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– St. Louis County is preparing to spend $450,000 to $500,000 on hotel rooms for homeless people who need to quarantine because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

A handful of people staying at the CHUM Center and Emergency Shelter in Duluth have already spent a few nights in hotels on the nonprofit's dime, awaiting COVID-19 test results. No one at the city's largest shelter has tested positive so far.

"We've had a luxury with not much transmission here in St. Louis County yet to be able to be executing a plan rather than creating it in the midst of chaos," said Lee Stuart, CHUM's director, who has been in talks with local officials to figure out the best strategy to isolate those with nowhere to go at a time when Minnesotans have been ordered to stay at home.

Stuart said she hopes the shelter will be able to start moving some people to hotels Wednesday, reducing crowds in the downtown facility that can sleep up to 70 people a night and often houses even more.

The city of Duluth also applied for a $95,850 grant from the state to provide 30-day hotel vouchers and food to 45 of the most at-risk individuals sheltering at CHUM.

"All of this is trying to lower the density in CHUM," Stuart said. "To flatten our curve."

Three weeks ago, Hennepin and Ramsey Counties approved the use of $3 million and $1.8 million, respectively, to find housing and isolation spaces for homeless people.

The Hennepin County Board has since approved a $5.5 million plan as its number of high-risk residents or those showing symptoms has grown.

Outside of the Twin Cities, Duluth has the largest homeless population in the state, according to 2018 data from Wilder Research.

St. Louis County's per capita rate of homeless residents is higher than even Hennepin and Ramsey Counties, according to census estimates for the same year.

St. Louis County said in a statement it expects to use 90 rooms at four hotels until May 15. Other businesses will be contracted for services such as meals, maintenance, laundry, security and transportation.

Officials did not say which hotels would be used to protect the privacy of those staying there.

"We are very appreciative to these hospitality industry partners for stepping up to help us provide this essential service," said Amy Westbrook, director of St. Louis County's public health division. "Each of the hotels offered us significantly reduced rates because they recognize the need and want to do their part to serve our community. Having a safe place to isolate these vulnerable citizens protects not just the people needing shelter, but our entire community."

Stuart said CHUM has stepped up cleaning and started health screenings, taking the temperature of individuals before they enter the shelter. The center also isn't allowing people to come and go as much as they once could.

"If you don't have a home, and the shelter is your home," Stuart said, "you should still stay there."

Katie Galioto • 612-673-4478