A trio of Republican state senators challenged a Minnesota Department of Health official Thursday over the rationale for requiring reservations for restaurants reopening for outdoor service on June 1.
The three — Sens. Michelle Benson of Ham Lake, Jim Abeler of Anoka and Mary Kiffmeyer of Big Lake — said they had heard the system was meant to foster contact tracing. That is, to collect the names of diners to be used to track coronavirus exposure.
During a hearing of the Senate Health and Human Services Finance and Policy Committee, Abeler said he had heard “fairly good scuttlebutt” that the reason for reservations is so the state can collect the names in case there is an outbreak.
“I presume that is preposterous, and if you call it preposterous at the beginning, then maybe it will never happen,” Abeler said.
Daniel Huff, an assistant commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Health and head of the health protection bureau, told the committee that the reservation requirement is for social distancing purposes.
“We don’t want a lot of people waiting outside, congregating, or a lot of people coming in and out of the door at the same time,” Huff said. “It’s not so we can swoop in and grab that list. It’s really about having people make an appointment when they come in a restaurant.”
But he compared it to current law and current practice for responding to food-borne illnesses at restaurants. “We always call the restaurant and say, ‘We think we have an outbreak at your restaurant: Can you share us your guest list, can you share us your credit card list?” Huff said. “That’s voluntary, and most restaurants do.”
Huff added: “If I’ve been exposed to a virus that can be deadly, I want to know that … so that I don’t interact at all with my in-laws who are elderly and at high risk.”
Abeler said he wasn’t reassured by Huff’s answer.
“People have an expectation of privacy when they go out,” he said. “I’m really frightened by what the answer was. That’s totally a problem.”
“I think it was vague,” said Benson, the chair of the committee. “There will be follow-up.”
Later in the hearing, Benson said that while the administration says cooperation with contact tracing by restaurants is voluntary, anything contained in an executive order can be seen to be mandatory by the public.
Questions about contact tracing and the reservation requirement were first raised in a May 26 MinnPost story, which reported that while the Walz administration didn’t include the reservation system in its reopening guidelines specifically to help with contact tracing, it would seek to use such records should an outbreak occur.
Under an executive order signed by Gov. Tim Walz on Wednesday, restaurants and bars — along with other public services like salons and tattoo parlors — can begin a limited return to business June 1.
The order does not state that reservations are required but it does include a link to state guidance for opening bars and restaurants and personal care services/salons. It is those guidelines that require restaurants to seat diners only by reservation and salons to require appointments. Neither allows businesses to serve walk-in customers.
While the restaurant guidance does not specifically link reservations to contact tracing, the salon advice does. “Collect the client’s first and last name, telephone number, and record appointment date and time when providing a service. This is to ensure that the client can be contacted in the event a potential exposure is subsequently identified,” it states.
Republicans in the state Legislature have been skeptical of contact tracing, some questioning the need and others concerned about privacy or coercion. A bill addressing those concerns did not pass the Legislature during its recently adjourned special session, and the Walz administration thinks it can expand tracing under current state law. The cost can be covered by federal CARES Act money, the administration has said.
“Clearly, the problem in Minnesota is long-term care and congregate facilities and people with really bad health problems,” said Abeler of the pandemic. “The other people are hardly at risk whatsoever.”
So why, he wondered, is the department focusing its efforts on other populations?
MDH officials do not agree that other populations are not at risk. The department is also concerned that seemingly healthy people could be infected and take the virus into places with more-vulnerable people. Coronavirus likely entered long-term care facilities via staff who did not appear to be ill, Huff said.
Sen. Melisa Franzen, DFL-Edina, cautioned committee members and all elected officials about advancing “a conspiracy theory to get your data and run with it.”
“We need to instill public trust in our Department of Health, in our government, especially on a day like today,” Franzen said in reference to the death of George Floyd and the protests that have followed. “I want to make sure we are careful how we talk about things because the public is watching.
“We don’t mandate vaccines, we don’t mandate testing, we don’t mandate contact tracing,” she said. “This is a tool in the toolbox that we have. … This data won’t be used to harm you but to save lives.”
More on contact tracing and testing
The committee also heard the latest update on the state’s plans for contact tracing and additional testing for coronavirus. Deputy Commissioner Margaret Kelly said the department now has 800 tracers from current Health Department staff, local health departments, and public health and medical students who are volunteering as part of their academic programs.
MDH now estimates it will need to hire an additional 1,000 to 1,200 contact tracers. The tracers will phone those with positive tests to urge them to isolate; see what services they need; and ask them whom they have had close contact with. Those contacts will, in turn, be called by the tracers.
Department officials had originally thought they would need up to $200 million for tracing, but they now say it will cost less than that. That’s because MDH previously estimated they would need up to 4,200 workers.
The department does think it will need to send as much as $40 million to local health departments to help with tracing and providing services to people in isolation, including shelter, groceries and medications.
Huff said the people contacted will not be those with fleeting exposure to an infected person. “These are not ‘I saw somebody on the street or brushed against somebody in a grocery store,’” Huff said. “But rather someone you’ve been in contact with less than 6 feet for more than 30 minutes.”
Huff said the data will be stored in a secure system and the department will follow state health privacy laws and the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act.
MDH is close to selecting vendors for an IT system to handle the collection and storage of data from contract tracing cases, and for a company to hire, train and manage the new tracers. The department said it will pay for those efforts using part of the $1.87 billion sent to the state under the federal CARES Act as well as CARES Act money sent specifically for public health responses to COVID-19.
The CARES Act money must be spent by the end of 2020, and Kelly said the tracing plan could last for a year or 18 months. Kelly said the department can either pay for contracts before then or use other funds within the department.
The department has also submitted requests to the Legislative Advisory Committee to spend federal funds for items related to testing and tracing, including:
- $8 million to contract with an IT vendor for case management software to support contact tracing and data management;
- $20 million to implement mobile testing teams around the state to respond to virus hotspots as well as enhanced testing in congregate care settings including nursing homes and prisons;
- $1.975 million for serologic testing to measure past exposure and possible full or partial immunity from COVID-19.
The last request is for a partnership with the University of Minnesota School of Public Health for five studies: a statewide community assessment; a look at blood banks, grocery stores and health care workers; and a household impact study.
“The resulting data from these studies will be used to track the spread of the virus and direct targeted outreach and education efforts to combat the spread of COVID-19,” the request states. But calling these three items requests doesn’t mean the Legislative Advisory Commission must approve them. Instead, state law says that federal funds received after the two-year budget is approved are run past the commission but governors can spend the money without consent.