Gov. Tim Walz on Thursday will announce the next phase of Minnesota's COVID-19 response — likely dialing back some business closures and restrictions under the current stay-at-home order, which ends Monday, but leaving others in place amid an accelerating death toll.

Speaking Wednesday in Worthington, where an outbreak among workers shut down the JBS pork plant, the governor said a wholesale ending of the order would be futile because many workers would refuse to return to workplaces with high infection risks. However, large and small employers alike should be able to reopen when they put effective social distancing precautions in place.

"If we can make a large plant function, and we can do it without infecting people, we probably ought to be able to allow the Ace Hardware store to be able sell a hammer when they need to with a couple people in the store," he said.

"The surest way we get this economy back going again," he added, "is we make sure people feel safe and secure."

Walz said the stay-at-home order has bought hospitals time to prepare for a surge of COVID-19 cases by reducing face-to-face contact and disease transmission by 80%. The governor said he is now confident that patients with severe cases will have intensive care beds and ventilators available to them, even at the peak of the pandemic. But he stressed that the peak is very much ahead.

"This thing is like gravity," he said, "It will run its course. It will eventually climb a peak and go over it. The only question is, how steep the peak is and how quickly it comes."

Minnesota deaths from COVID-19 have now reached 319, with the addition of 18 deaths reported Wednesday — including a 30-year-old with underlying health problems who is the state's youngest victim so far. The state also has 4,644 lab-confirmed cases based on 66,744 tests — including single-day highs reported on Wednesday of 463 cases and 2,915 tests.

Walz and his administration have received numerous suggestions on what to do next, including from Republican lawmakers who have criticized the stay-at-home order for putting more than 567,000 people temporarily out of work.

Senate Republicans received 2,000 responses in an online suggestion box — with a Chaska salon owner offering to wear disposable gloves and masks with each client, and a Hutchinson dog groomer offering to care for dogs that are leashed outside his store.

"I think it's really important to open what we can, and then try to sort things out," said Sen. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka. "I wish I could stop worrying about it, but I feel like the kid standing outside their house waiting for the fire department to come and there's no sirens."

New research using the University of Minnesota's national hospital bed tracker offered a cautionary tale of moving too quickly, though. Minnesota saw a 355% increase in hospital bed usage from March 28 to April 8, when stay-at-home restrictions started to pay off, but then much slower growth in bed usage after that. In Iowa, where statewide orders fell short of doctor recommendations, the growth in bed usage remained steady.

"We still are on an exponential growth curve," said Dr. Archelle Georgiou, an executive in residence at the U's Medical Industry Leadership Institute, and a leader of the research. "And so it would suggest that there may be value in extending the stay-at-home order or certainly being quite cautious in opening up."

While the research can't prove cause-and-effect, Georgiou said the findings show the Minnesota policy "seems to have had an impact … where we changed the trajectory of where we expected our state to be."

Walz has repeatedly said that football stadiums and crowded bars will be among the last to reopen. His strategy has been to start with businesses with predictable patterns of foot traffic and face-to-face interactions, which can use social distancing to further reduce the risk to workers.

Walz said that the state "rolled 100,000 workers back into the workplace" this week in manufacturing and warehousing sites that met this criteria and had plans in place to reduce the spread of the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. While an estimated 20,000 businesses could have reopened this week, a spokesman for the state Department of Employment and Economic Development said there has been no official count of how many actually did so, or how many workers returned.

Target and the Minnesota Safety Council teamed up on a health tracking app that businesses could use to assess workers and identify early signs of COVID-19 outbreaks. Target also is offering infrared thermometers at wholesale prices so that Minnesota businesses can check workers before their shifts start.

Other apps to track hot spots of COVID-19 outbreaks have emerged, including a HealthPartners SafeDistance app that uses public COVID-19 case data but also crowdsourcing information from mobile device users to estimate risks in communities.

The state's success in the next phase of its pandemic response will depend on Minnesotans sticking with social distancing — even as businesses reopen — and on accurate tracking of the outbreak to detect any hot spots, said Jan Malcolm, state health commissioner.

"That's a really important part of the whole equation," she said, "the ability to use the results of the increased testing to inform our control strategies."

While the number of diagnostic tests has exceeded 2,000 in each of the last seven days, Minnesota might not reach Walz's goal of 5,000 per day by Monday. The governor had wanted that level of testing as part of a strategy to ease back his stay-at-home order.

Testing is not "ramping up quite as quickly as I had hoped," Malcolm said, due to delays in setting up a coordinated statewide strategy and getting supplies to the right locations. The state is still on track to reach a capacity of up to 20,000 tests per day under a $36 million partnership with the University of Minnesota and Mayo Clinic, she added.

State Sen. Karin Housley, R-St. Marys Point, had suggested the next step for the state should be universal COVID-19 testing in long-term care facilities that have been hardest hit by COVID-19. As of Wednesday, 249 of the state's 319 COVID-19 deaths involved long-term care residents.

"We need to know the most vulnerable residences so there can be an appropriate response to mitigate tragedy before it strikes," Housley said.

While testing has been prioritized for long-term care facilities, Malcolm said supplies aren't built up enough yet to entertain this idea. Universal testing also could be problematic for timing purposes, as a worker could test negative one day and be infected the next.

While supplies of protective masks and gowns remain a concern, state officials said they are pleased with the rapid preparations by hospitals. State emergency management director Joe Kelly said the hospitals have doubled the capacity of intensive care beds and squeezed an extra 1,800 regular hospital beds into their facilities.

That expansion comes on top of plans to use other facilities for overflow of routine, non-COVID-19 patients. The state on Wednesday signed a lease to use a shuttered Roseville nursing home as one such site.

"We hope we don't ever need to use them," Kelly said.

The ultimate question is whether social distancing also reduced the impact of COVID-19 and lessened whatever peak of cases is in Minnesota's future. Malcolm said a new modeling analysis by U and state health researchers should offer new predictions next week.

Staff writers Briana Bierschbach and Chris Snowbeck contributed to this report.

Jeremy Olson • 612-673-7744