Minnesotans on Wednesday will once again be able to drink in bars, go to movies, work out and swim at clubs — as long as they keep their distance from others due to the continued threat of COVID-19.
Health officials believe the COVID-19 pandemic has either plateaued or is on a downward wave in Minnesota, making the resumption of more everyday activities OK with the caveat of maintaining a social distance of 6 feet from others in public.
Infections with the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 could increase under the relaxed restrictions announced Friday by Gov. Tim Walz, but health officials will be monitoring case numbers for any spikes that would be concerning, said Kris Ehresmann, state infectious disease director.
“The logic would say that if people are free to interact more, then we will likely see more cases,” she said. “So we’re watching for that.”
Restaurants and bars as of Wednesday will be able to seat up to 50% of their indoor capacities, and fitness clubs, theaters, bowling alleys and other entertainment venues will be able to serve up to 25% of their capacities — with hard caps of 250 people in any of these indoor businesses.
Social gatherings of 10 people will be permitted indoors and 25 outdoors, but in all cases the need for social distancing of 6 feet will apply.
State disease investigators consider people to be at moderate risk of COVID-19 if they spent 15 minutes face-to-face in that proximity with others who have the infection.
“Six feet is the distance in which you would expect the respiratory droplets from someone who has sneezed or coughed to have settled before they get to that next person,” Ehresmann said.
The addition of 20 deaths and 307 new lab-confirmed cases on Tuesday brought the toll of the pandemic in Minnesota to 1,217 deaths and 28,523 illnesses so far, but case growth has been steady or declining since an apparent peak around Memorial Day weekend.
The Minnesota Department of Health also reported 455 people with the infectious disease in hospital care, including 199 who needed intensive care due to severe respiratory or other symptoms, as of Tuesday. At peak demand on May 28, there were 606 such patients hospitalized.
Case growth has ebbed even as other restrictions have been eased. Walz ended a statewide stay-at-home order at 51 days on May 18 and allowed outdoor restaurant services and limited indoor religious services on June 1. Churches under the latest order can expand attendance from 25% to 50% of their capacity.
Minnesotans have been moving around more for weeks — as measured by traffic levels and mobile device tracking — than they did in March and April, and the recent protests over the death of George Floyd in police custody brought thousands of people shouting and singing together in proximity.
States with earlier peaks in the COVID-19 pandemic offer some guides for Minnesota. Wisconsin reported zero COVID-19 deaths on Tuesday — a first since May 13 in that state — and declining growth in cases despite a court order throwing out its statewide restrictions last month.
Republican leaders in the Minnesota House seized on this zero-death announcement Tuesday, challenging the Democrat Walz and health authorities to address why Minnesota has seen more COVID-19 deaths than Wisconsin, which has more people and fewer restrictions.
On the other hand, a reopening of activities in Los Angeles County in California has reportedly this week come with an increased COVID-19 infection rate — a cautionary tale against moving too quickly to restart businesses and activities amid the pandemic.
Ehresmann said state officials have concentrated more on in-state statistical indicators of COVID-19 to weigh the need for restrictions and social distancing.
A high per capita testing rate, and a low percentage of those tests being positive, will be a strong indication that the pandemic is well-monitored and under control, she said.
Testing numbers will likely gain a boost from free clinics on Tuesdays and Wednesdays for the next three weeks at four sites in Minneapolis and St. Paul where protests took place. The state has recommended that all people who participated in the mass demonstration events seek COVID-19 testing due to their exposure risk — whether they have respiratory symptoms of COVID-19 or not.
Testing appointments for this week filled up quickly, and the state on Tuesday afternoon announced it would be expanding capacity for these clinics next week.
Not all businesses were set to bounce back just because the state gave them permission. While several bowling alleys are reopening, most movie theaters in the Twin Cities have yet to announce plans. The St. Anthony Main Theatre in Minneapolis announced on Facebook that it plans to open June 19, with reduced ticket sales and staggered seating between rows to keep groups 6 feet apart.
Jester Concepts isn’t quite ready to open its restaurants — Monello, P.S. Steak, Borough and Parlour in Minneapolis, and Parlour in St. Paul, said owner Brent Frederick. Reopening in mid- to late June following staff training is more likely, he said.
“Patio at full capacity and indoor dining at 50% is the best we could hope for right now,” he said. “Looking forward to pandemic trends flattening more to where we can get full dining capacity once again.”
W.A. Frost is serving on its patio only for now due to continued COVID-19 concerns but would at best reach 25% capacity if reopening indoors due to the constraints of 6-foot spacing, said co-owner Stephanie Laitala-Rupp. “The 6-foot rule is the real hitch in the giddyup, for us, based on how our tables lay out … more so than the 50% rule.”
Health officials aren’t certain why COVID-19 case growth is ebbing in Minnesota, though weeks of social distancing and a stay-at-home order likely played a role. Recent state modeling had suggested that the order reduced face-to-face contact and disease transmission by 55%.
The decline has coincided with warmer and more humid weather, but Ehresmann said there is no scientific proof, yet, that climate has played a role in slowing the pandemic.
Staff writers Sharyn Jackson and Nicole Norfleet contributed to this report.