Gov. Tim Walz thanked Minnesotans on Friday for driving COVID-19 numbers down to levels not seen since March 2020 and encouraged unvaccinated people to get their free shots and vaccinated people 21 and older to pick up free or discounted drinks as a reward.

The governor spoke at La Doña Cervecería in Minneapolis on Friday, one of at least 16 microbreweries or distilleries offering rewards to people who present their vaccination cards or photos of their cards.

"It's those vaccines that will allow this place to be packed tonight and allow people to come back out and enjoy all of the things they love so much about summer," said Walz, before buying a can of Big Mama Blonde Ale for Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan.

Walz's enthusiasm came on the fifth straight day in which Minnesota reported 200 or fewer infections with the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. The 177 infections and 12 deaths reported Friday raised Minnesota's pandemic totals to 603,466 infections and 7,496 deaths, but reflected overall declines in viral spread.

The state's reported positivity rate of diagnostic testing has dropped to 2.1% — well below a 5% caution threshold — and the number of COVID-19 patients admitted to Minnesota hospitals has declined from 699 on April 14 to 184 Thursday.

Establishments offering free or discounted drinks to vaccine recipients include: Bad Weather Brewing Co., Bald Man Brewing, Dampfwerk Distilling, Far North Spirits, Isanti Spirits, La Doña Cervecería, Lawless Distilling Co., L'Etoile du Nord, Loon Liquors, Lupulin Brewing Co., Richwood Winery, Royal Foundry Craft Spirits, Spiral Brewery, Stilheart Distillery & Cocktail Lounge, Unmapped Brewing Co., and Utepils Brewing.

State Department of Employment and Economic Development Commissioner Steve Grove encouraged Minnesotans to support these establishments, which suffered financial hardships amid state-ordered closures and capacity restrictions.

The industry also pitched in early in the pandemic, converting production from beverages to 100,000 gallons of hand sanitizer "to really meet some critical supply shortage needs in those early days," Grove said.

The establishments are bearing the cost of the Cheers to the Vaccine reward program. La Doña Cervecería switched from free to discounted beers after a surge in interest over the past week, said president and taproom manager Sergio Manancero. A few people tried to take advantage by using their vaccine cards to order multiple free beers, but most honored the request to use the reward only once, and many paid full price anyway.

"As much as it is an incentive go get vaccinated, it's actually really touching that people still come here and spend their money even though they could get a free beer," he said.

La Doña Cervecería has seen a gradual return to normalcy — with weekend crowds and full sign-ups for its three-on-three soccer league on its artificial turf field outside. One of its beers is called the Chin Diaper IPA, in reference to the practice of wearing masks below the nose and mouth.

Loon Liquors in Northfield, as part of the vaccine promotion, is offering a rum-infused cocktail called the Fauci Ouchie. All capacity caps on businesses ended on May 28, two weeks after Walz lifted Minnesota's mask-wearing mandate for indoor public places.

Walz said Mayo Clinic's models forecast the declines, and he was pleased to see those short-term predictions come true even with the removal of mitigations. However, he said is concerned by the looming threat of more infectious variants of the coronavirus and some evidence indicating that these variants are spreading more in counties with low vaccination rates.

Nearly 3 million people 12 and older have received a first dose of COVID-19 vaccine in Minnesota and more than 2.7 million have completed the one- or two-dose series. The state is on pace to fall just short of its goal of providing vaccine to 70% of people 16 and older by July 1 — sitting at a rate of 65.6% in that age group.

"Get vaccinated. Keep pushing," he said. "We've got a little ways to go to get to 70% but, again, that is somewhat just the floor. We want to keep going."

State infectious disease director Kris Ehresmann said variant spread is occurring in some low-vaccination counties. Variant infections also are being found in metro counties, which have high vaccination rates, she noted. More than 74% of people 12 and older in Hennepin County have received vaccine.

Jeremy Olson • 612-673-7744