Health officials warned throughout the pandemic that younger people returning to bars, restaurants and nightclubs would lead to a rise in COVID-19 cases.
That is exactly what happened in the North Loop, a burgeoning neighborhood near downtown Minneapolis. Over the past month, it has had nearly 29 new cases of COVID-19 per 1,000 people, the city's third highest growth rate for the virus, according to a Star Tribune analysis of data from the Minnesota Department of Health.
The city's overall growth rate is 16 new cases per 1,000.
Other hot spots in the city are nearby ZIP codes encompassing the University of Minnesota campus and downtown, where health officials say outbreaks in assisted living facilities and among students led to the spike.
COVID-19 is everywhere across Minneapolis, the city's health experts remarked. But the impact of the virus, they say, aligns with other health disparities across the city, distinct demographics that show who is more — or less — likely to become infected.
"From the beginning, we've said that there are certain neighborhoods … that we see higher numbers in," said Luisa Pessoa-Brandao, the city's manager for epidemiology, research and evaluation. "Those areas that were previously maybe more impacted are continuing to be impacted, though we are seeing widespread transmission."
Pessoa-Brandao says the North Loop's recent rise in cases tracks with the large number of young adults between 25 and 30 years old who live there and were more likely to socialize and dine out. The neighborhood is known for its bars and restaurants, many of which are found along its main drag on Washington Avenue.
"It has a lot to do with people going out to parties, going out to gatherings, going out to bars," Pessoa-Brandao said.
Health officials have said younger age groups, especially those who were asymptomatic or unaware they were infected, disproportionately spread the virus. State officials recently urged all Minnesotans between 18 and 35 years old to get tested, though guidance for asymptomatic people changed Friday.
Caroline Bildsoe, who lives with her fiancé in an apartment near the Mississippi River, has not been infected but had a friend in the neighborhood who was. She considers herself an extrovert and tried to safely socialize throughout the year, going out for drinks at neighborhood restaurants or hanging out in apartments in small groups.
"Sometimes I just need to get out of my house," Bildsoe, 30, said. "But it still goes back and forth where I think we should stay home, I think we should just hang out for a bit."
Her friend Megan Buzzas has been more cautious. She and her boyfriend, who live in an apartment on the north end of the neighborhood, have stayed relatively isolated this year. They visited a few patios during the summer, when it felt safer, but now are spending most of the time at home.
"We really would like to be part of the solution, not part of the problem," said Buzzas, 31, who like Bildsoe has not contracted the virus but knows others who have. "We're both healthy, we're not high risk. So I'm not as much nervous about us getting it, but I don't want to be, you know, contributing to the spread of it."
Although the North Loop is seeing one of the highest rises in cases, other areas of the city have borne the brunt of the entire pandemic.
Ventura Village, a neighborhood with a high percentage of Black and Latino residents, has had the city's highest per capita rate of COVID-19 cases throughout the pandemic. It's where city health officials have seen a high proportion of Latino cases and where a large share of workers are in front-line jobs, according to a Star Tribune analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data.
"The disparities that we normally see in our city with other health conditions are being seen with COVID," Pessoa-Brandao said. "And it has a lot to do not with necessarily a person's behavior, but about what your privilege is and what you're able to do, and how you're able to protect yourself."
Rates have stayed consistently low in southwest Minneapolis, a section of the city with single-family homes, a high median income and few residents of color. Minneapolis Health Commissioner Gretchen Musicant, who lives in the area, said the low positivity rate "is a reflection of our privilege, that we have people who can work from home, it's economically possible, our households are not as large."
The city's growth rates are much lower compared with other areas across Minnesota. The ZIP codes with the highest new weekly COVID-19 rates now are near Fargo, with the highest being 47 cases per 1,000 people as of Nov. 19.
The atmosphere in the North Loop, like other areas of the Twin Cities, has changed dramatically in recent days as temperatures dropped and cases spiked beyond control.
On Wednesday, Gov. Tim Walz announced that gyms would close and no in-person service at bars or restaurants would be allowed for four weeks, a shutdown that is expected to have a dramatic impact in the North Loop.
After seeing her friends as much as she could, Bildsoe is preparing to hunker down for the winter. She has gathered decorations for her apartment and bought a Peloton bike to exercise inside.
"Having to quarantine or stay put and not have that social interaction, obviously it's for the best, but it still doesn't change the fact that it's really hard," she said.
For Buzzas, it's as if the North Loop is returning to the beginning of the pandemic. People wear masks while they walk outside; in her building, the property manager has made them mandatory.
"I'm just trying to continue to remind myself how privileged and grateful I am for the things that I do have," she said. "We're going to remember this Christmas forever, of when we had to quarantine inside of our apartment."
The North Loop was still the evening Walz announced his new set of restrictions, a vast difference from the warmer days at the beginning of November. Restaurants were mostly empty indoors; the tables and chairs that once accommodated outdoor diners had been put away for the year. A few people walked down Washington Avenue, nearly all wearing their masks.