Indoor restaurants and bars will stay shut down, but fitness clubs and other venues will reopen under a new plan by Gov. Tim Walz to limit the spread of COVID-19 and buy time for distribution of vaccine against the infectious disease.
Minnesota's infections rate has been declining since Nov. 11, but Walz said restrictions are needed, particularly in group settings that have fueled broader spread of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.
"This is a killer virus that we've learned much about and have a lot of tools to fight," Walz said on Wednesday, "but we've got a little left to fight."
The new order, which will take effect at midnight Saturday and last until Jan. 11, replaces a four-week closure of bars, restaurants, fitness clubs and entertainment venues. It allows gyms to open with caps of 100 people or 25% capacity; amateur sports to resume practices but not games on Jan. 4; and gatherings of up to 10 people from two households indoors, or up to 15 people from three households outdoors. The prior pause discouraged gatherings outside of immediate household members.
Indoor entertainment venues such as theaters and museums remain closed through Jan. 10, but outdoor events can continue at 25% capacity, capped at 100 people.
In-person learning can resume, starting Jan. 18, at Minnesota elementary schools that conduct regular testing and require staff to wear masks and face shields.
Walz on Wednesday also signed a $242 million relief package to help people who are unemployed and businesses that have suffered losses through the closures.
The package includes $88 million for bars, restaurants and other establishments that lost at least 30% of expected revenue in the second and third quarters of the year, as well as $14 million in grants to support movie theaters and convention halls.
The governor called it one of the most generous state relief packages in the nation during the pandemic, but the financial support didn't satisfy Minnesota's hospitality industry. A group of business owners this week pledged to reopen in defiance of the governor's orders, and a statement from Hospitality Minnesota warned Walz that support and patience has fizzled out.
"Hospitality is a force for good in our communities, and the governor and his administration would be wise to leverage that force, rather than watch it flicker out," said Liz Rammer, president of the trade organization.
One concession was the allowance of outdoor bar and restaurant service at 50% capacity, though that has limited benefit in the heart of Minnesota's winter. Closing time must be 10 p.m., and tables of no more than four people must be kept 6 feet apart.
The Minnesota Department of Health reported 92 more COVID-19 deaths on Wednesday, making the past seven-day period the deadliest so far in the pandemic with 466 reported deaths.
The latest pandemic wave has shown watch-like precision, as predictions by state leaders came true that a peak of infections would be followed in two to three weeks by a surge of hospitalizations and then a spike in deaths.
The daily COVID-19 infection rate, based on a seven-day rolling average, peaked at 124 per 100,000 residents on Nov. 11 and declined to 119 on Nov. 20 when the order took effect. The rate has dropped below 80, but the state's target goal is to drive it below 10.
Minnesota hospitals showed peak activity on Dec. 1 — three weeks after the peak in infections — when 399 COVID-19 patients occupied more than a quarter of available intensive care beds in the state. The number of COVID-19 ICU patients dropped to 304 on Tuesday.
Minnesotans deserve credit for buckling down through Thanksgiving and limiting gathering sizes to reduce viral transmission, said Dr. Mark Sannes, an infectious disease expert with HealthPartners, which has seen its COVID-19 hospitalizations in ICU and non-ICU beds drop from 224 on Nov. 24 to 151 on Tuesday.
The share of Minnesotans who wear masks most or all the time in public has increased from 86% in September to 94%, according to survey data reported by Carnegie Mellon University's COVIDcast.
While other states are seeing a post-Thanksgiving surge, it hasn't occurred so far in Minnesota, Sannes said. "In fact, we've been steadily declining during the time when we would have expected [case numbers] to bump back up."
Recent improvements in COVID-19 data fueled some opposition to the governor's latest restrictions, including from House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown.
"Minnesota started a downward trend before restaurants were forced to close," he said, "and the governor's own data shows that only a fraction of a percent of all cases can be tied back to bars and restaurants."
The state has verified 448 outbreaks of seven or more people at bars and restaurants, and 6,684 infections. That compares with 386,412 Minnesotans who have tested positive since the start of the pandemic in March, including 2,279 reported Wednesday.
The bar numbers count primary infections that occurred on site and not secondary infections that occurred when customers carried the virus back to their homes and workplaces, state Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said.
"It's the generations of transmission," she said. "We've estimated that one primary case can lead to 70 cases after four generations of transmission."
Walz said he is concerned that 36% of recent COVID-19 cases can't be traced back to specific sources in communities, which means that people are unwittingly spreading the virus to others.
"The next thing we know we either have a case in a long-term care facility or we have an RN or a doctor who is out," he said.
Walz's allowance for amateur sports teams to resume practices came on the same day as a hearing in U.S. District Court over a lawsuit by Let Them Play MN. The group represents some athletes and coaches and sued to bring an end to the current four-week pause. A ruling could come as soon as this week.
Infection numbers have declined in the Upper Midwest in recent weeks, but the pandemic wave is radiating outward through the rest of the country. California, Pennsylvania and Tennessee are reporting their highest infection rates in the pandemic.
Walz acknowledged that border states with lesser levels of COVID-19 restrictions also are seeing declines, but he said the Dakotas, Wisconsin and Iowa also had the nation's four highest state infection rates a month ago and contributed to case growth in Minnesota.
"Opening everything up and not doing things, like some states did, killed people and got more people infected," Walz said, "and I think that is not debatable."
The new order contains decisions that are based on the predictability of movements and the ability to maintain 12 feet of social distancing in different environments, said Steve Grove, state economic development commissioner.
Fitness centers can reopen, for example, but they can't open their pools or schedule group classes until Jan. 4. People must wear masks and maintain social distancing during workouts, which is a stricter standard than existed in clubs before the current four-week pause, Grove said.
"This is a moderated step back into the fitness area," he said, "It's kind of a solo workout model."
Jeremy Olson • 612-673-7744
Jessie Van Berkel • 651-925-5044