Gov. Tim Walz issued an executive order Wednesday asking Minnesotans to stay in their homes unless absolutely necessary, his most dramatic action to date to slow the coronavirus pandemic in the state.

The "stay-at-home" order, to begin at 11:59 p.m. Friday, is based on models developed by the Minnesota Department of Health and the University of Minnesota that suggest that the state will run out of hospital intensive care capacity before infection rates peak — leaving many Minnesotans at greater risk of death from COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus.

Without action, Walz said, as many as 74,000 Minnesotans "could be killed by this."

"What our objective is now is to move the infection rate out, slow it down and buy time," the governor said, adding that "the place we cannot go to is when someone cannot get that ICU care."

The order comes as the number of cases of COVID-19 in Minnesota rose to 287 Wednesday in 33 counties. Of that number, 26 people are in hospital care.

Physicians praised the move to order more Minnesotans to stay home.

"This order gives Minnesota's health care system the strongest possible chance to adequately prepare for the predicted impact of this virus," said Minnesota Medical Association President Keith Stelter.

Some leading state Republicans, however, raised doubts about the order and its impact on the state economy. Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, said he had "grave concerns" about Walz's decision.

"I share the governor's concerns about the safety and well-being of all Minnesotans," Gazelka said in a statement. "I also have grave concerns about the governor's statewide stay-at-home order, and the consequences for the families of Minnesota when their jobs and businesses that provide their livelihood are lost."

Department of Employment and Economic Development Commissioner Steve Grove said "critical" workers exempted from Walz's order make up an estimated 78% of the workforce. The order directs other employers to switch to a telework model for now.

Lasting at least two weeks, the order is an extreme form of social distancing that aims to keep people inside their homes as much as possible. Walz has already ordered schools, restaurants, bars, movie theaters and other public places to close their doors. His latest action is intended to bolster the orders he has already delivered and ask Minnesotans to further limit their social interactions.

Bars and restaurants will continue to be closed through at least May 1, but they can still deliver food and provide curbside takeout. Schools will stay closed until May 4, with distant learning plans picking up soon.

Under the new order, Walz said essential needs and services will continue. People can leave home for groceries, gas, emergency medical services, or to care for friends, family members or pets. Essential travel is allowed for people returning home from outside the state.

People who work in "critical sectors" are exempt from the stay-at-home order, including health care workers, emergency responders, law enforcement, child care facilities, food and agriculture, utilities, certain critical manufacturing and the news media. Local governments will have the flexibility to decide what employees are essential in their areas.

While a few states have closed abortion clinics under such orders, Walz specifically mentioned clinics providing reproductive health care as essential services that can stay open.

The governor said that after April 10 he hopes to scale back to more moderate social distancing measures for all Minnesotans, with that phase lasting another three weeks. Then those measures would apply only to people at greatest risk of COVID-19 complications — the elderly and those with underlying health problems.

Extreme social distancing measures have proved effective in places like China, where limitations on travel and going outdoors helped slow the spread of the virus. It also allowed officials to focus medical and other resources on Wuhan, the epicenter of China's outbreak.

There has been greater division in the United States about these orders, particularly the long-term impact they'll have on the economy. This week, President Donald Trump said he hoped the country would be back open for business by Easter, April 12. State Republican senators have chafed against the bar and restaurant closings, arguing that businesses in greater Minnesota might not be able to survive weeks or months of closure. Grove said 28% of Minnesota's workforce is temporarily jobless because of the closures.

The new measures, which Walz called "smart mitigation," also are turning into an election-year issue. On Wednesday, former Republican U.S. Rep. Jason Lewis, who is running for U.S. Senate against DFLer Tina Smith, argued that businesses should reopen as soon as Monday for "all but the most vulnerable" residents.

Quarantined in his home after being exposed to a member of his security detail with COVID-19, Walz delivered the news on a livestream video, noting that cellphone and traffic data show Minnesotans have already taken the state's guidance to stay at home and reduced contact by 50%.

"It's an unprecedented challenge for us," he said. "Minnesotans have risen to the occasion, we've slowed it, but make no mistake, slowing it is not going to stop it. It's not going to change the reality. This is a human issue with mathematics driving it."

From New York to California — and including neighboring Wisconsin — a growing number of governors and local leaders are turning to these orders to slow the spread of the virus.

But so far the orders haven't come with strict enforcement, unlike in some European countries, where residents can be fined if they are outside of their home for nonessential services.

Violating the order in Minnesota comes with the penalties of a misdemeanor, punishable by up to 90 days in jail or up to $1,000 in fines. But Walz said law enforcement will be more focused on educating the public than writing tickets.

"We don't want them to be arrested; first and foremost, we want to educate people," he said. "This requires voluntarily social compliance for a large part."

Staff writers Jeremy Olson and Torey Van Oot contributed to this report.

Briana Bierschbach • 651-925-5042

Twitter: @bbierschbach