Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz announced Wednesday a month-long stop to social gatherings, gyms and indoor service at bars and restaurants as part of a sweeping new round of health rules meant to curb the spread of COVID-19.
The limits on public life, issued by executive order, amount to the governor’s toughest set of restrictions since March, when Minnesota had a stay-home order that was intended to build hospital capacity and supplies of personal protective equipment.
Walz had resisted tighter lockdown measures since reopening the state, saying it could hurt businesses. He also worried people would simply defy mandatory rules. But the governor said his new measures were necessary, with less than a week until the Thanksgiving holiday, as Minnesota deals with its deadliest stretch of the pandemic so far.
“We know it’s been difficult, and it’s been challenging, and much has been asked of you,” Walz said in a speech Wednesday. “And I need to ask a little more. We’re at a point in this pandemic that the decisions we make now will have huge repercussions on the health and well being of our neighbors, of our health care providers of our day care providers, of our teachers and so many others.”
Health officials say they expect things to get worse in the coming weeks. Infections and hospitalizations are rising, hospital systems report staff shortages and health care workers say they are exhausted. The death toll, which reached 3,010 on Wednesday, is also increasing. In October, 423 people died of COVID-19, nearly double the 219 deaths in September. Through 18 days in November, 553 people have died, which puts the state on pace for more than 900 deaths for the month.
Walz said the “moves we take now” can limit death and hospitalizations until a vaccine arrives. Health care workers and vulnerable people could start being vaccinated before the end of the year.
Last week, Walz ordered bars and restaurants to close in-house service by 10 p.m. and put new limits on the number of people who can attend social gatherings, wedding receptions, and similar events.
Here’s what we know about the new restrictions, which begin Friday at 11:59 p.m. and last until December 18, and reaction to Walz’s announcement:
Walz’s executive order bans indoor and outdoor social gatherings, even if people can safely distance. This means a person can’t meet up with anyone outside of their own household.
There are some exceptions, such as caring for a family member, friend or pet in another household or moving for fear for your safety or health. Drive-in gatherings are allowed if people stay in their own cars.
Outdoor activities are allowed, such as hunting, hiking and biking as long as people keep 6-feet apart from those in other households. But Minnesotans can’t play sports without distancing, like basketball, with people outside their household.
People can gather for religious services, weddings and funerals at event spaces like as a church as long as they maintain 6-feet of space between people of different households and adhere to an indoor limit of 50 percent capacity or a maximum of 250 people. Outdoor gatherings also can’t exceed 250 people.
Receptions and other events tied to weddings, funerals and celebrations like birthdays are also banned.
Walz’s order discourages but does not ban unnecessary travel and advises people who enter the state to quarantine for 14 days. That guidance doesn’t apply to people who cross state or country borders for specific necessary purposes, such as work, medical care or school.
Bars and restaurants
Bars and restaurants and similar businesses like breweries, and hookah bars, must close except for takeout, delivery or walk-up service.
Gyms, fitness centers, indoor sports facilities, and any similar exercise or recreation center will also be forced to close.
Outdoor and indoor event and entertainment businesses like theaters, bowling alleys, arcades, go-kart tracks must close all in-person services with the exception of a drive-through product.
Parks, trails and outdoor athletics
State and local parks, ski trails, sledding hills, shooting ranges and similar businesses and activities can keep operating as long as they follow rules such as requiring physical distancing.
Barbershops, salons and retail businesses
Retail businesses, barbershops and salons can stay open but are limited to 50 percent capacity with a maximum of 250 people inside.
All youth sports must stop, including high school games, for a month. The same is true for adult sports leagues. College and professional teams are exempted, though collegiate sports must follow recommendations laid out by the state.
Tribal members are exempt from the new restrictions in Walz’s executive order while on their tribal land or on land where they retain treaty rights for activities like hunting.
Schools and child care
All schools, including K-12 and higher education institutions, do not have new limits in the executive order. They must follow existing rules. Child care businesses can also operate as they have been.
People who intentionally violate Walz’s order are guilty of a misdemeanor and face a maximum fine of $1,000 or 90 days in prison. A business owner, manager or similar authority figure who makes an employee break the rules or encourages them to do so would face gross misdemeanor charges that carry a maximum penalty of $3,000 or a year in prison. The Minnesota Attorney General, as well as city and county attorneys, can seek civil penalties up to $25,000 for each violation of the rule.
Still, Walz said he is hoping for voluntary compliance with limits on social gatherings and is not emphasizing enforcement of penalties. “I’m not going into someone’s home on Thanksgiving,” Walz said. “But if you’re gathering with a lot of people not in your family on Thanksgiving you are really speaking volumes about what the values are here in Minnesota.”
A call to help businesses
While Congress is still mulling another COVID-19 relief package, state Rep. Dave Baker, R-Willmar, urged the state to use any remaining state money from the federal CARES Act stimulus package to help businesses and their employees.
He also said bars, restaurants, wineries and breweries should have more flexibility in selling to-go alcohol, in part to help businesses sell remaining drinks they have instead of wasting them. Finally, Baker said the state should waive or delay sales tax payments and delay loan repayment requirements for businesses that got money from state loan programs.
State Sen. Eric Pratt, a Republican from Prior Lake who chairs the Senate’s Jobs and Economic Growth Finance and Policy Committee, said Minnesotans and businesses “can’t afford another round of closures.” Pratt said the governor has not provided enough evidence to prove his earlier lockdown worked, questioned if the drop in cases this summer was due to warm weather, and said Walz needs to “show us a plan of how he is going to protect families, businesses and jobs.” (Some studies found stay-home orders likely slowed the spread of COVID-19, and health officials generally say outdoor interactions, which are easier and more common in good weather, pose a lower transmission risk.)
For his part, Walz sent a letter to Congress calling for new funding from Congress to help businesses, workers, child care programs, state and local governments. The state is projected to face a multi-billion dollar budget deficit in 2020 despite a healthy rainy-day reserve fund. Meanwhile, local leaders say the feds can borrow money while the state can’t.
In his speech, Walz said the virus is “not fair.”
“This virus disproportionately hits people of color … and no one thinks it’s fair in the businesses that it hurts,” he said. “Our hospitality industry is predicated on created wonderful atmospheres were we’re close together sharing exciting times for long periods of time. It’s not fair that the virus makes that the place where it spreads but it’s a reality.”
Many in health care applaud the new restrictions
A slate of health care leaders across the state said they back Walz’s latest order, including Mary Turner, president of the Minnesota Nurses Association, Rahul Koranne, president and CEO of the Minnesota Hospital Association, and Marilyn Peitso, president of the Minnesota Medical Association.
In a statement, the Mayo Clinic said the organization “recognizes the temporary sacrifices these restrictions may require members of the community to make,” but says the rules “will enhance Minnesota’s ability to gain control of the surge and return to safe and normal daily life sooner.”
Reporter Peter Callaghan contributed to this report.