MINNEAPOLIS — Minnesota bars and restaurants must stop serving at 10 p.m. and attendance at weddings, funeral and social gatherings will be limited under new restrictions Gov. Tim Walz announced Tuesday to try to slow the accelerating spread of the coronavirus.
Sounding the most ominous tones he has used in months, Walz warned in a statewide address that Minnesota is approaching the worst phase of the pandemic and that conditions will get dramatically worse unless people start changing their behavior. The governor and other officials also cited concerns about the strains that the rising caseloads, and illnesses among health care workers, are putting on a hospital system that's already close to capacity.
"You will open your paper and it will not be unusual for you to see 50 or 60 potential deaths," the governor said.
The new rules, which start taking effect Friday, are aimed at young adults, ages 18 to 35, who are often carriers of the virus without showing symptoms and are among the primary spreaders in a state where social settings are now the source of 71% of cases associated with outbreaks.
While young adults don't usually get very sick with COVID-19, they can transmit the virus to people who do. The new limits will kick in shortly before college students return home for Thanksgiving, a popular time for reunions with friends. Officials actually lifted some capacity restrictions on retailers, finding that stores have not been a major cause of the spread.
Restaurants and bars will still be allowed to offer takeout and delivery service after 10 p.m. But the new rules will ban sitting at the bar and activities that involve standing — such as pool, darts and dancing — because they encourage patrons to gather closely together. The changes target people who mingle without masks after too many drinks.
Minnesota's guidelines currently limit private social gatherings to 10 people in a home and 25 people outside. The new limit is 10 inside or outside. The state is recommending that indoor gatherings be limited to three households including the host. The governor acknowledged that the restrictions will make this a hard Thanksgiving for many families.
Wedding and funeral receptions, which health officials say have also been significant sources of contagion in Minnesota, will be capped at 50 people as of Nov. 7 and limited to 25 as of Dec. 11.
"I feel like the guy in 'Footloose.' No dancing, no fun, no whatever. That is not my intention. My intention is to keep you safe so that you can all dance a lot longer," Walz said, referring to the 1984 movie starring Kevin Bacon in which John Lithgow played a minister who was behind the town's dancing ban.
The new restrictions are bound to fuel the debate at a special legislative session on Thursday. The Democratic governor is required to call one each time he extends the emergency powers he uses to respond to the pandemic for 30 more days. Republicans, who consider his unilateral orders as dictatorial, are expected to make another attempt to rescind the governor's emergency powers, and Democrats are expected to block it.
The new restrictions come after record-setting highs in recent days in new coronavirus cases, hospitalizations, and deaths in Minnesota. The Minnesota Department of Health on Tuesday reported 4,906 new cases to raise the state's total to 189,681, and 23 new deaths for a total of 2,698.
The seven-day rolling average of the positivity rate in Minnesota has more than doubled over the past two weeks from 6.3% on Oct. 26 to 13.5% on Monday, according to data from The COVID Tracking Project. The state's seven-day rolling average of daily new cases has nearly tripled over the past two weeks from 1,562 to 4,453. And the rolling average of daily COVID-19 deaths in Minnesota has risen over that period from 16 to 27.
Walz noted at a news conference later that Minnesota ranked 21st in the country in per-capita infection rates around the start of November. Now it ranks 10th, with the neighboring Dakotas, Iowa and Wisconsin holding the top four spots.
The governor was reluctant to say how the state might enforce the new rules, saying he's counting on voluntary compliance. However, his executive order includes criminal penalties of up to $1,000 for individuals and up to $3,000 for business owners and supervisors, plus potential jail time, and civil penalties of up to $25,000.
"Obviously on this issue we're not going into someone's home and arresting them Thanksgiving," he said.
Trade groups that represent bars and, restaurants and liquor stores criticized the new restrictions.
"Unfairly singling out every bar and every restaurant in Minnesota is not a scalpel – it's a hatchet targeting one of Minnesota's hardest hit industries this year," said Tony Chesak, executive director of the Minnesota Licensed Beverage Association.
Chris Diebold, a partner in a business group that owns 12 bars and restaurants including the popular Cowboy Jack's chain, said the 10 p.m. closing time will be "devastating" because of the money nightlife establishments lost earlier. He said the restrictions won't be effective because young adults are going to find ways to congregate anyway, in settings that are less safe.
"At least in the restaurants, we can monitor and keep people safe in the sense that we strictly enforce our rules," he said. "It gives you some sort of safety feature, whereas if they're just going to a frat house or house party or something, I doubt very much that people would have face masks on."
But Dr. Amy Williams, chair and executive dean of Mayo Clinic Practice, said Walz's new restrictions are a "huge step" as cases surge at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester and other Mayo facilities.
"Without social distancing, masking and good hand hygiene and staying away from COVID risky situations, we are not really going to be able to temper this surge and reverse the process that we have seen." she said.