Gov. Tim Walz on Thursday said he plans to roll back Minnesota’s remaining COVID-19 restrictions in three phases over the next two months, ending limits on indoor gatherings at places like bars and restaurants by May 28 and dropping the state’s mask mandate by July 1 at the latest.
In a broadcast address, Walz said the mask mandate would also be removed sooner than July 1 if 70 percent of Minnesotans age 16 and older are vaccinated. The most recent data show 59.3 percent of eligible Minnesotans have at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.
Walz urged people to get vaccinated to drive COVID-19 cases as low as possible. “Now we’re on the file mile or so of this marathon,” Walz said. “Let’s win this thing, let’s end this strong.”
Starting Friday, Walz plans to end restrictions on outdoor dining, and events and other gatherings and eliminate mask rules outdoors, with the exception of large venues hosting more than 500 people.
Walz has relaxed COVID-19 restrictions several times this year. Since March 15, restaurants and bars have been able to serve indoors at 75 percent capacity, though with a maximum of 250 people and rules requiring groups to be six feet apart. Gyms have been limited to 50 percent capacity.
Those limits, and Walz’s decision to keep emergency powers that allow him to act unilaterally on COVID-19 issues without approval from the Legislature, have drawn praise from many Democrats who see the moves as necessary public health regulations. But Walz’s actions have also drawn criticism from Republicans who say the governor needs to move faster to open the economy given vaccines are widely available and most vulnerable people have been vaccinated.
Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, said Thursday the reopening is “not good enough and not soon enough.”
“I said in January, when the vaccines were available to young, healthy people, the emergency is over,” Gazelka said. “We’ve been there for weeks.”
The announcement comes as vaccinations have slowed in Minnesota. The state reported an average of roughly 15,200 people each day over the last week who received their first shot of a COVID-19 vaccine, which is down from a seven-day average of 40,000 during a peak on April 10.
Health officials say people who were most eager to get a vaccine and most able to travel to find one have largely been inoculated. The state is now focusing on making it easier for people to get vaccines closer to where they work, live and socialize rather than rely on mass vaccination sites at central locations. Progress in vaccination will likely come slower going forward. (You can make a vaccine appointment through the state’s Vaccine Connector, county health departments, health care providers and local pharmacies.)
As of Tuesday, the most recent data available, more than 2.6 million Minnesotans have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. That’s roughly 47 percent of the state’s population and more than 59 percent of those who are eligible for a shot, those age 16 and older. More than 87 percent of seniors who are 65 and older have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.
COVID-19 cases have been falling lately after a March surge driven by a coronavirus variant first identified in the U.K. that is believed to be more contagious than earlier strains. But cases remain at what health officials say is a relatively high level. Hospitalizations have dipped, too, though deaths, which often follow jumps in cases and hospitalizations, are up. The state reported more deaths in April than in February and March as disease circulates among those who aren’t vaccinated.
Here’s how Walz’s three-step rollback, laid out in a new executive order, will work:
Starting at noon on Friday, outdoor dining and other open-air gatherings will no longer have any capacity restrictions. That includes bars and restaurants, but it even includes large outdoor sports venues, which had only been allowed a maximum of 10,000 people.
A full house at Target Field is a ways away, however. In a statement, the Minnesota Twins said the team plans to incrementally increase the number of fans at games starting when they’re at home May 14-30 and ramping up to full capacity eventually “as appropriate.”
The state will also lift a maximum limit of 3,000 people at large indoor venues, like Minnesota Wild games at Xcel Energy in St. Paul and increased capacity. Physical distancing requirements and other restrictions remain, however, limiting attendance. The National Hockey League also has its own protocols limiting fans, according to The Athletic.
The mask mandate will also be lifted for outdoor events, except at large venues where more than 500 people are present.
Additionally, Walz will end his 11 p.m. curfew on bars and restaurants, and the governor’s executive order says indoor social gatherings are limited to 50, instead of 15 people. Those playing outdoor sports no longer have to abide by any mask or distancing rules.
Bars and restaurants will still be held to 75 percent capacity, though the maximum limit of 250 people will stop for larger businesses. No more than 10 people can sit at one table, however. Gyms can only run at half capacity and masks remain required indoors but the maximum limit of 250 will be waived in some large gyms.
Starting May 27 at 11:59 p.m., the state is lifting all restrictions on capacity and physical distancing indoors and outdoors for bars, restaurants, businesses, fitness centers, religious services events and gatherings. Businesses must continue to have a COVID-19 mitigation plan in line with broad state guidance, and masks must be worn indoors and at outdoor events with more than 500 people.
By July 1, all remaining COVID-19 restrictions on gatherings will end. That includes the indoor mask requirement and business mitigation plans. This step could come sooner, however, if 70 percent of Minnesotans age 16 and older get at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine before then.
What will remain?
Walz said he will keep emergency powers to regulate schools in accordance with existing plans. He also plans to keep his moratorium on most evictions, a ban on price gouging and a few other measures. The governor said he will continue testing and vaccination efforts.
Local governments and businesses may also have their own requirements for masks or take other COVID-19 precautions.