Large events from high school proms to live Minnesota Twins games can resume this spring under a rollback of COVID-19 restrictions announced Friday by Gov. Tim Walz.
While public mask-wearing and social distancing requirements will remain, Minnesota will allow in-person work again, lift capacity limits for worship services and permit up to 10,000 fans at the Twins home opener April 8.
"We're winning, and this thing's coming to an end," said Walz, who encouraged people to plan for summer weddings and the May 15 walleye opener. "Let's just buckle down. We're going to know in the next three or four weeks if we've truly got this thing on the ropes and it's done and then we finish it."
Many rollback measures take effect at noon Monday, including an expansion of social gatherings to 15 people indoors or 50 people outdoors with no limit on the number of households. Bars and restaurants can operate at 75% of their indoor capacity and seat people in groups of four at bars in addition to tables.
Seated indoor events such as concerts will be allowed starting April 1 for up to 3,000 people. Unseated indoor events such as dances — which involve more unstructured movement and viral transmission risks — will be allowed for up to 1,500 people.
The state's work-from-home requirement for applicable businesses will be lifted April 15, but employers will be encouraged to allow workers to continue the practice.
Target Field will be different this spring as the Twins are switching to electronic tickets, banning bags at the entrance to limit personal contact and using a cashless approach that includes ordering food by app and picking it up. But Twins President Dave St. Peter said fans will experience all of the romance of popcorn and flyovers and first pitches and home runs, and he said the organization learned from the World Series, NFL and spring training in Florida how to safely host fans.
"All of those experiences prepared us for what we will roll out here at Target Field," he said.
The University of Minnesota on Friday also announced a return to full on-campus operations next fall.
"We are increasingly reassured that we can bring students, faculty and staff back to our campuses while effectively minimizing the risk to our community," U President Joan Gabel said.
The state guidance included maximums for indoor and outdoor entertainment venues but also percentage limits based on capacity.
Allianz Field might only host 5,000 fans for Minnesota United games, because it holds 20,000 people and the guidance caps outdoor seated events at 25% capacity. United's home opener is April 24.
"Wonderwall will be there — a little bit social distanced," Walz said.
The moves come amid progress against the pandemic in Minnesota, where the positivity rate of COVID-19 diagnostic testing has remained below a state caution threshold of 5% every day since Jan. 17.
More than 20% of Minnesotans have received COVID-19 vaccine, including 72% of senior citizens who were prioritized for shots along with health care workers, long-term care residents and educators.
It also comes amid the emergence of more infectious variants of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. The state on Thursday reported its first COVID-19 case involving a variant found in South Africa and earlier this year reported the nation's first two cases of a variant found in Brazil.
Nearly 200 cases of COVID-19 in Minnesota have involved the B.1.1.7 variant that caused school closures after it was identified in England. Genomic sequencing has tied 29 cases of that variant to a COVID-19 outbreak centered on organized sports in suburban Carver County.
Included in that outbreak are 14 players from the Shakopee High School girls' hockey team. Sequencing of samples from nine players found the variant.
Young athletes in Minnesota are advised to seek testing at least once a week and three days before competitions to reduce the risk of spreading the virus across teams.
State Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said any variant impact on Minnesota should emerge in the next four weeks, and she said the state has the advantage of monitoring other states such as Florida where as many as half of new COVID-19 cases are driven by variants.
"Just because the variant is there and generating more cases isn't necessarily the only determining factor," she said. "It's what do those cases lead to in terms of hospitalizations and deaths?"
Minnesota hospitals on Thursday had 240 COVID-19 patients admitted to beds — a slight increase from the start of the week but a decline from the 1,864 admitted patients at the peak of the fall wave.
Republican lawmakers welcomed the dial turn of restrictions by Walz after criticizing him for taking a sterner response to the pandemic than neighboring states. However, Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka criticized Walz for renewing his emergency authority for another month amid so much progress.
"It's positive news other than the fact that it's only his hand that is on that dial," Gazelka said.
Walz said Minnesota's response is supported by its lower COVID-19 death and case rates when compared with other states, including the Dakotas and Iowa. Saturday is the anniversary of his declaration of a state of emergency in response to the pandemic.
The Minnesota Licensed Beverage Association criticized the incremental move, because an increase in capacity for bars from 50 to 75% won't do much when they are still constricted by 6-foot social distancing rules.
State Department of Employment and Economic Development Commissioner Steve Grove acknowledged that many bars can't operate at the new capacity and debated whether to help more by allowing them to stay open until midnight. But closing time was held for now at 11 p.m.
"Later in the evening, alcohol plays a role in some of the decisionmaking" that can spread the virus, he said.
A Mayo Clinic COVID-19 model that Walz has relied on does not predict another surge in infections.
The model accounts for increases in vaccination. It does not consider the specific impact of variants but uses a machine-learning approach that ultimately accounts for them if it detects an uptick in cases, said Curtis Storlie, director of data science at Mayo's Kern Center.
"The model is saying it's very unlikely we will see anything like what we saw in the fall in the next four months," said Storlie, though the discovery of variants "gives all of us a little bit of pause."
The Minnesota Department of Health on Friday reported 13 COVID-19 deaths and 1,107 known infections, raising its pandemic totals to 6,737 deaths and 495,208 infections.
Staff writer Briana Bierschbach contributed to this report.
Jeremy Olson • 612-673-7744