Indoor restaurants, swimming pools, movie theaters, fitness clubs and other venues can resume limited business Wednesday as Gov. Tim Walz continues to dial back restrictions designed to slow the spread of COVID-19.
The governor’s announcement Friday came amid indicators that the pandemic has at least temporarily “plateaued” in Minnesota, though state officials expect the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 to be a concern for months.
“COVID is still with us,” Walz said, “but we gotta live with it.”
No venues, indoor or outdoor, can host more than 250 people at once under the new guidance, but the level of reopening beyond that depends on the industry or activity. Churches, hair salons and indoor bars and restaurants can serve up to 50% of their capacities, while fitness centers, bowling alleys and movie theaters can serve 25% of their capacities as they reopen for the first time in more than two months.
With almost all businesses other than large concert and sporting venues allowed to resume, the more pressing statistic than building capacity is how many people they can serve while keeping unrelated groups 6 feet apart, said Steve Grove, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development.
The risk of transmitting the novel coronavirus increases when people are face to face within 6 feet for 10 or more minutes, so businesses will need to maintain social distancing for workers and customers, Grove said.
“Social distancing … is the bedrock principle of every single move that is made across this dial,” Grove said.
Outdoor gatherings of 25 people and indoor gatherings of 10 people can now take place, as long as social distancing is observed, paving the way for small, belated graduation celebrations.
Some competitive youth and adult recreational sports can resume but only if that spacing can be maintained. Tennis matches might be OK, but basketball games would present problems.
“You’d be a pretty bad basketball player if you’re 6 feet apart from the person you are trying to defend,” said Grove, who deferred to the state’s COVID-19 web page for guidance on major summer sports such as baseball and soccer.
The announcement came as the Minnesota Department of Health reported 33 deaths and 712 newly confirmed cases of the infectious disease on Friday — an uptick from the daily numbers that had declined earlier in the week.
Case counts are now only doubling every 27 days in Minnesota — far less than the state’s warning threshold of seven days.
“Something rather significantly changed from the second half of April, where we were really seeing … logarithmic growth [in COVID-19 cases], to now this pattern of more of a plateau with small waves within it,” said state Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm.
Case counts surged around the Memorial Day weekend, and Twin Cities hospitals reported running out of ICU space. But the number of hospitalizations for COVID-19 as of Friday was the lowest since May 17.
The improving situation fueled criticisms that Walz should remove restrictions entirely and let businesses decide for themselves what safety measures to install.
“We’ve got to get over the fear of this virus. … We have to learn to live our lives,” said Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake.
The toll of the pandemic in Minnesota now stands at 26,980 known cases and 1,148 deaths, including 922 deaths of mostly elderly residents of long-term care and assisted-living facilities. Gazelka said restrictions should shift to this most vulnerable population only.
Restaurant owners supported Walz’s move, although some felt whiplash after quickly creating or expanding outdoor dining areas to be ready by June 1, only to have indoor dining allowed June 10.
“I am as excited as can be,” said Phil Weber, owner of the Park Tavern Bowling and Entertainment Center in St. Louis Park, where revenue declined 90% despite providing takeout food. “I get people calling all the time asking, ‘Is your bowling open? Is your restaurant?’ ”
Consumer confidence could be fragile, so Brian Ingram of Hope Breakfast Bar in St. Paul said he hoped restaurants would make serious efforts to protect consumers and workers from infection.
He said he spent $30,000 getting ready with plexiglass partitions to separate tables and touchless fixtures in bathrooms.
“If one gets a bad reputation, it hurts all of us,” he said.
Some businesses were ready to reopen, while others needed time. Life Time had opened some fitness clubs nationally already and plans to open all 23 Minnesota locations on Wednesday.
Wearing of non-medical-grade masks is still encouraged, because of the high number of people with asymptomatic infections who can spread the coronavirus without knowing it. Restaurant servers must wear them, and stylists and their customers must both wear them.
A wave of COVID-19 cases is likely as people come in closer contact with one another, but whether it will be enough to result in renewed restrictions is unclear.
“We likely will be dealing with ongoing high levels of COVID-19 transmission for the months to come,” said Malcolm, noting that a sudden steep decline in cases now could be a bad sign of a second wave that mimics the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-1919.
Of particular concern is the spread of the virus among the thousands of protesters who turned out to the Minneapolis and St. Paul streets over the last week following the May 25 death of George Floyd while he was in police custody.
Singing, shouting and even labored breathing amid police use of tear gas to disperse protesters could have hastened the spread, Malcolm said. On the other hand, the outdoor air could have diffused the virus and reduced the threat of infection.
Health officials also are concerned that many protesters are black and that black people have suffered a higher rate of severe COVID-19. Black people make up less than 7% of Minnesota’s population but more than 20% of its COVID-19 hospitalizations.
Black people suffer higher rates of chronic disease, which exacerbates COVID-19, but also are at higher risk of infection because they are employed in many essential, lower-wage jobs and can’t work from home, Minnesota Department of Human Rights Commissioner Rebecca Lucero said.
Mobile COVID-19 testing sites are being developed to provide easier access for minorities or low-wage workers with less access to health care, she said.
Floyd tested positive for COVID-19 on April 3, but doctors said his asymptomatic case likely did not play a role in his death while restrained by police via a chokehold — and was more a symbolic reminder of a health inequity for black Minnesotans.
Critical businesses that were never required to close under Walz’s prior stay-at-home order, which ended May 18 after 51 days, must now develop social distancing plans to minimize the risk of virus transmission for workers and customers, Grove said. People who can work from home will still be encouraged to do so, he added.
Increased testing is a key part of Minnesota’s revised strategy. The state twice this week exceeded 10,000 daily COVID-19 tests — an amount that was unthinkable amid global supply shortages in the early stages of the pandemic.
Health officials emphasized on Friday that any protesters, first responders and volunteers should get tested for COVID-19, regardless of whether they have symptoms, five to seven days after participating in any mass events following Floyd’s death.
The primary purpose of the business closures and social distancing restrictions was to slow the spread of the virus and buy time for health care providers to add testing capacity, ventilators and masks and other protective equipment for doctors and nurses.
Hospitals in response added hundreds of intensive care beds and ventilators to the state’s emergency supply.
Hospital officials remain concerned about a surge of cases that could overwhelm their capacities but support the easing of restrictions as long as they can be reinstated if necessary, said Dr. Rahul Koranne, chief executive of the Minnesota Hospital Association.
“Dials that turn up,” he said, “should be turned down if metrics get worrisome.”