Jennifer Brooks
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Minnesota went into a state of emergency a few hours before the first fish fillets were supposed to drop into the deep fryer in the church basement of St. Albert the Great.

Friday fish fries are tradition in this south Minneapolis neighborhood.

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But a lot of traditions were upended this week.

Gov. Tim Walz declared a statewide emergency Friday, asking Minnesotans to cancel or postpone large events and big plans. Even small gatherings are a bad idea if they’re in confined spaces where people can’t avoid close contact and possible transmission of COVID-19, the virus that’s spreading and sickening people faster than we can track or treat.

Stadiums went dark. No basketball, no hockey, no soccer, no golf, no NASCAR, no World Cup cross-country ski races in Minneapolis this weekend.

Museums shut their doors. Concerts canceled. Families scrapped their vacation plans.

Churches started streaming worship services online. Late-night talk show hosts joked to empty rooms before deciding to stop broadcasting entirely. Businesses sent employees home to work remotely. Nursing homes shut their doors to visitors.

Minneapolis and St. Paul called off their St. Patrick’s Day parades.

At St. Albert the Great, volunteers took a deep breath, dropped the fish in the fryer, and hoped for the best.

Lines of hungry people have stretched around the building every Friday during Lent for the past 20 years. A $15 ticket gets you a plate heaped high with fried and baked fish, spaghetti with homemade sauce, fresh crusty bread, herbed mashed potatoes, coleslaw, hash browns and your choice from a groaning board of donated desserts.

“I’ve had people tell me we were wrong to hold this,” said Brian Arvold, who runs the kitchen and organizes the mountains of supplies and volunteers.

But the parish budget relies on the ticket revenue, and Arvold had 1,250 pounds of tilapia on ice. They decided to hold one last fish fry before canceling the last three dinners for the season.

The lines didn’t stretch out the door. People who came together sat together, with stretches of empty seats between groups. Volunteers circled the room, offering squirts of hand sanitizer and extra desserts, seemingly trying to offload a month’s worth of cake, pie and cookies in one night. One last shared meal before everyone scatters to a social distance.

A bishop dropped by, and the archbishop. But Arvold has been running these dinners so long he can calculate ticket sales by counting the empty mashed potato pans, and his face fell when he saw the numbers. Three empty trays. Five hundred tickets. Less than half the usual crowd.

It was the last crowd Minneapolis may see for a while. Other Twin Cities fish fry events followed suit, although one church — Our Lady of Grace in Edina — announced it will hold drive-through fish fries.

For the next few weeks or months, keeping our distance will be the surest way to keep each other safe.

The distance comes at a cost — especially when it’s your job to bring people together.

Airlines are slashing fares, college professors are trying to figure out how to teach chemistry labs and sculpture courses online, restaurants are begging you to order takeout, and the Theater of Public Policy is taking improv online.

Tane Danger, co-founder of the improv comedy group, is hoping there are enough Minnesotans looking for a laugh next week to save his business. In the space of 48 hours, the Theater of Public Policy lost more than $20,000 to canceled March and April shows.

Their next show was going to be March 23 at the Bryant-Lake Bowl. Now it’s going to be March 23 on the T2P2 Facebook page, next to a large, hopeful “donate” button. The topic will be “Birds!,” which sounds like something we’d all rather be talking about right now.

“We’re going to throw ourselves on the mercy of our fans,” Danger said.

“It didn’t even feel like a decision. It just sort of feels like the only thing we could do,” he added. “I don’t want to frame it in terms of money, because people’s lives are more important. ... But at the same time, a part of me is wondering, ‘Is our small theater going to make it through this?’ ”

That’s going to be up to everyone sitting at home alone.

In quarantined Italy, videos show neighbors leaning out their windows to serenade the empty streets. Alone, but singing together.

So maybe next Monday, a bunch of us will come together, from separate screens in separate rooms, to laugh about birds. Maybe we’ll even shell out an extra $12 for an empty seat just to help the Bryant-Lake theater.

Maybe being apart from the community doesn’t mean we’re not a part of the community.

jennifer.brooks@startribune.com 612-673-4008

Follow Jennifer on Twitter: @stribrooks