Gov. Tim Walz has ordered a four-week shutdown of bars, restaurants, entertainment venues and fitness clubs, starting Friday, to slow the COVID-19 pandemic that has caused more than 3,000 deaths in Minnesota and threatens to overwhelm hospital capacity.
The governor on Wednesday also ordered a pause on amateur sports and limited social gatherings to individual households — down from a cap imposed last week of 10 people from three households.
While Minnesotans are weary of the pandemic, and endured a broader 51-day state shutdown last spring, Walz said this latest order could keep more Minnesotans healthy and more hospital beds available until a vaccine becomes available.
"I know that hospitalizations are going to continue to go up for the next few weeks and I know that the death numbers will continue to go up for the next few weeks," Walz said. "But the bright spot of this is, the moves we take now will start to bend that at just the time when the potential for a vaccine is coming. That's what's different, Minnesota, this time."
Walz attempted a targeted response last week by restricting the sizes of wedding and funeral receptions and ordering bars and restaurants to close everything but takeout service by 10 p.m. The goal was to focus on group gathering locations where large outbreaks have occurred, but Walz and state Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said rapid changes in the pandemic forced broader action.
"Two weeks ago, I thought a 5,000-case day was horrific," Malcolm said. "Now, that looks like a good day."
In the eight days since that last order, Minnesota saw roughly 52,000 more lab-confirmed infections and 312 more deaths — bringing the state's totals to 242,043 infections and 3,010 deaths. The 1,706 COVID-19 hospitalizations in Minnesota on Wednesday represented a 31% increase.
Walz's four-week order also applies to movie theaters, bowling alleys and museums. The Minneapolis Institute of Art and Walker Art Center, which had reopened to limited audiences in mid-July, will close Saturday; Mia said it would open no earlier than Jan. 2.
Retail outlets are unaffected, along with salons, as Walz said state contact tracing has found little evidence that they are responsible for large outbreaks. Religious ceremonies also are unaffected along with weddings and funerals themselves, but celebrations and receptions are subject to the shutdown. And while bars and restaurants will be closed to in-person service, they can still provide takeout, drive-through and delivery service. Only five customers will be allowed inside an establishment at any one time to pick up orders.
Walz and health officials chose four weeks because that reflects two infection cycles with the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 — given its incubation period of up to 14 days. If people comply, Malcolm said the measures should level off the state infection rate and the positivity rate of diagnostic testing. Right now, 15.3% of tests turn up positive.
Walz said "the data will drive our decision" whether to end the restrictions at four weeks or extend them. Minnesota is joining Oregon and New Mexico in imposing fresh lockdown measures in response to the pandemic, while other states are taking smaller steps. North Dakota's governor issued a mask mandate last week amid the nation's highest COVID-19 infection rate.
Leaders of Minnesota's largest health systems supported Walz's move given that ICU bed availability has fallen into single digits in some areas.
"Our hospitals are filling up quickly, and staff are becoming ill through community spread," said Dr. Penny Wheeler, chief executive of Minneapolis-based Allina Health. "We are at a critical point to try and regain control'' of the situation.
Mayo Clinic officials said that 1,500 of their workers are restricted due to positive tests for COVID-19 or viral exposures resulting in quarantines. That is up from more than 1,000 the previous week, underscoring concerns that doctors and nurses might not be available, even if bed space exists.
While new therapeutics have improved outcomes and lowered the COVID-19 mortality rate, "somebody has to administer those, somebody has to be there," Walz said. "And they are getting sick — they being the health care providers — at incredible rates."
Reaction from Republican lawmakers was mixed, but Rep. Dave Baker, R-Willmar, agreed that the pandemic is worsening and that these restrictions demand more government support for affected businesses. He recommended the use of $22 million in federal funding for business relief, and allowing establishments to sell to-go alcohol in up to 64-ounce containers.
"Businesses are ready to do their part and will do everything they can to survive this latest challenge, but we need to do our part at the state level to help them," he said.
Leaders of Minnesota's hospitality industry changed tack in their response — from questioning the necessity of restrictions last week to urging state financial aid.
"Hospitality Minnesota is calling for immediate financial assistance from the state or these businesses will not be here in four weeks," said Liz Rammer, president and CEO of the trade group.
Luke Shimp said he is relying on takeout to maintain his Red Rabbit and Red Cow restaurants in the Twin Cities, and he is expecting that restrictions won't be lifted in four weeks.
"It would be strange for the governor to reopen us prior to the holiday season, with all the different get-togethers that happen and all the people that go out, if that's what's creating the rise in cases," he said.
The Minnesota Department of Health has identified 139 bars or restaurants where outbreaks have likely resulted in seven or more infections. Those outbreaks have been linked to 2,766 infections of customers.
Weddings and funerals collectively have been linked to 130 outbreaks and 1,121 infections, while sports have been linked to 192 outbreaks and 780 infections. In all cases, the data only counts primary infections, not secondary infections when people spread the virus.
Reaction was harsher from the youth sports and fitness sectors that were spared by last week's order but will be shut down now.
Bahram Akradi, founder and head of Life Time athletic clubs, said it is unfair to lump health clubs that have limited viral transmission with bars, restaurants and social gatherings. State data shows that gyms have been linked to 48 outbreaks and 747 infections, but more so in the summer and early fall.
"It's an unfair and unjust approach," he said Wednesday outside his club in Chanhassen. He urged a state reduction in capacity or continuous mask-wearing to allow gyms to remain open and keep him from putting 4,000 workers on furlough before the holidays.
Inside Lifetime, Maya Beise of Chanhassen was stretched out on the floor, lifting weights with her mask nearby.
"I would wear one," she said, "if it meant they could stay open and I could work out."
Staff writers Torey Van Oot, Briana Bierschbach, Chris Snowbeck, Sharyn Jackson, Mary Lynn Smith and Jackie Crosby contributed to this report.
Jeremy Olson • 612-673-7744