Gov. Tim Walz is expected to announce on Wednesday new restrictions on bars, restaurants, social gatherings and gyms and fitness centers, as well as youth sports, in response to the surge in COVID-19 cases in the state.
“Community spread is rampant now in Minnesota,” Walz said in a news briefing Tuesday. “The idea that we can just go on the way we have is simply not sustained by the facts.”
The governor’s office confirmed that new restrictions would be announced but did not provide details. He is expected to address the state at 6 p.m.
Last week, Walz issued a 10 p.m. closing time for bars and restaurants apart from takeout service, in addition to capacity limits that affected receptions at weddings and funerals.
Walz has said over the past few weeks that any new “dial-back” measures would be concentrated on settings that showed high levels of COVID-19 transmission.
Outbreaks in restaurants and bars are linked to nearly 2,800 infections from the new coronavirus at close to 140 locations, according to data released by the Minnesota Department of Health on Monday.
Gyms have had 48 outbreaks that resulted in 747 cases, or about 15 cases for each outbreak.
As hinted at Monday, Walz will also announce new restrictions on youth sports that will affect both fall playoffs and winter sports.
Walz said Tuesday that unless action is taken now, youth sports would be forced to close due to a lack of players, coaches and referees who’ve fallen ill.
“If we don’t get a handle on this, it is not going to be a choice of whether we keep it open,” he said.
The anticipated new restrictions come as Minnesota is seeing a record number of COVID-19 hospitalizations, which are putting stress on the health care system already dealing with admissions related to car crashes, heart attacks, strokes and other emergencies.
Hospitals also have difficulty scheduling workers to care for patients, either because they themselves have become infected or they had a high-risk exposure to someone with COVID-19. Under health guidelines, those exposures mean the health care workers must quarantine for 14 days.
“The hospital space is going to become much more of a concern over the next three weeks,” Walz said.
Nearly 1,700 patients were in Minnesota hospitals because of COVID-19, another pandemic record and one of many that has been set over the past few weeks. About one-third of all occupied intensive care beds are filled by patients with COVID-19 complications.
The demand has made it difficult for some hospitals to admit patients who come in through the emergency department, forcing them to search for an available bed at another hospital.
Former state Rep. Nick Zerwas experienced that recently when what he thought was a cold transformed into COVID-19 symptoms so serious that he went to the hospital.
“I spent four hours in an emergency room while they were trying to figure out which hospital had an open ICU bed,” he said. The Elk River Republican, who was born with a heart condition and had many open heart surgeries, knew he was at risk for COVID-19 but was not prepared for the seriousness of the infection.
“I’ve been sick. I’ve been down this road before,” he said. “I was stunned when I became so overwhelmed and ill.”
Zerwas, who spoke during the Walz press briefing Tuesday, said he opposed the governor’s early restrictions but says the surging caseload and the effects on the hospital system make this a different situation.
“This is a completely different ballgame. Everything has changed,” said Zerwas, who was released after a five-day hospital stay. “If we don’t respond now I feel like it may be too late.”
Another 5,945 new coronavirus cases and 26 deaths were announced Tuesday by the Health Department, bringing the pandemic total to 236,949 known infections and 2,943 deaths.
With Minnesota now averaging more than 6,500 new cases a day, the concern is how many of the new infections will require hospital care one to three weeks from now.
“For many of us who have been practicing medicine, this is the worst thing that we have seen,” said Dr. Rachel Gordon, a Duluth internal medicine physician. “We are taking care of more sick people than we ever have. Nurses are working more than they should, they are caring for more patients than they should.”
Gordon, along with other health care professionals in the health advocacy group Our Stories Our Health, called on Walz to take more action.
“The governor must use his executive authority to do everything he can to slow the spread,” said Dr. Hannah Lichtsinn, an internal medicine and pediatrics physician. “Right now we need more help. The honor code system is killing us.”
The group called on Walz to close bars and restaurants.
“We need to stop going to bars and restaurants, and I think it is really hard for people to do that if they are open,” she said, adding that the Legislature should provide financial support to the industry and small businesses hit hard by restrictions.
State health officials Monday also urged Minnesotans to limit the size of Thanksgiving gatherings, as they could provide the spark for more infections.
Among the dial-back measure announced last week, Walz announced a 10-person limit on social gatherings from no more than three households.
The crowd size could be lowered as part of Wednesday’s new restrictions.
Five governors joined forces Tuesday to ask residents to stay home this Thanksgiving. The governors of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan and Kentucky held a Zoom news conference to urge people to follow guidelines and prevent the spread of the virus.
When asked whether states were considering travel bans, Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers said that would be a nightmare to police. Evers said he is focused on trying to make sure people in his own state stay home.
Although most people who become infected experience mild or no symptoms, they can pass the virus along to those who are most vulnerable to COVID-19 complications, including heart, kidney and lung disease.
Older people still account for most COVID-19 hospitalizations, but a growing number of younger and middle-aged patients are needing care across nine hospitals at Bloomington-based HealthPartners.
Compared with August and September, there has been an 83% increase in the number of COVID-19 admissions for patients age 20 to 49 during October and November, with 207 needing hospital care in the more recent period, said Dr. Mark Sannes, an infectious disease specialist.
“I think the burden of COVID-19 in the community is great enough now that we are seeing all age groups represented in the hospital,” Sannes said. “What would have been a rare event back in the spring is now, just by virtue of so many being infected, less of a rare event.”
Staff writers Christopher Snowbeck and Jessie Van Berkel contributed to this report.