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Minnesota nonprofits and foundations are planning for how to respond if an outbreak of the coronavirus hits Minnesota — especially how to keep serving the state's vulnerable populations.

On Wednesday, about 200 nonprofits and foundations heard from experts about how to prepare for the possible outbreak in an event organized by the Minnesota Council on Foundations, the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits and the state. While there have been no confirmed cases of the coronavirus in Minnesota, nonprofits are drafting plans, just like other businesses, on how to continue to operate remotely if staff are quarantined at home.

But unlike other businesses, some nonprofits provide emergency services and can't close. In downtown Minneapolis, People Serving People doesn't plan to shut even if there's an outbreak.

"We do feel what we do here is absolutely essential," said Jake Gale, senior director of operations and planning at People Serving People. "We feel like we have a solution to be able to safely and healthily serve families."

Nearby, St. Stephen's Human Services is looking for donated hand sanitizer, masks and frozen meals in preparation for the possible outbreak, while Catholic Charities of St. Paul and Minneapolis, which houses hundreds of people in shelters and housing, is boosting education efforts about how to prevent the spread of any illness.

"This is an emerging disaster," Tanya Gulliver-Garcia, assistant director of major initiatives at the Washington, D.C., Center for Disaster Philanthropy, told Minnesota nonprofits and foundations.

She also encouraged foundations to step up since private philanthropy can be more flexible and innovative than government, adding: "All funders are disaster philanthropists."

The outbreak is already spurring a rise in philanthropy internationally, with $1 billion in donations rolling in for COVID-19 medical supplies, almost entirely from companies, not foundations, she said. That's compared with $363 million in donations that came in over six months during the 2014 Ebola virus epidemic.

Besides putting operational plans in place, Gulliver-Garcia recommended that foundations reach out to grantees to see if they can help out or launch a COVID-19 fund. If a coronavirus outbreak hits a shelter, she said it's likely the entire shelter would be quarantined for two weeks.

"This is something all shelters should think about," she said, adding the preparation extends beyond coronavirus to any spread of illness in close quarters, such as norovirus.

At People Serving People, which houses more than 300 people each night, Gale said the nonprofit already has hand sanitizer and surgical masks left over from H5N1 bird flu concerns.

There's no plan to close the shelter, he said.

"None of that is going to change," he said of providing meals and beds for families.

Among Minnesota's nonprofit sector, museums also draw hundreds of people, particularly student school groups.

The Minnesota Children's Museum in St. Paul is stepping up disinfecting its spaces, doing more cleanings throughout the day and adding stronger cleaning materials. But the museum has no plans to close or cancel events. Neither does the Works Museum in Bloomington, though spokeswoman Kara Newby said it's monitoring local schools and will follow Health Department recommendations.

At the Science Museum of Minnesota in St. Paul, known for its hands-on science exhibits, hand sanitizer stations have been doubled. The museum has an extensive plan for the possible pandemic and a medical team on site as usual, but has seen no decrease in ticket sales so far out of health concerns.

"It's a big deal; we see a lot of school groups. It's a different time," said Richard Walker, the director of public safety and security, adding that the organization is in daily contact with health officials. "Let's be really smart about this; we are the Science Museum. Let's not let fear be the driver for this."

Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141