To ease the financial impact of new state COVID-19 business restrictions, Hennepin County commissioners approved $8 million Tuesday to help struggling restaurant and bar owners.

The funding was expected to assist between 600 and 800 businesses and potentially secure or return the jobs of thousands of employees. The County Board's action was expedited by a looming deadline to spend federal money designated for COVID-19 expenditures, and Gov. Tim Walz's recent order for bars and restaurants to close at 10 p.m.

Eligible businesses must be locally owned and operated, have fewer than 100 employees and collect less than $6 million in annual revenue. The maximum grant will be $15,000.

"This early closing in the holiday season is especially challenging, as many of our businesses make the lion's share of their profits in this season," said Commissioner Debbie Goettel. "I encourage our residents to patronize local restaurants with takeout and curbside pickup if you are not comfortable dining inside at these great establishments. Our community and I want these great places to exist after this pandemic."

The funding approved Tuesday comes on top of $22 million in federal CARES Act money that Hennepin County has already granted to small businesses affected by COVID-19. Restaurants or bars that received the maximum $15,000 from that pool of funding now are eligible for up to an additional $10,000.

County officials plan to open the application process next week, which will be streamlined because of the ease of verifying eligible bars and restaurants, said Patricia Fitzgerald, the county's economic and community development manager. The county, in partnership with the Greater Minneapolis Chamber Development Foundation, also will offer free consulting services, topical webinars and technical assistance funded by the CARES Act.

Dozens of bars and restaurants in the county have closed temporarily or permanently since March. With the holidays around the corner, Walz's office is pointing to celebrations, bars and restaurants and social gatherings — including at private homes — as the most significant sources of spread in the state.

Social outbreak data released Monday by the Minnesota Department of Health identified 139 bars or restaurants in the state where outbreaks have likely resulted in seven or more infections. Forty-one of the establishments are in Hennepin County, including 21 in Minneapolis, five in Maple Grove, four in St. Louis Park, two each in Bloomington and Edina; and one each in Eden Prairie, Excelsior, Minnetonka, Mound, Rogers, Spring Park and Wayzata.

Walz's order restricts the number of customers in a bar or restaurant to 50% of its capacity, up to a maximum of 150. It prohibits seating at bars or counters, limits the size of any party to 10 people and restricts outdoor seating.

Hennepin County received a $220 million federal CARES Act package earlier this year to cover COVID-19 costs — funding that must be spent by the end of the year. The money has been used to shelter homeless people who may be vulnerable to the virus, for protection equipment and on rental-housing assistance.

The $22 million already granted to small-business owners provided up to $3,000 for self-employed owners and as much as $10,000 for businesses with up to 20 employees.

Commissioner Jan Callison said the County Board recognizes that helping bars and restaurants survive now is critical to recovery in the future. "The governor's closing order was one more burden that is particularly hard on this industry," she said.

Ramsey County has distributed $1.4 million to 154 bars, restaurants, breweries and distilleries.

David Chanen • 612-673-4465