With the number of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations falling, Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey on Thursday lifted an emergency order restricting bar service in the city.
The move, which takes effect immediately, repeals an order requiring food and alcohol be served only at dining tables, keeping patrons from congregating around a bar and potentially spreading the virus. Now Minneapolis establishments will be under the same social distancing restrictions as pubs and restaurants across Minnesota.
That's a bit of welcome relief for some establishments even though it likely won't result in a big bump in business.
Gavin Kaysen, owner of Spoon and Stable, said it was frustrating when he had to tell customers who had just come from a pub in St. Louis Park, where customers could sit at the bar, that they couldn't do so at his establishment in Minneapolis.
Instead, he lined three tables next to the bar, where customers could sit. Now he can remove the tables and seat up to nine people at the bar that was built to serve 18.
"Bars are built for people to sit at, not next to," Kaysen said. "It will bring energy."
At Matt's Bar in south Minneapolis, cook and general manager Paul Rees said, "I think we gain two additional seats" because of continuing state seating limits. The bar, blocked off for months, normally has 11 stools.
"It's a little something," Rees said. "We have a lot of people who really like to sit at the bar. So I'll let a few of our regulars know."
The mayor's decision comes in the wake of several favorable trends. The COVID-19 test positivity rate for Minneapolis has stayed below 5% for the past four weeks. In addition, there have been no new outbreaks connected to a city establishment over the past week.
Places where people gather, including bars and restaurants, have been under scrutiny since the beginning of the pandemic last year. According to the Minnesota Department of Health, there have been 493 reportable outbreaks involving 7,978 customers infected in clusters at bars and restaurants since June 1. That includes three outbreaks in January and 20 in February.
Many bar and restaurant owners and employees have chafed at what they consider unfair treatment, putting capacity limits on their businesses while big-box retailers are allowed to operate under fewer restrictions. But state Health Department officials say the impact of the virus spread from bars and restaurants is far greater when estimating the number of secondary infections that occur when people take the virus home and spread it among friends or co-workers.
Frey signed an emergency regulation this summer that basically shut down the bar area of 972 businesses that hold on-sale liquor licenses to cut the risk of continued coronavirus outbreaks.
Even as Gov. Tim Walz dialed back restrictions — allowing bars and restaurants to reopen with capacity and seating restrictions in early January and then again last week — the stricter Minneapolis bar prohibition remained in place. Until Thursday.
At Insight Brewing in northeast Minneapolis, Calvin Newton was surprised by Frey's announcement. Still, the assistant taproom manager said he isn't sure the move will have much effect. Pre-pandemic, the bar seated about 17 patrons. With continuing restrictions keeping customers at least 6 feet apart, he said, "It really wouldn't make that much of a difference."
Because bartenders are even closer to the patrons, he said employee safety concerns might keep them from wanting to reopen the bar at all.
But for some, the repeal of the emergency order offers a glimpse of hope for returning to pre COVID-19 times.
"It kind of feels like there's definitely light at the end of the tunnel," said Luke Derheim, co-owner of Craft and Crew Hospitality.
The move might only bump up business 20% at his Minneapolis establishments — Stanley's Northeast Bar Room and the Howe Daily Kitchen & Bar. But some of the bar vibe will return.
"We're just excited to serve people normally across a bar like we used to," Derheim said. "… There's just a little more glimmer of hope for the industry."
Staff writer Jeremy Olson contributed to this report.