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Mount Rushmore opening for Memorial Day

Mount Rushmore National Memorial will welcome visitors for Memorial Day weekend, about three weeks earlier than previously planned.

The announcement was made Tuesday on the Mount Rushmore National Memorial Facebook page.

“After careful consideration and consultation with local and state health authorities, we are pleased to announce that Mount Rushmore’s parking lot, retail shops, and Memorial Team Ice Cream will open earlier than expected on Saturday, May 23,” according to a post at facebook.com/mtrushmorenationalmemorial.

As of Thursday, the banner on Mount Rushmore National Memorial’s website said the park is closed and won’t reopen until June 14, but a notice elsewhere on the home page confirms the memorial's restaurants and facilities will open Saturday.

The National Park Service website provided some specifics about what will be available to visitors. The grounds will be open from 5 a.m. to 11 p.m. until further notice, the parking garage is open and parking is free until further notice. The Nature Trail and the Presidential Trail will be open to the base of the mountain, and the Sculptor's Studio will be open.

The outdoor area in front of Carvers’ Café is open for viewing Mount Rushmore, although the café is closed. As a health and safety precaution, the National Park Service website said the Information Center is closed, all educational and interpretive programs are suspended, and the Gift Shop is closed.

Because of deferred maintenance projects, the Lincoln Borglum Visitor Center, amphitheater, Avenue of Flags and a short section of the Presidential Trail are closed.

More information about which amenities would be open to visitors was not available Thursday from Mount Rushmore National Memorial or Xanterra, the company that operates the restaurant and other park facilities at Mount Rushmore.

The National Park Service said on its website that it is increasing access and services in a phased approach throughout the national park system.

The memorial will open days after Pennington County — which includes Mount Rushmore — reached 100 confirmed cases of COVID-19. In response to the continued spread of the virus, safety measures are in effect and are listed on the websites of Mount Rushmore National Memorial, Xanterra, and the National Park Service.

The safety measures include vigilant cleaning, encouraging guests and employees to maintain physical distancing, and hand sanitizer dispensers in multiple locations. Employees will be trained on COVID-19 safety and sanitation protocols. Employees will wear personal protective equipment that is appropriate for their job responsibilities. For more information, go to mtrushmorenationalmemorial.com/health-and-safety.

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Rapid City's water supply adjusts to daily needs

Clean drinking water is one of the most important services a city provides to its residents, and Rapid City Water Superintendent Jeff Crockett said that responsibility is one he and his staff take seriously.

To recognize Public Works Week, the city hosted a media tour of Jackson Springs Water Treatment Plant earlier this week. The facility opened in 2013 and has the ability to process up to eight million gallons of water per day.

Jackson Springs is one of two water treatment plants in the city; the other is Mountain View. Together, the two facilities processed nearly three billion gallons of water in 2019.

Crockett said the majority of Rapid City's water supply comes from the Pactola and Deerfield reservoirs in the Black Hills, traveling down the Rapid Creek watershed. The city also operates nine wells that draw water from the Minnelusa and Madison aquifers.

"We are very lucky to have extremely clean water supplies here in Rapid City and we take the stewardship of that water supply to heart," Crockett said.

At the Jackson Springs plant, raw water comes from Rapid Creek and the Jackson Springs Infiltration Gallery. An intake structure along the banks of Rapid Creek sends the water to the plant across the street. A separate pipe routes the water from Jackson Springs Infiltration Gallery.

Once the water arrives at the plant, Crockett said a pretreatment process begins to reduce organic carbon, iron and manganese deposits, as well as microscopic particles.

"It's a multi-step process designed to clean the water and meet all standards from the EPA and state regulators," Crockett said.

During the first step, the water is strained to remove large particles. The water then moves to a rapid mix structure that disperses coagulant for further treatment.

The coagulant assists in the next two processes, flocculation and sedimentation.

"Flocculation facilitates bonding between particles in the raw water, causing them to become larger. That makes them easier to separate," Crowell said. "When the water moves to the sedimentation tank, gravity causes those larger particles to be removed from the water."

The final step in producing water is an intense filtration system where membrane panels remove any remaining particles, bacteria, viruses and parasites.

"The membranes remove 99.9% of all foreign substances out of the water before we bring it to the distribution network," Crowell said.

After the membrane filtration, very small amounts of sodium hypochlorite are added to the water supply to provide disinfection. Crowell said fluoride is also added to supplement the natural fluoride in the water.

Once treated, Rapid City's water is distributed through 511 miles of water mains to 19 storage reservoirs throughout the area before arriving to faucets in residents and businesses.

"It really is an impressive system and we take the health and safety of our water supply very seriously," Crockett said. "We constantly monitor the entire system to make sure we are keeping up with demand and make adjustments when needed."

In 2019, the average daily use of water was more than 8.1 million gallons, Crockett said. The peak usage in one day was 15.1 million gallons of water.

