Responding Tuesday to the surging COVID-19 pandemic, Gov. Tim Walz announced dial-back measures that close bars and restaurants at 10 p.m. and restrict the sizes of wedding and funeral receptions, as well as indoor and outdoor gatherings.
“We turned our dials [forward]; we are going to have to turn them back a bit today,” Walz said during an afternoon news conference.
The move comes as the growing pandemic is putting pressure on hospital bed capacity, with only 22 intensive care beds available in the metro area.
State officials said the new restrictions are targeted to settings where the new coronavirus is spreading.
“This is where we can have the biggest impact in the shortest amount of time without the massive disruption,” Walz said.
A trade group representing bars and restaurants said the earlier closing time was unfair and would cause financial harm.
The changes do not affect existing safety guidelines for offices, gyms, youth sports or schools. Retail stores, which are a minor factor in COVID-19 spread, now can operate at 100% capacity.
Minnesota Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said similar actions taken in other states proved that they are effective in slowing COVID-19 case growth.
“We’ve gotten actually quite helpful input and advice from the White House Task Force and they credit these kinds of quite surgical moves to some of the pretty dramatic impact we saw on some of the states that had spikes earlier in the year,” she said.
The announcement came as the Minnesota Department of Health reported another 23 deaths and 4,906 infections, a continuation of the skyrocketing case growth that began at the end of October. Minnesota is now averaging more than 4,500 new cases a day.
Altogether, 189,681 Minnesotans have tested positive for the virus, with 2,698 deaths since COVID-19 was first detected in the state in March.
Although many people who catch the virus have minor or even no symptoms, COVID-19 complications can develop in those with underlying health conditions, including heart, lung and kidney disease.
With the widening pool of cases, more people need hospital care, with a record 1,224 patients occupying Minnesota hospital beds, including 249 people who require intensive care.
Doctors and nurses in Minnesota are reporting a looming shortage of beds, and long wait-times for patients in emergency rooms, due to staffing shortages that occur when workers suffer infections.
The Minnesota Medical Association on Tuesday applauded the new mitigation efforts, saying they will help stop the spread of the disease.
But the Minnesota Academy of Family Physicians said that more needs to be done to restrict social gatherings.
State health officials have identified 177 outbreaks linked to bars and restaurants, with half of them occurring in October alone.
Walz said the 10 p.m. closing time was justified because Health Department data shows more bar-related outbreaks occur later in the evening when people become less cautious.
“We are seeing at least a doubling in infections after nine o’clock,” Walz said.
The new restrictions take effect Friday, including a ban on social games such as darts and pool. Counter service will not be permitted. Takeout service can continue after 10 p.m., though, and service at cafeteria-style counters also can continue. Maximum capacity will shrink from 250 to 150 people, or 50% of an establishment’s fire code capacity, whichever number is lower.
“Unfairly singling out every bar and every restaurant in Minnesota is not a scalpel — it’s a hatchet targeting one of Minnesota’s hardest-hit industries this year,” said Tony Chesak of the Minnesota Licensed Beverage Association, which represents bars, restaurants and liquor stores. He said the industry would need financial relief to counter the economic harm.
The state is proposing to increase its small business relief program by $10 million, but that money would only be available to businesses that previously applied and are on a waitlist.
Wedding and funeral reception crowd sizes also will be limited, although the ceremonies will not be affected by the change. Ninety-six weddings have been linked to 851 primary infections — with attendees spreading the virus secondarily to others. That includes 44 weddings in October. Most of the infections spread during the receptions, which will be limited to 50 people on Nov. 27 and then 25 people effective Dec. 11.
Informal group gatherings in backyards and garages have been the source of many outbreaks, though more so in July and August. Those gatherings have been linked to 71 outbreaks and 599 primary COVID-19 infections.
Because of that, indoor and outdoor social gatherings will be limited to 10 people from no more than three households. Walz acknowledged that the new limits largely rely on voluntary compliance.
“Obviously, on this issue, we’re not going into someone’s home and arresting them on Thanksgiving,” he said.
State Sen. Michelle Benson, chairwoman of a key health committee, questioned why in-person learning should remain restricted under state guidelines if data show much of the spread is happening in bars and other adult social settings, as Walz suggests.
“Personal responsibility will do more than government mandates to help us recover our economy and keep people safe,” the Ham Lake Republican said.
House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, called the restrictions “another hit to Minnesota bars and restaurants.”
“We’re very concerned for the impact this will have on these businesses owners and their hardworking employees heading into the winter months,” Daudt said.
But Senate Minority Leader Susan Kent, DFL-Woodbury, praised the move as a “measured and strategic approach that is based on data.”
“The updated safety guidelines around social gatherings, bars, and restaurants will not only help us control the spread of COVID-19, it also takes into account our state’s economy and the personal well-being of Minnesotans,” Kent said.
Staff writer Jessie Van Berkel contributed to this report.