MINNEAPOLIS — Minnesota bars and restaurants will learn Wednesday when they might be able to reopen for sit-down service under restrictions meant to limit the spread of the coronavirus.
Many eating establishments across Minnesota have been trying to stay alive with takeout and delivery service since Gov. Tim Walz ordered them to close in mid-March, putting tens of thousands of employees out of work. On Tuesday, Employment and Economic Development Commissioner Steve Grove provided a preview of what the new conditions might look like.
Grove tweeted that there would be “phased plans” for bars, restaurants and other “places of public accommodation” — a broad term the administration has used to includes theaters, sporting venues, museums and other attractions. Key public health factors important in reopening decisions include how close people are to each other, how long people are in proximity with each other, and whether people can effectively practice social distancing in that setting, Grove tweeted.
Walz last week announced that he would let his stay-at-home order expire Monday and replace it with a “Stay Safe MN” safety regimen, which allowed retailers to start reopening this week. He also directed his cabinet to come up with ways to safely reopen bars, restaurants and hair salons starting June 1.
The Minnesota Department of Heath on Tuesday reported 17 more deaths from COVID-19 and 665 new confirmed cases as the number of people hospitalized with the disease jumped. The new numbers raised the state's death toll to 748, while the confirmed case count rose to 17,029. It also reported that a one-day high of 545 patients were hospitalized with the disease as of Tuesday, an increase of 57, but the number of intensive care patients held steady at 229, matching a high set Monday.
“It's certainly notable. It is a big jump,” Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said at the department's daily briefing.
But neither Malcolm nor the department's infectious disease director, Kris Ehresmann, could say for certain why hospitals are seeing a bump in patients. Ehresmann speculated that the new patients may have been part of a jump in new cases last week who might now require hospitalization.
In a grim reminder of where the disease could be headed in Minnesota, Department of Administration Commissioner Alice Roberts-Davis said during the briefing that her agency has closed on the purchase of a former grocery distribution warehouse in St. Paul that will be converted into a temporary morgue for COVID-19 victims.
The state paid $5.4 million for the Bix Produce Company cold storage warehouse, and plans upgrades that will raise the total cost to $6.9 million, Roberts-Davis said. The state expects the federal government to cover 75% of the cost.
The goal was to find a place for the “timely, dignified, and temporary storage of human remains” during the expected peak of the pandemic this summer, when the state's modeling suggests the disease could cause an additional 1,000 deaths per week over four to five weeks, according to the commissioner's funding request. Private and public mortuaries statewide have a surge capacity for only about 2,000 more bodies than they would normally hold, she wrote. The warehouse can hold 5,100.
Republican U.S. Senate candidate Jason Lewis sued Walz on Tuesday, saying continued limits against gatherings of 10 or more people unconstitutionally restrict his freedom to campaign. The former congressman, who's challenging Democratic U.S. Sen. Tina Smith, appeared at an anti-shutdown protest by conservatives outside Walz's home last month.
“The overreach from these unprecedented lockdowns has moved beyond economic hardship and favoritism into the realm of threatening our most basic liberties, including the fundamental right to travel and meet with friends and neighbors,” Lewis said in a statement.
Walz spokesman Teddy Tschann said in an email that the coronavirus “has forced the state to take drastic action to keep Minnesotans safe, but it’s action that is within the Governor’s authority. It is also in line with federal guidance and similar to what many other states are doing.”