives together on Saturday mornings, stopping for a bite to eat at Tappa Keg Inn.

"That was a big change for me," Tim said. "I always enjoy coming to pick him up and take him for a ride. Now I can't."

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His father, Derry, added: "I looked forward to going fishing and going to breakfast."

It wasn't until Father's Day that the two were allowed to sit down together ⁠— face mask to face mask ⁠— outside following the Minnesota Department of Health's release of guidelines on offering outdoor visits between long-term care facility residents and their loved ones. Before that the two stayed in touch through multiple phone calls a day and waves through the window.

On Friday, the health department released additional guidelines that would allow residents of long-term care facilities to be designated one "essential caregiver." Those assigned individuals will be able to enter the buildings and assist with daily care needs. Facilities like Ecumen Lakeshore have until July 25 to review the guidelines and draft their own plans.

Those caregivers will need to wear eye and face coverings. For some residents, especially those with hearing impairments, communicating from behind masks poses real challenges. Which is why there are now two three-sided Plexiglas booths outside Ecumen that residents can sit in to safely visit family and friends without having to wear a face covering.

Derry Gilberg (right) visits with his son Tim Gilberg from behind a Plexiglas booth Saturday at Ecumen Lakeshore rehabilitation center. (Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com)
Derry Gilberg (right) visits with his son Tim Gilberg from behind a Plexiglas booth Saturday at Ecumen Lakeshore rehabilitation center. (Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com)

From behind a Plexiglas wall, Derry was able to visit unmasked with his son Saturday, and being able to read lips and facial expressions helped.

"Otherwise it's just mouth mush," Derry said.

"It's better than nothing," Tim said of the outdoor visits he has to schedule in advance online. He estimated the two have visited about eight times since allowed.

Jena Evans, community relations manager for Ecumen Lakeshore, said the visitation booths are especially popular among residents with dementia. Overall, the campus' memory care residents see the highest number of visitors.

"Connections are important for everybody, for any age, any ability or disability, but for our memory care (residents) they're incredibly important just for their overall happiness," Evans said "We see that they're just overall happier when they have familiar people from their life."

Under the health department's latest new guidelines Evans said not all residents will be assigned an essential caregiver who will be allowed to enter the building. Since those guidelines only allow for one visitor, she said the Plexiglas stations provide a way for residents, especially those who have difficulty wearing a mask, to see more than just one family member.

"Having this broad range of choices helps to extend the opportunities for our residents to have these meaningful connections," Evans said.

Following the recent steps toward allowing outdoors visits, beginning this week, assisted living residents at Ecumen Lakeshore will be able to join in group activities and eat together in the dining room for the first time in months with physical distancing emphasized.

On June 20, the health department began listing Ecumen Lakeshore on its list of facilities with an outbreak. An assisted living resident tested positive during the campus's first round of testing as part of Gov. Tim Walz's five-point plan. The campus has since undergone more testing and there are currently no known positive cases. Still, the site will remain on the state's list until at least 28 days after it has not reported a new exposure.