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Pennington County reaches 100 coronavirus cases

Pennington County now has 100 positive tests for coronavirus after 16 more were recorded Wednesday. One new death of a 31-year old Pennington County man was also included in the two new deaths reported by the state Thursday morning. The other was from Minnehaha County. A total of 48 people have died in the state due to COVID-19 illnesses.

There were 319 tests completed Wednesday in Pennington County. That is about eight times more than the previous daily average and about 15 percent of the total tests completed overall in the county. It was about a third of the total number of tests performed across South Dakota on Wednesday. In comparison, Minnehaha County had 264 tests completed Wednesday with 13 positive for COVID-19.

State epidemiologist Dr. Josh Clayton said the increase in testing was not part of a mass testing event that the Department of Health was aware of. Instead, he said the growth in positive tests in Pennington County has probably led more people to suspect that they have been infected when symptoms of COVID-19 affect them.

Meade County had one new positive test out of 54 total tests Wednesday. Fall County still has four positive tests and two active cases. Twenty tests were conducted in Fall River County on Wednesday. Custer County still hasn't had a resident test positive for coronavirus. Sixteen negative tests were performed in Custer County on Wednesday. Lawrence County completed 64 negative tests on Wednesday.

Total positive tests in the state increased to 4,250 — up 73 from Wednesday. However, active cases continued to fall as 122 patients were reported to have recovered from the illness, That leaves 1,057 active cases in South Dakota. 

New cases Thursday included 12 in Aurora County, 11 in Beadle County and 10 in Brown County. Codington County reported three new cases, Lincoln and Jerauld counties each reported two and Grant, Lyman, Marshall and Union counties each added one new positive test.

The number of patients hospitalized with COVID-19 illnesses in the state increased by 10 to 91 on Thursday. The state's website where statistics are updated each day now includes more information about hospitalizations. Only 2% of the state's available ventilators are occupied by COVID-19 patients. 22% of the ventilators are in use by patients with other diseases and 76% are available for use. COVID-19 patients are utilizing 9% of the state's intensive care unit beds. About half of the state's ICU beds are in use across the state. 

Oglala-Lakota and Aurora counties were both upgraded to mild or moderate community spread Thursday after cases there were found to have been passed in the community and not just with close contacts. Pennington County is listed with substantial spread due to having 100 cases with no specific outbreaks. 

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Civic Center announces furlough plan for all employees

Facing a shortfall of $1 million, the Rushmore Plaza Civic Center put a plan in place Thursday to furlough all of its employees for 15 to 66 days.

Civic Center Executive Director Craig Baltzer said this plan only makes up about a third of the shortfall. The facility has already cut all 450 of its part-time employees and this move will affect 41 full-time employees. There are four positions that are still held open due to a hiring freeze.

Director of Finance Tracy Heitsch said the facility projected revenue of $10,865,000 for 2020 and even with a recovery in the fourth quarter they will lose half that. 

The $1 million shortfall is what remains after all of the expense cuts that have been made so far. The shortfall amount is based on a reasonable worst-case scenario and even with a furlough program that Baltzer called "robust," only about a third of the extra shortfall will be erased.

"As you can imagine, this has been difficult but necessary," Baltzer said. "All of our employees are valuable, but we have to be responsible."

The civic center generates about two-thirds of its revenue and the other third comes from BBB taxes and fees. 

Baltzer said hotels, bars and restaurants have been hit hard during the coronavirus crisis and that will have an impact on the BBB revenue the civic center receives. However, the coronavirus has already taken an even bigger toll on the civic center.

"For us, the effect was immediate and it was 100 percent," Baltzer said. The civic center closed on March 23 and won't have any events until at least July 1. 

"July and August are our slowest months every year, so getting them back won't help a lot with budget shortfalls," he said. 

Some employees will be furloughed for as many as 66 days while others will take 15, 20 or 30 day furloughs depending on job responsibilities. All furloughs are considered temporary so employees can retain their benefits until they return. 

Baltzer said that salaries and benefits, utility payments, bond payments on the ice arena and interdepartmental charges are the only budget items left that they have any control over at all. The only expense they have direct control over is salaries and benefits, which led to Thursday's board action.

Board member Charity Doyle challenged the other board members to begin working with the city government to help postpone or suspend some of the interdepartmental charges. The civic center staff is also looking into options on how to suspend or postpone the annual interest payment on the ice arena that comes due in December. The annual payment is from a 2008 bond that funded the construction of the ice arena. It is a 20-year repayment program.

"With the residents' support and recent vote on this facility, I think the city should do what it can to support the civic center," Doyle said.

Board member Tim Johnson said he expected the area's BBB taxes to rebound more quickly because of advantages the Black Hills offer. It is a less populous and more cost-friendly vacation than many other options for travelers.

"Many people think we do better when the economy is great," Johnson said. "But in reality, we do better in slower economies because people can't afford the big ticket trips to Europe, Hawaii and the Caribbean. This year, we are also a safer option."

Human resources representatives began meeting with employees Thursday and the furloughs will begin June 1.