Home may soon be Minnesotans’ only available refuge from the coronavirus.
In a span of days, state, civic and business leaders have locked down public places on a scale not seen here in more than a century. Not since the flu pandemic of 1918, when more than 10,000 state residents were among 675,000 Americans who died, have state and local officials moved to so thoroughly isolate, quarantine and choke off the ability of a vexing and deadly virus to spread across the region.
From schools to bank lobbies, restaurants to workout studios, sporting events to performance spaces, health clubs to recreation centers, traditional places of escape and entertainment, relaxation and relief are going dark in an all-out blitz to stunt the pace of the pandemic. Many will stay shuttered for several weeks, while some won’t reopen for months.
“I’m so heartsick,” said Donna Fahs, chief operating officer at Parasole Restaurant Group, which operates Manny’s Steakhouse, Burger Jones, Prohibition, Salut Bar American and the Good Earth, after Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey closed bars and restaurants across the city only hours before Gov. Tim Walz ordered all dine-in service halted statewide. “I look at all the people’s jobs who are affected. We’ll do everything the government and health officials are suggesting we do to curb the spread of this, so we can open again as soon as possible.”
On Sunday, Walz ordered Minnesota schools to close for at least eight days starting Wednesday, telling educators to continue teaching students from afar in the event schools must be closed past March 27.
“We cannot wait until the pandemic is in our schools to figure things out,” Walz said.
Over the past week, expansive gathering places that draw large crowds — such as St. Paul’s Como Park — as well as small retreats — Minneapolis Yoga — have opted to shut the doors and turn off the lights in an effort to check the spread of the fast-moving COVID-19. While it has yet to claim a life in Minnesota, it has infected 54 residents, and the numbers continue to rise.
On Sunday, state health officials revealed the first three cases involving people who were infected through the community without having traveled outside of Minnesota or knowingly being exposed to someone infected.
The mayors of Minneapolis and St. Paul declared local emergencies, with restaurants and bars in Minneapolis ordered to close all but takeout, delivery or drive-through service starting Tuesday afternoon. Similar steps have been taken in Chicago, Boston and New York City, threatening to depress what had been booming dining scenes.
“Clarity in purpose and the ability to act decisively are vital in protecting public health and effectively responding to the evolving threats posed by COVID-19,” Frey said Sunday in announcing the declaration.
On the same day, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that for the next two months, events or gatherings of 50 or more people should be canceled or postponed, a sharp escalation from postponing large events of 250 or more. Those recommendations have postponed or ended the seasons for a number of high school, college and professional sports teams, including the Minnesota Wild, Timberwolves and Twins, as well as Gophers wrestling, basketball and baseball.
After saying late last week they planned to remain open, leaders of the YMCA of the Greater Twin Cities decided beginning Monday to close their fitness, health and well-being centers, pools and camps. The YMCA has created a series of YouTube videos of workouts to try at home.
The pandemic’s punch has floored some of St. Paul’s Irish traditions.
The city last week announced it was canceling its St. Patrick’s Day Parade. The popular Celtic band Gaelic Storm postponed Tuesday night’s show at the Fitzgerald Theater. Tom McCarthy, longtime business manager of Plumbers Local 34, had to cancel his annual corned beef lunch at the St. Paul Labor Center — for the first time in his 16 years of cooking the meal.
“It’s extremely disappointing,” he said. “We have neighborhood people, plumbers, retirees who look forward to getting together every year. I understand it, but it’s frustrating.”
Even the Girl Scouts are hurting. On Sunday, a regional branch — the Girl Scouts of River Valleys, which serves girls in southern Minnesota, western Wisconsin and part of Iowa — nixed all cookie booths and door-to-door sales, allowing online orders only. The measures are in effect until March 30, or until further notice.
Those hoping to flee are being increasingly grounded.
The Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport has seen a precipitous decline in passenger traffic as airlines cancel flights. The number of passengers traveling through MSP in January — before the pandemic — was up 6.5% compared with last year, and February’s levels are expected to be strong. But the number of travelers at MSP this month and next “will probably be much different,” said Brian Ryks, executive director/CEO of the Metropolitan Airports Commission (MAC).
Delta Air Lines has reduced capacity by 40% nationwide, including temporarily eliminating international flights from MSP to Seoul, Paris, Amsterdam and London. Daily flights to Tokyo have been cut to three times a week. Irish carrier Aer Lingus has suspended flights from MSP, Icelandair has canceled flights, and Sun Country is expected to further reduce service, Ryks said.
On a typical weekday morning, Uber and Lyft driver Michael Kockelman would have picked up five to six riders and taken them to work, school or the airport. Not Monday. By 9:30 a.m., he’d only had one request for a ride.
“Nobody is going anywhere. It’s like a ghost town,” said the Shakopee resident, who drives full time for both ride-share companies during the winter. “We should be killing it.”
Staff Writers Jackie Crosby, Nicole Norfleet, Janet Moore and Tim Harlow contributed to this report.