The excitement of returning to life as it once was rippled across Minnesota on Thursday after Gov. Tim Walz announced that the last of the state's COVID-19 restrictions would soon be lifted.
For many, the news signaled the beginning of the end of an unprecedented year of lockdowns, isolation and uncertainty that kept them hunkered down as the coronavirus pandemic spread around the world.
While some greeted the news with hesitancy and a bit of anxiety, many rejoiced that daily routines and rhythms are about to return.
"The kids are ready. We're ready," said Vickie Van Heuvelen of Shakopee as she and a friend watched their children scamper about the playground at Hyland Lake Park Reserve in Bloomington. "It's nice to look forward to a traditional summer."
That includes the return of spontaneous fun, said her friend Kristin Massman of Shakopee. COVID-19 restrictions that imposed social distancing required reservations and forced people to plan more at venues such as the Minnesota Zoo and Valleyfair, she said.
"Now if it's a beautiful day, we can just go to the zoo," she added. "And you won't worry if you forget your mask."
Walz announced that the mask mandate will end by July 1 or earlier if Minnesota hits its target of providing at least a first dose of COVID-19 vaccine to 70% of Minnesotans 16 and older.
Beginning Friday, limits will be lifted for outdoor dining, except for larger venues, and on mandatory early closing times for bars and restaurants. Capacity and distancing limits for indoor events and gatherings will be removed May 28.
For Clint Collins, 23, of St. Louis Park, it means he soon can gather with friends in more social venues. "And I can meet girls without a mask," he added.
Julie Darst of Minneapolis is also excited to toss her mask.
"If I have to go to one more Twins game with a mask on, I'm going to lose it. We're outside," she said while grabbing a bite to eat with friends at Donovan's Irish Pub after Thursday's ballgame at Target Field.
Across the outdoor table, Penny Meier of Plymouth was equally elated.
"It's a sigh of relief," she said. "It will be great to have a taste of normalcy for summer and have the streets filled with people again and the city energized."
Across town, at Lake Nokomis, Emily Saunders of Minneapolis felt a mix of emotions.
"This [last] year was so terrifying when it all went down, and yet we all somehow adjusted. It became normal, almost comforting," she said after she hopped off her bike and her 6-year-old son ran to the swings. "We adopted to this weird time pretty well."
Pandemic life became simpler and gave her more time to spend with her three sons. "We learned so much about ourselves," she said. "I dread the return to chaos."
Although being vaccinated against COVID-19 has given Saunders and her husband a sense of more freedom, lifting the mask mandate seems almost jarring. Some health officials predicted masks would be required through 2021 and possibly into 2022, she said.
"This will be a pretty big change," she said.
It's a change that Sam Sam Samatar isn't ready for. Watching her brother swing alongside his 3-year-old daughter at Nokomis while her 60-year-old mother sat nearby, Samatar said the pandemic traumatized her.
"I lost a lot of friends of mine because of it," she said. Earlier this year, she and her family, including her mother, who had a kidney transplant, contracted COVID-19. It's too early to lift restrictions, Samatar said. "It's not safe," she added.
Back to business
Fear and anxiety about new variants of the SARS-CoV-2 virus may make some people more cautious about returning to life as it once was.
Still, many Minnesotans are eager to rekindle friendships over a beer, rejoin fitness classes at a gym, work alongside colleagues in the office, attend a concert or toast newlyweds.
Businesses also are champing at the bit to return to normal, although pivoting will be more rushed than some expected.
Mike Messina, a bartender at the CC Club in Minneapolis, said he was nervous about the prospect of 400 people once again crowding the place.
"People haven't been out in, like, a year and a half and so they're going to bombard the bars," he said. "It's going to be a little overwhelming."
Messina said he plans to continue taking COVID precautions, but he fears that patrons who were already lax about the restrictions, especially after a few drinks, may get rowdy.
"We need it to open up again, as a small business," he said. "But it's a mixed bag of feelings."
On Wednesday, Josh Thoma gathered the managers of his Twin Cities restaurants at his soon-to-be Burger Dive in St. Paul to decide how to proceed responsibly. "Without opening the floodgates, we're trying to have some sense of normalcy again," he said.
The heated outdoor patio at Thoma's North Loop Smack Shack has been one of the pandemic's most popular, running a near-constant waitlist. Lifting the distancing requirements will nearly double the number of patio patrons, and the return of late-night hours will bring back lost revenue, Thoma said.
Twin Cities theater leaders are also thrilled to put patrons back into seats. But companies can't just turn a switch and start a show, said Robin Gillette, managing director of the Jungle Theater.
"We need a runway for takeoff," Gillette said.
For her company, which froze its production of "Redwood" in March 2020, that time frame is typically about two months, including four weeks of rehearsal.
The lead time from concept to stage at the Guthrie Theater is about 18 weeks, and the company already is gearing up for its holiday classic, "A Christmas Carol," to open in November.
"The governor's relaxation of guidelines is certainly great news but is one step in the process," said managing director James Haskins.
For example, professional theater companies like the Guthrie and Jungle have to present a safety plan to the Actors' Equity union for approval. Theaters also have to consider budgets as they rehire staff and actors.
At First Avenue, general manager Nate Kranz pointed out that concerts typically have to be booked months in advance. "We have to build our staffing and bar inventory back up and everything like that."
Still, he anticipates their concert calendar to slowly start ramping up over the summer and is now extra happy about their already busy fall schedule.
Some organizations, like the Minnesota Twins, are eager to open the doors wide to more fans as soon as possible. And the PGA Tour's 3M Open, which begins play in Blaine on July 22, now won't have to limit spectators to 10,000 a day.
"This allows us to plan a bit more freely," said tournament director Mike Welch. "Now we're thinking of normal capacities and shared hospitality areas in our [corporate] tents. That's a great thing for us. … We've been saying it for three months: We feel by the time our tournament comes, things will have opened up."
Staff writers Jeremy Olson, Patrick Kennedy, Kristen Painter, Rohan Preston, Chris Riemenschneider and Jerry Zgoda contributed to this report.
Mary Lynn Smith • 612-673-4788