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What you need to know about Minnesota’s latest order for bars, restaurants, gyms and social gatherings

Though the severity of the pandemic has shown signs of lessening in recent weeks, there are still high rates of COVID-19 test positivity, signaling that the outbreak hasn’t receded to levels seen over the summer.

Gov. Tim Walz speaking during Wednesday's press conference.
Gov. Tim Walz speaking during Wednesday's press conference.
Screen shot

Gov. Tim Walz on Wednesday said he will ease restrictions meant to curb the spread of COVID-19 by allowing bars and restaurants to serve customers outdoors, letting gyms open at partial capacity and allowing small social gatherings.

Walz also said all elementary schools can provide in-person learning starting Jan. 18 if they take certain safety precautions.

The governor kept his ban on indoor service at bars and restaurants that have been in place since mid-November, when the state was struggling to deal with a surge in COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths.

The severity of the pandemic has shown signs of improvement in recent weeks, and health experts say they believe Walz’s regulations were helpful in slowing dramatic growth in cases. But there are still hundreds of people in intensive care units and high rates of positive COVID-19 tests that signal the outbreak hasn’t receded to lower levels seen over the summer.

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The Minnesota Department of Health reported 92 deaths on Wednesday, and there have been 982 deaths reported so far in December. The state is on pace to smash its record for deaths in a month — 1,136 in November.

Health experts say those deaths are in part because of the higher levels of cases before the shutdown measures and could decline in coming weeks. The state also says without further action Minnesota could have higher rates of case growth again and experience more death as a result.

“Minnesota’s post-Thanksgiving dropoff has been steeper than our surrounding states, and that is a testament to all of you,” Walz said in a speech announcing his latest restrictions, which he said will serve as a bridge until widespread vaccination. But Walz said later: “We are still at a dangerously high level of community spread.”

The single-day positive test rate Wednesday was 11.6 percent, Walz said. The seven-day positive case average, which lags by a week, is 10.4 percent. “It should be under 5 (percent) before we can start breathing a sigh of relief,” Walz said.

Walz’s restrictions come in the form of an executive order issued under authority he has invoked during the peacetime emergency. Most of the new guidelines begin Saturday and last until Jan. 11.

Social gatherings

Under Walz’s initial order, people could not gather with others from outside their own household. This will be relaxed starting Dec. 19 and lasting until Jan. 11. While the state says indoor gatherings are strongly discouraged, a maximum of 10 people from two households can visit indoors if they keep six feet of separation and take other precautions.

Up to 15 people from three different households can gather outdoors if they maintain physical distancing.

Elementary schools

Beginning Jan. 18, all elementary schools can hold in-person classes if they choose, but they have to adopt certain safety measures, which include giving staff personal protective equipment like face shields and masks and offering regular testing.

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“What we do know is our youngest children are less susceptible to serious complications,” Walz said. “And I don’t want to minimize that, one child getting COVID is too many. But what we’ve learned is how to reduce that spread.”

Office of Gov. Tim Walz and Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan


Existing rules that determine when middle schools and high schools can hold in-person classes remain.

Sen. Roger Chamberlain, R-Lino Lakes, who will chair the Senate’s education committee when lawmakers convene in January, said the nearly two-month delay in opening more elementary schools is unnecessary and called on Walz to work with the Legislature on getting older children back into classrooms. “Being out of school has done great harm to our kids and every day they are not in school it gets worse,” Chamberlain said.

Restaurants, bars and other similar businesses

Starting Saturday, places like restaurants, coffee shops, bars and hookah bars can serve people outside at half capacity. There is a maximum of 100 people. The businesses can’t serve more than four customers seated at one table, must space those tables six feet apart, and must close between 10 p.m. and 4 a.m. These limits last until Jan. 11.

Office of Gov. Tim Walz and Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan

Gyms, fitness centers and health clubs

Beginning Saturday, gyms and other fitness operations can allow people in up to 25 percent of their normal capacity as determined by the fire marshall, with a maximum of 100 people in the building.

