State regulators are stepping up enforcement of mask-wearing, social distancing and other requirements imposed on Minnesota’s bars and restaurants to reduce the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Owners of such establishments received notice this week of the increased oversight, which started on Friday, accompanied by the threat of fines and citations over complaints from customers as well as bars and restaurants that are obeying the rules that some of their competitors are ignoring.
Bars and restaurants were permitted as of June 10 to reopen their indoor service areas at 50% of their fire code capacities as long as they met other requirements such as mask-wearing and keeping tables 6 feet apart. Gov. Tim Walz on Friday said he wanted to thank the majority that are sacrificing and complying, and he added that he owes it to them to confront bars and restaurants that aren’t.
“If they choose not to follow the best health guidance [they] put all of the businesses at risk, they put all of our health at risk,” Walz said. “That’s the whole idea. The wearing of the mask is about protecting others. It’s about stopping the spread and reducing it.”
The guidance comes at a nervy time in the pandemic for state health officials. The Minnesota Department of Health reported 862 lab-confirmed infections on Friday of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 — bringing the state’s overall total to 73,240 known infections — which represented an increase from the roughly 630 per day that had been reported on average for much of August.
The state also reported four COVID-19 deaths on Friday — for a total of 1,810 in the pandemic — and that 301 people were hospitalized with the infectious disease. Hospital and case numbers had leveled off somewhat in August after increasing in July.
The latest COVID-19 case growth appears somewhat tied to large group events and outbreaks in bars and restaurants where safety measures to prevent the spread of the virus are being disregarded, said Kris Ehresmann, state infectious disease director.
The state has confirmed 46 infections involving motorcyclists at the Sturgis rally in South Dakota and has found evidence that they have spread the virus to others within Minnesota. One apparently spread the virus at a wedding, Ehresmann said.
The state also has investigated 50 establishments in Minnesota for suspected patron transmission of the virus that resulted in a total of 1,286 infections. Thirty of those bars or restaurants have been publicly identified because at least seven people were likely infected in them.
“When establishments and customers don’t follow the guidance, we see outbreaks,” Ehresmann said.
Inspections will occur in establishments that have been the subject of complaints, but also in random bars and restaurants as well.
Unannounced “observation-only” inspections were conducted earlier this summer by the Alcohol and Gambling Enforcement Division of the state Department of Public Safety and various law enforcement agencies. The inspections turned up 14 bars and restaurants that committed violations.
Most of those violations included employees failing to wear masks (116), followed by failure in social distancing (63) and excess capacity (30).
In the advisory to the hospitality industry this week, the state commissioners for Public Safety, Health, and Labor and Industry wrote that “most establishments are following federal and state guidelines, but it makes it difficult for them to compete or to explain to their customers when other establishments are not in compliance.”
Some Republican members of the state House of Representatives challenged the stepped-up enforcement on a business community that has suffered economic hardships in the pandemic.
“Threats of fines and closure are a departure from previous statements by the Governor — who has stated that their goal is ‘education’ — not to be punitive to businesses who are already struggling as a result of the Walz shutdowns,” read a statement issued Friday morning by the House Republican Caucus.
House GOP members said they are hearing about businesses being subjected to unannounced visits, which have led to citations and fines. The House Republicans said they are drafting a written response to Walz and relevant commissioners to his announcement.
State Rep. Dave Baker, R-Willmar, a longtime restaurant owner until he sold his last place in January, said he’s concerned that further enforcement pressure will doom many establishments.
“I am really concerned that the executive branch is switching to the adversary vs. the advocate role,” the third-term legislator said. “The tone right now is so alarming. Why would the government go after the industry that has been wounded so badly during this pandemic?”
Baker said that with summer coming to a close and outdoor seating certain to slice into overall capacity, some establishments aren’t going to survive if they can’t go from 50% to 75% capacity indoors.
Restaurant staff are “doing the best they can” when it comes to wearing masks and following other rules, he said. “I know there are a few rogue people who are snubbing their nose to everything, but let’s deal with them one on one. … to publicly shame restaurants online with minor violations is just not something we need to do.”
Hospitality Minnesota, a trade group that represents many restaurants and hotels, said it fears its industry is being targeted without merit.
“Previous Department of Public Safety announcements [indicated] that 98.5% of operators they visited were following guidance to keep guests and workers safe,” Hospitality Minnesota CEO Liz Rammer said. “Enforcement efforts must be carried out fairly and evenly, and across all types of businesses that serve the public. … We are concerned that this industry is being disproportionately and unfairly targeted, and we have expressed these concerns to the Health Department.”
The state’s letter to bars and restaurants said that teams of inspectors from the three state departments will fan out during the next several weekends and look for violations.
They will be looking for compliance in areas such as employees and customers wearing masks, social distancing, limits on party size per table, proper employee health screenings and staying under capacity maximums.
Violations could lead to fines, loss of liquor license or prompt an order to close. Inspection results will be shared with the bar and restaurant operators, the letter read.