Saturday dawned gloomy and gray, the kind of day when a person might decide to stay inside.

And for the most part, Minnesotans did. Because they had to.

On the first day of a “stay at home” order from Gov. Tim Walz, normally crowded sidewalks across the state were empty. Athletic fields and sports venues went unused and main streets were quiet.

No kicking tires at auto dealers, no brunch at a favorite restaurant, no riding the merry-go-round. Most of all, no contact.

In a region embarking on its deepest lockdown ever to keep a deadly virus at bay, the mood was solemn and subdued, the landscape a still life largely devoid of people.

“I think it’s eerie,” said 24-year-old Brian Anderson, as he and friend Madison Hirsch walked from the Whole Foods Co-op in Duluth after getting coffee Saturday morning. “Everybody’s on edge.”

Hundreds of businesses across the state were dark, some with “closed” signs taped to their doors, while more than a few shoppers and walkers navigating the sidewalks and hiking paths wore masks, hoping to reduce their odds of exposure to the rapidly spreading coronavirus.

Desperate to run errands or exercise, Minnesotans flocked to the few places they could gather — mainly parks and grocery stores. But even in those oases of activity, the mood was somber, the threat of infection hung over every interaction.

“It’s just not the same now,” Hirsch said.

‘Social stillness’

In Minneapolis, downtown streets were largely quiet, only a few cars cruising through the central business district.

The restaurants on Nicollet Avenue were closed, except for a few that offered takeout. Others had stacked their chairs inside and locked the doors.

“All food, alcohol & money have been removed from this location,” read the signs taped to the windows of Devil’s Advocate.

Down the avenue, in the heart of Eat Street, there was little sign of a lunch hour rush. Several restaurants posted signs advertising curbside pickup. A few cars stopped.

“No contact is sexy!” read a sign outside Glam Doll Donuts. “Call us ... and we’ll run your order out.”

The sidewalks were mostly empty and parking spots that people would normally fight for were easy to find.

Across the Mississippi River from downtown, the marquee on the St. Anthony Main Theatre was blank. With Minnesotans ordered not to congregate, no shows were playing.

A brightly colored piece of artwork on the sidewalk outside the A-Mill Artist Lofts contained a message summing it up: “SOCIAL stillness.”

Minneapolis police spokesman John Elder said people have generally been complying with the stay-at-home order.

Violations could carry a fine of up to $1,000 or 90 days in jail. But as of Saturday morning, police had issued no citations, Elder said, adding that the department plans to focus on outreach and education before taking tougher actions.

“This is, in fact, a health crisis,” he said.

‘It’s a ghost town’

Parking lots, ice rinks and playing fields at the 600-acre National Sports Center in Blaine, usually teeming with young athletes and their families, were quiet, too.

“Our fields are empty. Our ice rinks are empty. Our parking lots are empty. It’s very sad,” said Sara Soli, the center’s chief marketing officer.

Historic downtown Stillwater, usually a buzz of activity on Saturday morning, looked more like “a ghost town,” said Jim Hoeffler, as he and his wife, Maureen, and their dog Scout walked about.

Over in St. Paul, the visitors strolling through the Farmers Market in the Lowertown neighborhood saw not only the regular spread of farm-raised meats, craft salsas and artisan cheeses, but also multiple hand-washing stations, bottles of hand sanitizer and signs urging them to keep a healthy distance from vendors and other customers.

“We weren’t sure if people would come out today, because of the [governor’s] order,” said Brenda Carlson Eichten of the Eichten’s Market in Center City, Minn.

As with many Saturdays, bikers and joggers hit the trails around Lake Como, but there were some crucial differences. Like the woman wearing what appeared to be a surgical mask. Or the tall man wearing a full, clear-plastic face shield as he played with a tiny brown-and-white dog.

A short distance away, the Marjorie McNeely Conservatory, Como Zoo and Como Town amusement park were silent, no one in sight other than two girls pedaling small bicycles past the nearby Cafesjian’s Carousel.

‘We’re bummed’

Reminders were everywhere of activities that should have been.

U.S. Bank Stadium, which was to host an RV show, was dark, its cavernous interior host to nothing.

“We’re bummed,” said Joe Klein, of Hinckley. It wasn’t just a big-city weekend to scout a possible upgrade to his camper. It was an outing that his 15-year-old daughter, who has autism, looks forward to each year.

“She loves camping,” Klein said. “She loves going to RV shows and going inside all the campers.”

At Target Field, home of the Minnesota Twins, Larry DiVito and his 10-person grounds crew should have been busy putting the finishing touches on the staggeringly green playing field in time for the first home game of the season later this week.

But with the season stuck on hold, DiVito and his crew have downshifted, maintaining the field as if baseball will return this summer.

“Under the governor’s directive, we’re going to one guy [working] a day, knowing that we’re far along in our preparations, and keep everyone else at home for a couple of weeks,” DiVito said. “One of us will mow three to four times a week. We’ll keep our program of fertilizing and watering in place, and we’ll wait.”

Hot spots for folks antsy to get out of the house were grocery and hardware stores, as people stocked up on supplies or went looking for what they needed to make home improvements and repairs.

At Hirshfield’s in Apple Valley, where the store is open only to curbside pickup, business was steady and, at times, a bit overwhelming.

“You’ve got 22 percent of the population that’s now not working and all of a sudden has time to do the projects they’ve been putting off,” said store manager Josh Rohlfing. “For some, it’s just something to do.”

Still, customers were careful to keep a distance as they walked the aisles. In Lakeville, an uncanny quiet had taken over the local Cub Foods, chatter reduced almost to a whisper.

The scene was similar at the Hy-Vee in Oakdale, where shoppers were careful to wait in line 6 feet apart at the meat counter and again at the checkout.

For many, just being outside mattered.

“We’re just bored,” said Mike Mageau, who was out for a walk with his wife, Sue, and their college sons, Owen and Ian, on Duluth’s Lakewalk.

In Ramsey County, parks staff members expected a busy weekend. They positioned 40 new portable toilets, deployed extra maintenance staff, opened additional entrance gates and posted literature about good hygiene and social distancing across 7,000 acres in 15 parks.

The governor’s stay-at-home order, with the caveat that it’s OK to play outside, will likely increase the number of parks visitors, county Parks Director Mark McCabe said.

“People are certainly making use of the parks and listening to the governor’s recommendation to get out and walk and hike and bike,” he said. “We are seen as a safe refuge for people, especially since so many things are not accessible.”


Staff Writers Katie Galioto, Phil Miller, Liz Navratil, Shannon Prather, Mary Lynn Smith and James Walsh contributed to this report.