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Is the requirement for restaurant reservations in Minnesota part of the state’s contact tracing efforts?

Walz and his commissioners have offered different explanations for new rules affecting restaurants and salons, part of the state’s latest effort to open the economy amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Gov. Tim Walz
Gov. Tim Walz: "Just to be clear, this massive moon shot of testing that’s getting close to the 10,000 we wanted by the end of May is totally useless if we can’t use it to do contact tracing and isolate this."
Evan Frost/MPR/Pool

When Gov. Tim Walz announced new guidelines to open up additional sectors of the state economy earlier this month, he stressed that the loosening of restrictions would likely lead to increased infections. That’s why businesses were told to follow lengthy rules on continued social distancing, increased cleaning and, for those with close contact with customers, reservations.

The rules governing restaurants, for example, note that they must “require appointments for services or reservations with call-ahead seating or online reservations to better space clients or customers and eliminate waiting.” 

Meanwhile, personal care services like salons and tanning parlors are required to “see customers or clients by appointment or reservations only — Do not allow walk-ins.” 

But are reservations to foster social distancing — or to create a trail of data to help with contact tracing should a staff member or customer later test positive? Or both? 

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Walz and his commissioners have given conflicting answers to those questions.

On Friday, both DEED Commissioner Steve Grove and MDH Deputy Commissioner Margaret Kelly said that the reservation requirements are not for tracing purposes, out of respect for privacy rights. 

Margaret Kelly
Margaret Kelly
While a restaurant or salon could cooperate with a tracing investigation by sharing such information, it is not required. “It has nothing to do with contact tracing or what have you,” Grove said in an interview. “I would say we hadn’t even thought of this until you mentioned it.”

Kelly said much the same: “We’re not requiring that restaurants keep a log for the purpose of contact tracing.”

Yet on Saturday, during a press briefing on new rules for places of worship, Walz did connect the rules around reservations to contact tracing. “The reason we’re asking for that is not to infringe on anybody’s personal liberties, but we have got to do contact tracing,” he said. “Just to be clear, this massive moon shot of testing that’s getting close to the 10,000 we wanted by the end of May is totally useless if we can’t use it to do contact tracing and isolate this.

“If we’re gonna maintain, and if these restaurants are going to stay open for the next year, they’re gonna have to understand we’re going to be putting out these fires: testing, contact tracing and moving.” 

So while the administration says it didn’t require a reservation system in its reopening guidelines to help with contact tracing, officials say they’ll use such records if available should an outbreak occur.

Mandated elsewhere

Elsewhere in the country, customer logs are being required, or advised, to help with contact tracing. In Washington state, Gov. Jay Inslee backed off a mandatory requirement earlier this month after objections were raised on privacy grounds.

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In New Orleans, bars and restaurants must keep a log with the names and phone numbers of customers to help the state’s health department track who any sick staff members or customers may have interacted with. St. Louis is recommending that logs be kept for later tracing if an infection case emerges. And the Texas attorney general threatened litigation against the city of Austin for rules that included recommendations for restaurants that they log patrons’ names, phone numbers and where and when they were served. 

Both the Department of Health and the Department of Employment and Economic Development have stressed that the rules are to keep the number of customers down and to keep people from gathering around front desks. 

The rules already require restaurants to offer only outdoor seating and limit capacity to 50 patrons. Salons are required to limit business to 25 percent of capacity for their space, as determined by the fire marshal. 

No requirement that the information be reported to the state

Walz and his commissioners have repeatedly emphasized that the next step in the administration’s response to the coronavirus pandemic will be testing, tracing and isolation, with state and local health agencies responding to positive tests by attempting to find those who have come in contact with infected people and urge them to quarantine.

Walz has come under political and economic pressure to allow more businesses and public places to reopen.

Grove said the reservation requirement is designed to create a more predictable environment for businesses so that walk-ins or clusters of bar-goers are not showing up at one time and crowding one area when they’re supposed to be social distancing. 

Grove said DEED talked to thousands of businesses while developing reopening plans, and tracking names based on reservation lists did not come up. DEED is not advising restaurants and bars to keep their reservation records and hand them over to health officials. And while he said contact tracing is “an incredibly important tool” for fighting the spread of COVID-19, making reservation logs at bars and restaurants a way to facilitate that tracing is something the state is not “willing to require at this time.”

State guidance for salons and other personal care services, however, asks those businesses to collect a client’s first and last name, phone number and record the date and time of their appointment “to ensure that the client can be contacted in the event a potential exposure is subsequently identified.”

Kelly, the number two official at the Department of Health, said reservation logs and appointment books are tools that contact tracers have used in the past to find people who might have been exposed to food-borne illnesses. She said they could be used in the event of a coronavirus exposure as well. But that would be voluntary, she stressed.

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“I don’t know what restaurants will ask for from patrons when they make their reservations,” Kelly said. “It is not required in any way that that information be reported to the Department of Health.”

DEED Commissioner Steve Grove
Evan Frost/MPR/Pool
DEED Commissioner Steve Grove said the reservation requirement is designed to create a more predictable environment for businesses so that walk-ins or clusters of bar-goers are not showing up at one time and crowding one area when they’re supposed to be social distancing.
In the event of an outbreak, the department will contact a business, and her experience is that they are “for the most part” very cooperative in helping the department reach out to patrons. 

She said the department will handle a COVID-19 case the same way it does food-borne illnesses. “We’d try to work with the restaurant to reach out to patrons to let them know that there is an exposure and they should call us,” she said. “Are we requiring them to turn over reservation information? No. That is not the purpose of people making reservations. We’re not asking them to retain it either.”

Kelly said that if the department decides that information is important and needed “we should make the argument with the public. I think we should be clear with the public that that’s what we’re gonna do. But I don’t want people to be fearful of going to a restaurant and making a reservation because they think the government will get the reservation.”

Kelly said she doesn’t think restaurants will face sanctions for outbreaks of COVID-19 in the same way they might for practices that contributed to food-borne illnesses. There is still too much community spread of the coronavirus to be able to identify the source of infection. 

She said an outbreak that is potentially tied to a restaurant could help the department adjust its guidelines, however. “It could be that it’s nothing the restaurant did,” she said. “It could be that 50 percent capacity is too high. It could be that the restaurant had people sitting too closely. We’re trying to figure this out.”