MINNEAPOLIS — Minnesota bars and restaurants can resume limited indoor service starting Monday, Gov. Tim Walz announced Wednesday as he also loosened up coronavirus restrictions on youth sports, gyms, entertainment venues and churches.

"The situation in Minnesota is undeniably better than it was last month," Walz said in a statement. "We have reasons to be optimistic, and Minnesotans' sacrifice and commitment to their communities helped change the pandemic's trajectory and saved lives. But we need to protect the progress we've made."

The dialing back returns bars and restaurants about to where they were before Walz imposed a "pause" amid soaring cases in mid-November, and extended it last month, which kept them closed through the holiday season except for takeout and delivery service. The restrictions generated sharp pushback, with some bars and restaurants defiantly reopening in recent weeks, risking fines and losses of their liquor licenses. The state has gone to court against several violators.

The Democratic governor noted that new cases and hospitalizations have been falling in Minnesota in recent weeks, while tens of thousands of front-line medical personnel and nursing home residents and staff have gotten their first vaccine doses. Elementary schools are allowed to return to in-person learning Jan. 18.

The Minnesota Department of Health reported 2,346 new coronavirus cases Wednesday and 67 new deaths to raise the state's cumulative totals to 427,587 cases and 5,528 deaths. New cases have been falling since mid-November with deaths declining since late November. The department says over 81,000 Minnesotans have received their first vaccine doses.

Starting Monday, restaurants and bars can open at 50% capacity for a maximum of 150 people, with no more six people to a table or parties of two seated at the bar. Parties must be distanced six feet apart. A 10 p.m. service cutoff will remain in place. Reservations are required.

Indoor entertainment venues such as movie theaters, bowling alleys and museums can reopen at 25% capacity for a maximum of 150 people in each area of the venue. Face coverings will remain required, and they can't serve food after 10 p.m.

Gyms remain capped at 25% of capacity but the number of people allowed in will rise to 150, with classes allowed to resume for up to 25 people. Pools that were allowed a limited reopening this week can also open at 25% capacity.

Youth and adult sports, which were allowed to resume practices this week, will be allowed to resume games under indoor venue limits of 25% of capacity for a maximum of 150 spectators, and outdoor venue limits of 25% capacity with the maximum increasing to 250 people. But interregional tournaments and out-of-state games are discouraged.

Places of worship can continue to hold services at 50% of capacity, but the cap of 250 worshippers will be lifted. Wedding receptions and other private parties can resume, but if food and beverages are served they'll be limited to two households or 10 people indoors, and three households or 15 people outside.

Protecting Minnesota's recent progress will require cooperation with masking and social distancing, the governor's statement said, noting that other states are seeing surges, public health experts have warned of a potential new wave of cases following the holidays, and a more contagious variant of the virus has been spreading.

Hospitality Minnesota lauded the governor for loosening restrictions, a move the trade group said will "bring in much-needed revenue at a desperate time" for an industry that provides 300,000 jobs across the state.

GOP Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, a frequent critic of the governor's restrictions, welcomed the easing, too.

"Now it's vitally important Walz manage a faster vaccination process, so we don't have to go through this again," he said. "Protecting the vulnerable with a vaccine is going to the key to reopening."

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Ibrahim is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.