Nearly half of 167 bars and restaurants were found out of compliance with COVID-19 safety requirements during recent spot visits by state inspectors, but Minnesota health leaders said most violations were minor and commended the industry for its efforts amid a financially crippling pandemic.

The findings Wednesday were the result of increased enforcement due to the number of COVID-19 outbreaks traced back to bars and restaurants, and to large gatherings.

Sixty-six bars and restaurants have been identified as having COVID-19 outbreaks — with the Minnesota Department of Health publicly naming 38 that were the likely sources of clusters of at least seven infections.

"We know the past six months have been tough for Minnesota's bars and restaurants and we also know that if proper precautions are not followed in these settings, the result can be accelerated spread of COVID-19 in the community," said Jan Malcolm, state health commissioner.

Minnesota has reported 1,869 COVID-19 deaths and 81,868 lab-confirmed infections with the coronavirus that causes the infectious disease.

Contact tracing and investigations linked roughly 1,200 infections to identified outbreaks in bars and restaurants — with secondary cases spawning when infected patrons carried the virus to other locations, including long-term care and educational facilities.

"Those cases have seeded a number of additional situations," said Kris Ehresmann, state infectious disease director.

Labor Day, school bring risks

Health officials had mixed news Wednesday. On the upside, they noted a decline over the past month to 263 Minnesotans hospitalized with COVID-19. But they also expressed concern about a rising positivity rate of diagnostic tests and potential outbreaks due to the Labor Day weekend and the resumption of K-12 and college classes.

One wedding in southwest Minnesota has been linked to roughly 70 cases. Bars and restaurants are risks for outbreaks near colleges as well, because Ehresmann said most student cases have been related to activities off-campus.

Winona State University updated its total case count Wednesday to 209 confirmed infections of students and staff, following Tuesday's announcement of a two-week quarantine and limiting most classes to online sessions. The university listed 255 people in isolation with confirmed or likely cases, though only 16 were on campus, and 169 people under quarantine because of exposure risk.

Ehresmann said there has been debate about how to respond to college outbreaks, because it might be better to keep students on campus and limit their movements rather than send them home, where parents might be at greater risk because of their ages.

"A natural response might be to say, 'Oh, so much disease, we've got to shut this down and send people home,' " she said. "But the concern, rightfully so, is that by doing that, do you perhaps reduce transmission in that environment but then disperse it to other locations?"

Wednesday's bar and restaurant findings were based on sweeps on Aug. 28 and 29 in Mankato, St. Peter, Waseca, Faribault and New Ulm, and on Sept. 4 and 5 in Carver and Scott counties.

Elevated case numbers

Among the 79 establishments with at least minor infractions, some only involved patrons who weren't wearing masks or keeping a safe distance. Thirty-one establishments were referred for follow-up inspections due to problems such as staff not wearing masks indoors or tables too close to allow for adequate social distancing.

Targets for the sweeps were based on geographic areas with elevated case rates — with Scott County seeing its infection numbers grow from 1,339 on Aug. 1 to 2,205 now — or other risk factors such as students returning to nearby colleges.

Inspections were conducted by officials from the state Health, Labor and Industry, Public Safety, and Agriculture departments.

The weekend sweeps were separate from other visits conducted by state officials based on more than 800 complaints of establishments violating COVID-19 safety regulations. Those include caps of no more than 250 people indoors or 50% of fire-code capacity.

Some owners defy rules

Educating noncompliant owners and patrons is the goal, though officials have the added incentive of enforcement actions and financial penalties, said Booker Hodges, assistant commissioner for public safety.

"When we go out to bars and restaurants to observe, our goal isn't to hammer people," Hodges said, adding that enforcement is to "ensure a level playing field exists where all businesses can succeed and keep people safe."

Gov. Tim Walz said last week that Minnesota is in the top third among states in the level of public activity and business openings amid the COVID-19 pandemic, but restrictions and visits from state officials have resulted in defiance by some owners.

The Coffee Nest in Jackson, Minn., temporarily shut its doors this week after a visit from a state official rather than comply with safety guidelines that its owners rejected as government overreach and impractical.

"If we space our tables every 6 feet and limit 4 to a table, we'll virtually be empty," owner Rebecca Nestegard wrote in an e-mail. "Most of our tables aren't 6 feet from our counter where we take orders. Then, where do people wait for their to-go food?"

The Health Department also has issued four cease-and-desist orders to resistant owners.

At least one restaurant group owner, Brent Frederick, of Jester Concepts, joined with state officials Wednesday in supporting the enforcement. His Twin Cities restaurants are down 40% in sales volume since the pandemic struck, but Frederick said the key is restoring consumer confidence by ensuring safety.

Frederick said airflow systems are being redesigned in his establishments to improve air purity and reduce airborne spread of the virus.

"If we're not adhering to the practices then we're expecting to be held accountable," he said. "I think every restaurant and bar in the state of Minnesota should be on the same page with that."

Staff writer MaryLynn Smith contributed to this report.

Correction: An earlier version incorrectly stated that the health department knows of six bars or restaurants in Waseca. St. Peter, Faribault and Prior Lake that had voluntarily closed after state inspections. A list provided by the department only referred to establishments on which it had closed out inspection activities.