People must keep 12 feet of space from each other when exercising and 6 feet of space at other times.

Office of Gov. Tim Walz and Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan
Walz said the state will soon release extra guidance on group classes at fitness businesses, which can start Jan. 4. 

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Outdoor entertainment

Businesses that provide outdoor entertainment, such as racetracks, mini-golf and performance venues, can have 25 percent capacity starting Saturday with a maximum of 100 people as long as people keep 6 feet of distance from others outside their household. 

Sports

Youth sports programs and organized sports for adults must stay closed for several more weeks, but can hold practices starting Jan. 4. Outdoor workouts or practices can be held as long as there are no spectators, players from three or fewer households and only one coach. Physical distancing must be kept between the players and coaches. 

Walz is being sued over his youth sports restrictions, and the governor said in his executive order that while organized sports are riskier than individual exercise, they “also provide developmental opportunities for youth and mental and physical health benefits for Minnesotans of all ages.”

Weddings, funerals and religious services

The same rules Walz laid out in mid-November still apply to gatherings like weddings, funerals and religious services. The state recommends virtual events, but you can hold an in-person gathering at event spaces like a church as long as people 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 remain banned.

Walz says Minnesota ‘not out of the woods’

Even with vaccinations under way across the country, Walz said the state needs to preserve health care capacity to prevent deaths and keep schools open since inoculation isn’t widely available yet.

He urged Minnesotans not to gather, even with his new guidance allowing some socializing, and said a full rollback of his restrictions would be unwise. “We’re keeping the hand on the dial,” Walz said. “We’re not out of the woods. We still need to do those basic things.”

Walz also credited Minnesotans with limiting their activities over the last month, even through the Thanksgiving holiday. “You brought the curve down, you made the sacrifices necessary,” Walz said. “The space is starting to open up and that sunshine I told you about is here. Those COVID vaccines are here and more are on the way.”

Business groups say they are in crisis

In a statement, Minnesota Chamber of Commerce President Doug Loon said Wednesday that small businesses are at a “crisis point” and the new restrictions could mean “closing their doors forever.”

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Despite a $216 million package of grants approved by lawmakers Monday, some argue it’s not enough to help businesses walloped by closures and other limits. “Businesses are doing their part to protect employees and customers,” Loon said. “We understand that this is a tough decision, but it’s also tough for businesses and their communities to hear it.”

House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt said he believes not enough cases have been tied back to bars and restaurants to warrant such closures, and said Walz “needs to allow our businesses to safely reopen their doors, and stop punishing our hospitality industry.”

“We have been begging the governor for more notice so businesses can plan for these latest changes,” said state Rep. Dave Baker, R-Willmar. “Today’s announcement is way too little, far too late — even if a business wanted to start outdoor dining in 20-degree weather, most won’t have time or resources to be ready for customers by the weekend.”

Baker said the continued closure of pools will be “devastating” for hotels and gyms.

Dozens of businesses have chosen to defy Walz’s executive orders and open lately, facing penalties.

Attorney General Keith Ellison in a statement said “the vast majority of businesses that we have worked with are complying with executive orders because they understand their responsibility to keep people safe and care about their customers, employees and communities.”

“Using our enforcement tools to force compliance on the few that are not complying or are threatening not to comply is a last resort, but we will use them when we need to,” Ellison said.

Health care groups applaud Walz’s executive order

Leaders from nine health care groups — CentraCare, Allina Health, Children’s Minnesota, Essentia Health, North Memorial Health, Hennepin Healthcare, HealthPartners, M Health Fairview and the Minnesota Hospital Association — said they supported Walz’s restrictions or called for continued vigilance to curb the spread of COVID-19.

“We appreciate Governor Walz’s actions to reduce community spread and help ensure that our hospitals and health systems can maintain our care capacity – the combination of physical space to care for patients as well as the necessary team members to deliver the care,” said Rahul Koranne, president and CEO of the Minnesota Hospital Association.