Gov. Tim Walz on Monday warned Minnesota bar and restaurant owners, and their customers, that he will take action, including shutting them down, if they don’t follow guidelines to stem COVID-19 infections. (Nick Gerhardt/County News file photo)

Gov. Tim Walz on Monday warned Minnesota bar and restaurant owners, and their customers, that he will take action, including shutting them down, if they don’t follow guidelines to stem COVID-19 infections.

Large outbreaks involving at least four bars in Minneapolis and Mankato — plus social media posts showing crowding at other establishments in the Twin Cities and across the state — has health officials concerned that efforts to educate the public about the need to wear masks and socially distance in public spaces have not been enough.

Walz, who has been criticized by some business leaders and Republican lawmakers for not opening the economy fast enough after issuing a series of stay-at-home orders, said his intent was to restart the state’s economy in a way that was sustainable. Other states that opened more quickly and more broadly than Minnesota are now dialing back those openings in the face of recent spikes in COVID-19 cases.

Walz said Monday that failure to adhere to the rules set up by his administration could force him to dial back opening rules or not expand existing rules as quickly as he might have.

“We have gone way beyond the fight about the liberties of Shady’s Bar, and now we’re figuring out that if you gather in tight quarters you’re gonna get people sick and get COVID,” he said in reference to the court fight by a Stearns County bar and restaurant over his closure orders. “I know it’s happening. I know they’re gathering at the bar; you’ve seen the pictures where they’re doing that.”

Walz compared the situation involving COVID-19 infections to a more-familiar public health action: when food-borne illnesses occur in a restaurant. “If this were a salmonella poisoning situation, no one would be mad if we stepped in to stop it from happening,” he said. “But in this case, (some might say), you know, ‘You’re taking away our freedom to get salmonella poisoning.’”

‘We have to do better’

Last week, the head of the Minnesota Licensed Beverage Association, Tony Chesak, sent out a memo that he predicted “will not make a lot of friends” among association members for it’s frank warnings to those who don’t follow the state’s guidelines. “The old adage of one bad apple can spoil the whole basket may in fact ring true for us if we do not all do our part,” wrote Chesak. “Servers, bartenders and other staff members, YOU MUST WEAR MASKS. It is the law and having your customers wear them is mandatory in some cities in Minnesota but strongly suggested statewide.

Make sure ‘social distancing’ is adhered to with both your staff and your customers (ie. table spacing; booth partitions; not gathering at the bar, etc.) Also, reservations is not just a suggestion, it too is a requirement.”

Chesak continued: “Not following these requirements may end up being the reason for our Governor to dial back,” he said. “It took 3 months of intense negotiations and sacrifice to get what we have now. We cannot allow for us to take a step backwards and jeopardize our current progress. … With hiccups like what is happening in Texas, Florida and even here in Mankato, we have to do better.”

Minnesota Commissioner of Health Jan Malcolm said that traditional bar settings are not yet allowed under current reopening rules. Instead, bar spaces are treated like restaurants, in which patrons must be seated at tables that are 6 feet apart. Neither space can exceed 50 percent of fire marshal capacity, no more than four people can sit at a table unless part of the same family, and then the limit is six customers.

“The guidance is very clear. Bar space is to accommodate seating only, there is no standing in bars, there needs to be 6 feet of distance,” Malcolm said. “We have seen incidents of people gathering in larger groups without social distancing, without masking and that is a proven recipe for spread. And we have seen that happening in our own community and we are certainly seeing that happen in other states that are seeing these big increases now.”

Mankato now has 200 cases of coronavirus traced to two bars and “those are only where there has been a positive test, so you can only imagine how many more people are out there possibly without knowing it transmitting the virus,” she said.

Education not enough

Malcolm said that she had hoped that educating restaurant owners and patrons would be enough. It hasn’t been. The next steps could be closures of establishments in violation of the state orders — and even the revocation of liquor licenses. “We have preferred to take an educational approach first, but we’re taking it very seriously,” she said. “Seeing numbers like this, that educational approach doesn’t seem to be having all of the impact we want it to.”

Malcolm said the state is working with trade associations to get the word out. “We’ve been having conversations about how to make sure that that guidance is taken seriously, making it more clear what the consequences of failure to comply with the guidance is.”

Some have shut down voluntarily, she said, a reference to the decision by the owner of Cowboy Jack’s in downtown Minneapolis to close, something they attributed to a lack of public safety, not to the infections connected to the club. The other Minneapolis bar implicated was the Kollege Klub in Dinkytown.

“I do believe they’re interested in not only being able to open but being able to stay open,” Malcolm said of the restaurant industry. If the rules aren’t followed and clusters related to bars continue to show up, “that will absolutely call for stronger mitigation measures.”

Peter Callaghan covers state government for MinnPost.

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