Gov. Tim Walz is scaling back indoor crowd restrictions designed to slow the spread of COVID-19 amid improving measures of pandemic activity.
Wedding receptions and private indoor gatherings can increase, as of noon Saturday, to 50 people rather than 10 — though facilities still can't exceed 25% of their fire code capacity. Similarly, restaurants can host up to 250 people but must operate at no more than 50% of capacity and maintain social distancing of groups.
Restaurants also can remain open until 11 p.m. instead of 10 p.m., despite concerns that viral transmission happens in later hours when customers become less cautious.
Walz's announcement came as the positivity rate of diagnostic testing for COVID-19 had dropped to 3.9% — below the state's caution threshold of 5% and well below the 15.6% mark at the peak of the latest wave of the pandemic on Nov. 10. The rate of COVID-19 hospitalizations in Minnesota also has fallen below the state's high-risk benchmark.
Walz urged continued mask-wearing and social distancing so that businesses can continue to operate amid a pandemic that is far from over — especially given the threat of new more infectious variants of the virus.
"By doing this, you do slightly increase the risk," Walz said. "But the way that you mitigate that risk is if everybody's wearing masks and doing the things necessary and vaccinations are still happening. ... It's a risk that … can be balanced."
Other changes include allowances for indoor entertainment venues, pools and gyms to host up to 250 people, but no more than 25% of their fire code capacity. These venues previously had been capped at 150 people.
Outdoor fairs and events remain capped at 250 people. Walz's order encourages organizers to consider drive-through alternatives, which aren't subject to caps or restricted hours of food and beverage service.
The governor's order stressed that Minnesota is "not out of the woods" in the pandemic. The Minnesota Department of Health on Friday reported 19 more COVID-19 deaths and 1,058 more diagnosed viral infections — bringing the state's totals to 6,362 deaths and 471,851 infections.
All but one of the 19 reported deaths involved Minnesotans 65 or older, who have suffered 89% of the total COVID-19 deaths in the state and are prioritized to receive vaccines along with health care workers, long-term care residents and educators.
The state on Friday reported continued progress administering the Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines — with 617,896 people receiving at least one dose and 189,902 of them completing the two-dose series. The state has now received access to 1.1 million total doses of federally controlled COVID-19 vaccine.
An expected supply of 87,925 first doses next week is being distributed largely to health care providers. They will receive 39,625 doses to vaccinate senior citizens as well as any remaining health care workers. Another 9,700 doses will go to state vaccine sites in Minneapolis, Duluth and Rochester, which are whittling down a closed waiting list of more than 220,000 seniors seeking vaccine.
Another 3,000 doses will go to tribal governments while 19,400 will go to local public health agencies for vaccinations of teachers and others. Pharmacies will receive another 16,200 doses to continue providing shots to residents of long-term care facilities and group homes, who are at elevated risk of severe COVID-19 because of their age and underlying health conditions.
State health officials last summer had identified bars and restaurants as leading sites of group outbreaks that spread COVID-19 broadly in their communities.
Indoor service at bars and restaurants was closed in late November and December amid a second wave of COVID-19 activity but that resumed in January. The state has reported 14 bar and restaurant outbreaks in 2021, defining them as at least five unrelated cases of COVID-19 involving people from five households who had only visited the same establishment in the past month.
Sports has been linked to 35 group outbreaks so far in 2021, despite crowd limits and mask requirements for coaches and athletes. Sports outbreaks are defined as two or more cases on the same team within 14 days of one another — with no other known sources of viral transmission.
Hospitality Minnesota issued a statement of appreciation for the governor's move but endorsed a plan by state Rep. Dave Baker, R-Willmar, who wants restaurants back to 100% capacity in March and all restrictions ended by May unless the pandemic worsens.
"With virus-related numbers trending in the right direction, these modest adjustments need to serve as the starting point," said Liz Rammer, the trade group's president and chief executive.
Staff writer Anthony Lonetree contributed to this report.
Jeremy Olson • 612-673-7744