Almost lost in the chaos of Wednesday afternoon, Gov. Tim Walz announced a loosening of coronavirus restrictions on Minnesota bars, restaurants and entertainment venues.
It's possible that Walz felt he had no choice but to ease back on the limitations he had ordered in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The political pressure has been intense.
Multiple food and liquor establishments across the state have remained open in violation of the governor's November order; his opponents in the state Legislature and elsewhere have accused him of tyranny; the arrival of vaccines has contributed to the mistaken impression that the pandemic is on its last legs. And when Attorney General Keith Ellison initiates legal action against scofflaw pubs, the governor's professed ideal of "One Minnesota" recedes a bit further. So why not cut the hospitality industry some slack?
The answer, sadly, is what it has been all along: science. Walz has said it many times — once the facts are trending in the right direction, and once the best scientific advice says it is prudent to do so, he will "turn the dial" and allow some of the risky practices that have been suspended to resume. As Walz explained Wednesday, Minnesota's numbers are improving.
In response, he is allowing bars and restaurants to reopen Jan. 11 at half their capacity, with a maximum of 150 patrons. They are limited to serving six-person tables and two-person bar groups spread 6 feet apart. Entertainment facilities such as movie theaters and museums will be able to open at 25% of their capacity.
Walz deserves credit for his pedagogical explorations of public-health science. They have gone a long way toward persuading the public of the need for shared sacrifice. It is hardly his fault that they have not gone the whole distance.
The public's willingness to sacrifice, like the virus itself, can develop resistance over time. Small businesses have been subject to particularly harsh economics. It's true that the situation in which those businesses find themselves is unfair. The unfairness, though, is not a product of the sensible restrictions imposed by the governor. It's the virus itself that isn't fair.
Not that you'd have much luck telling that to Walz's critics, like the crowd of protesters who marched Sunday in downtown Albert Lea. They waved flags and shouted "USA!" to support a restaurant owner who refused to close her business.
"It's time for us patriots to rise up," the owner said, with a straight face, into a TV camera.
Whether in Albert Lea or Washington, D.C., it's indecent to conflate antagonism toward government with patriotism. A business owner who means to violate the governor's orders should not cloak herself in the flag while doing so. Earlier generations of Americans have known much harder times — times that famously tried their souls — and have set the bar for claiming the title of "patriot" somewhat higher.
It's unlikely that the loosening of restrictions announced Wednesday will satisfy Walz's harshest critics. But it is too early to go further. There is a strong possibility that COVID-19 will exact a much greater toll before it has finished with us. The rate of vaccinations is frustratingly slow. And the highly communicable strain of coronavirus that has thrown Britain into a sudden, shocked lockdown is certainly loose in the United States, quite possibly spreading among Minnesotans even now.
And the chaos in Washington on Wednesday has given new meaning to so-called super-spreader events. Who knows what the repercussions will be?
Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said this week that there's no question the state is doing better than it did in November. But she added: "A year now into this global pandemic, we know that improvement is tenuous. … If we let our guard down, COVID-19 finds a way to surge back."
There is wisdom in those words. In announcing the relaxation of restrictions, Walz cautioned that he might need to turn the dial in the other direction once again. Minnesotans should be ready to support him if he does.