Gov. Tim Walz strongly indicated during the Monday opening of a new saliva testing center in Minneapolis that he will soon announce restrictions on bars and restaurants as a way of stemming an explosion of COVID-19 infections in Minnesota.
Walz stood with Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm to announce another expansion in testing, this time at the Minneapolis Convention Center, but both officials further lamented an increase in both infection numbers and positivity rates. The state saw 10,000 new infections over the weekend and passed a 10 percent positivity rate.
Walz said health department information is seeing three infection sources: social events such as weddings and funerals, large family gatherings and bars and restaurants. The latter dovetails into another concern of health officials — the large number of 18-to-35 years olds who may be infected but asymptomatic. Those people can be efficient spreaders.
Last Monday, Malcolm said the state has launched 172 investigations at 161 bars and restaurants, to which officials have linked 3,185 primary cases. That does not include “subsequent waves of transmission,” Malcolm said. Of those 161 businesses, 74 had at least seven cases, accounting for a total of 2,220 primary cases. MDH also released a list [PDF] Monday of the bars and restaurants that have been investigated for patron transmission of the virus.
The governor said he would release more data Tuesday on the most common infection paths. “It is a mathematical certainty that if we don’t make some of these changes quickly, we’ll be reporting 10,000 cases and additional people dead and hospitals that are starting to become full,” Walz said. (Update: the governor has scheduled a 2 p.m. Tuesday speech to announce “next steps in the state’s response to COVID-19.”)
A total shutdown is a blunt instrument with “incredible ramifications,” he said. While he thinks it was the right tool in the spring, it no longer would be as science knows more about how the disease spreads and how it doesn’t.
Instead, the governor said, he would be more surgical in the response and walked very close to saying something like a curfew, rather than closures, could be announced later this week. “Many of you can extrapolate and start thinking about this: Where are the 18- to 35-year-olds congregating together? Where are they and what are some of the incidences of the social spread happening?” Walz said.
“It makes more sense to target some of those more surgically and much more aggressively than a statewide stay-at-home order,” he said.
Malcolm said MDH will have data and will update it tomorrow. “There are definitely — if you look at all the sources of spread — that is a very large category of cases,” she said of bars and restaurants. “We are looking at the data, are there patterns, are there things we can do that are more targeted.”
Said Walz: “This is a very important question. We are not scapegoating the hospitality industry.”
But he said it is the nature of the virus to spread in those settings. “The infection rates increase at a set time in the evening,” he said “When you see tomorrow, we’re going to try to be more surgical and provide data that we think slows it down. It’s not secretive as to what we’re trying to do. We’ll be talking to our partners; we’re gathering the data.”
He said he was considering changes last week but the election made the timing “chaotic,” though he said he agonized over waiting. “Every day we wait on things that we believe can mitigate the risk, is another day that someone got infected and potentially ends up in the hospital,” he said.
He said the expanded testing, which will also include a new site at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport and at 11 National Guard run sites across the state, will help fight the pandemic and he encouraged people to get tested.
Doing so, he said, “might prevent your grandparents from getting this thing over Thanksgiving; doing so might keep our school open, might let a restaurant hanging on by a thread.”
Also this week, Walz is expected to sign an executive order extending the peacetime state of emergency and convening a special session of the Legislature to decide whether to keep it in place or rescind it. In the past sessions, the GOP-controlled Senate has voted to rescind while the DFL-controlled House has not. That dynamic could have been changed by the election results, however, which saw Republicans gain seats in the House and retain control of the Senate.
“We’re headed into a special session, I still fear they might say no,” Walz said after the convention center announcement. “The alternative is fully open — no restrictions, and I’ve got to cut that thing off.”
Update: Hospitality Minnesota President & CEO Liz Rammer issued a comment on the report of restrictions: “The state has repeatedly told us they do not intend to shut down restaurants and bars, and we have not been told any different today. We would hope that any targeted restrictions being contemplated would take into account that restaurants and bars are affiliated with only 2 percent of the cases, and not unfairly single out these businesses. Closing down these businesses would only serve to push more people to home gatherings where the data shows increased case spread.”