The COVID-19 vaccine is rolling out, but it will be months before enough people get the shots to end to the pandemic.
Mitigation measures need to remain in place, which means prioritizing among the many activities that Minnesotans long to resume: classroom instruction, youth sports, social gatherings, dining out. "All of the above" is not yet an option.
While cases are trending down in Minnesota after Gov. Tim Walz hit a four-week "pause" beginning Nov. 21, infections are still at a high level here and far exceed thresholds of concern. Rapidly lifting restrictions could reignite COVID's spread. That's why Walz's cautious touch on Wednesday in turning the COVID control "dial" to a slightly less restrictive setting was appropriate.
There will be more dial-turning decisions well into 2021. As they are made, the nation's vaccine distribution plan offers a guide for going forward. Health care workers and nursing home residents are at the head of the line for the shots. There ought to be a similar sorting when it comes to resuming activities.
At the top of the agenda should in-person education, particularly for younger kids. Online learning is less likely to work well for them and their parents, who must provide supervision. In addition, it appears that younger kids are less likely than older students to pass on COVID, an important consideration as schools continue to worry about staff shortages due to illness.
To Walz's credit, the plan announced Wednesday does prioritize younger students returning to the classroom. It will allow every elementary school across the state to operate an "in-person learning model" beginning Jan. 18, as long as educators implement some additional and manageable prevention measures.
The sigh of relief from frazzled parents was almost audible as Walz addressed the state. But the key to not only making this happen but also work well still involves controlling community spread of the virus outside the classroom. This requires hard work and painful trade-offs. It means that we still can't do many things we enjoy.
In Minnesota, restrictions will continue through early January for many activities beyond the Dec. 18 expiration date on Walz's original "pause." Indoor dining and drinking won't resume for the holiday season, though outdoor dining with capacity restrictions will be allowed. Youth sports remain on hold, with practices allowed to resume Jan. 4. Gyms are reopened, but capacity is limited and masks required.
To some, the restrictions seem scattershot. But the logic is clear: limiting Minnesotans' exposure to the highest-risk settings for COVID transmission. Over the course of the pandemic, the risk of breathing indoor air, where droplets and particles from infectious people can linger, is much better understood. The cautious dial-turning protects against this as much as possible, while still easing up.
The new elementary school plan also provides a specific, important goal to work toward — reopening elementary schools and ensuring that they can stay open. Another big COVID surge could sicken educators or require them to quarantine, causing unworkable staff shortages.
Some business owners have vowed to defy the ongoing COVID prevention measures. That's unwise. Although it will not make them whole, the $242 million aid package the Legislature passed this week should provide some relief for them and their workers.
Christmas and New Year's could also tempt many Minnesotans to ignore social gathering guidelines. Indoor gatherings are still not recommended by the Minnesota doctors an editorial writer contacted. But Wednesday's "dial turning" states that Minnesotans "may gather inside with one other household up to 10 people. If outside, social gatherings may include up to two additional households (three total) with a maximum of 15 people, starting December 19."
Defiance and disregard will only refuel the pandemic, stressing health care systems and endangering lives. It would also undermine the goal of getting young students back in the classroom. Minnesotans' actions over the next few weeks will reflect their priorities. Hewing to the guidelines puts vulnerable seniors, communities and young students first.