If you’re looking to enjoy the spring weather with a newly assembled pair of Minnesota-made Riedell roller skates, you’ll need to wait a touch longer.
Afforded an early-bird chance along with other select businesses to reopen Monday amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Riedell opted to continue to retrofit social-distancing strategies in its Red Wing plant and resume skate manufacturing as planned on May 4 — the final day of the state’s current stay-at-home order.
“We’re a manufacturer. We need to build a product to sell,” said Riedell President Bob Riegelman, “but we want to do it the right way.”
The decision reflects a truism voiced lately by business and health leaders and Gov. Tim Walz — that no magic number or date is going to reopen the state of Minnesota. The decision to open factories and stores amid the pandemic is more like turning a dial than flipping a switch, Walz said, as some businesses with controlled environments can open sooner than others — but only when they’re sure it is safe to do so.
“I don’t want to be driven by an arbitrary date or arbitrary numbers,” Walz said. “I want to see how Minnesota’s responding.”
Walz announced last Thursday that he would allow earlier reopening of around 20,000 businesses, mostly in small manufacturing and warehousing, putting 80,000 to 100,000 Minnesotans back to work four weeks after a state-mandated shutdown.
Exactly how many operations responded quickly enough to open Monday is unclear. Businesses were required to develop COVID-19 safety plans before reopening, though they did not need to submit them to state regulators. Business leaders said they were grateful for this first step back toward a functioning economy.
“It’s going to be a gradual return, company by company, industry by industry, as employers work to ensure that they can provide a safe environment,” said Charlie Weaver, executive director of the Minnesota Business Partnership, a group that represents some of the state’s largest companies.
The order leaves retailers, restaurant staff and employees of “noncritical” businesses without certainty on when they might restart work. Walz said decisions will be based on the predictability of movements in workplaces and assurances that workers can maintain safe distances from one another to reduce the risk of spreading the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.
“Bars and restaurants are quite a ways on that social setting dial,” Walz said.
The most unpredictable environments, like concert and sporting venues, might wait the longest — perhaps until a vaccine or a dependable therapy is available.
The stay-at-home order was designed to delay or reduce the peak of COVID-19 cases in Minnesota and buy the state’s hospitals time to add supplies and intensive care beds, and the state’s labs time to increase capacity for testing for the virus.
But even with the state exceeding Walz’s moonshot goal — a $36 million agreement with Mayo Clinic and the University of Minnesota to provide up to 20,000 diagnostic tests per day — other factors will dictate when businesses can restart. Walz said the latest data shows Minnesota is headed for a peak of cases in perhaps late May.
Since recording its first COVID-19 case on March 6, Minnesota has seen more than 3,000 confirmed cases and more than 200 deaths. Walz has issued 45 executive orders related to COVID-19, closing schools and businesses, delaying elective medical procedures and ordering Minnesotans to stay home.
Walz has not said whether he’ll extend the stay-at-home order, which began March 25 and would end May 4. More than 500,000 Minnesotans have applied for unemployment insurance benefits, including 30,000 last week.
“My pledge to Minnesotans is to continue to transparently show how we’re thinking through these things, and then try and give as much lead time as possible,” Walz said.
Transparency has fueled criticism, including from legislators who reviewed data modeling by U researchers and found that the state could achieve similar protections from COVID-19 by restricting only long-term care residents and others at greatest risk of severe COVID-19 compared with the entire population.
Demonstrators gathered outside the governor’s residence this weekend and earlier in April to protest the order to stay at home. President Donald Trump tweeted “LIBERATE MINNESOTA” in approval of the first gathering. Trump and Walz had a conversation after the tweet, though, with the president publicly complimenting Minnesota, and Vice President Mike Pence was scheduled to visit Mayo Clinic on Tuesday.
But the Minnesota governor’s stance might allow for more rapid reopening of businesses than recent guidance from the White House and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The federal Guidelines for Opening Up America Again recommend states begin reopening their economies when cases of COVID-19 are on a downward trajectory for 14 days.
Walz gained backing from the business community for his stance, and for evaluating businesses on individual factors such as the amount of worker and client foot traffic that could spread the coronavirus.
“We support what the governor did ... in not taking a rigid view of the 14-day requirement,” Weaver said.
Demand for ice skates might be low as summer approaches and indoor rinks are shut down, but Riedell has a backlog of roller skate orders.
“We’ll be busy for a while,” Riedell’s Riegelman said.
Still, he said his business decided not to open ahead of its safety plans, which include moving heavy machines to spread out the workers who operate them. The office fridge and vending machines have been shut down, and workers will receive individual coolers for lunches. Workers’ temperatures will be checked at the door before each shift.
As other industries look to reopen, Walz said state officials will meet with stakeholders to talk about the dynamics of each situation and create a template “preparedness plan” tailored to each setting. Businesses will be responsible for instructing employees and customers on safe practices and securing face masks and other personal protective equipment.
Walz and state business leaders are discussing how to deploy thousands of daily serologic blood serum tests to detect antibodies in people who have recovered from COVID-19 and might have at least temporary immunity. Those are in addition to the 20,000 diagnostic tests per day that have been pledged for anyone with respiratory symptoms.
Walz has described a vision in which antibody testing is provided companywide at critical sites such as food production plants in an effort to prevent problems such as the recent shutdown of the JBS pork plant in Worthington due to an outbreak among workers.
Walz’s public health orders have not pleased everyone. Some critics are chafing against the governor’s orders to close all salons and restaurant dining rooms, saying a one-size-fits-all approach isn’t working everywhere.
Clearwater County Commissioner Mark Titera said his northern Minnesota county has had only two confirmed cases of COVID-19, and he’s seen no evidence that the illness “is ever going to hit this county.” Yet county tax revenue is dwindling as sources like gasoline taxes dry up.
“It’s time to reopen,” Titera said of local businesses. “These hair salons and coffee shops, they know what it takes to keep their businesses safe.”
One argument for taking precautions: customers. Walz said it’s unclear if they will return until businesses have taken thoughtful steps to protect them.