gran plaza mexican grill takeout

Gran Plaza Mexican Grill, like many restaurants across the state, has been offering takeout meals, but now restaurants can open for limited seating. (File photo/southernminn.com)

Gov. Tim Walz said Wednesday he will allow bars and restaurants to serve indoors at half capacity starting Monday, a decision made as state health officials report the spread of COVID-19 has slowed in Minnesota since mid-November.

The governor also plans to ease limits on the number of people who can attend religious services and go to gyms, sporting events, theaters and pools.

Walz had banned in-house dining and drinking for more than six weeks, along with most social gatherings, as new cases, hospitalizations and deaths spiked. Many hospitals at the time said they were at risk of being overwhelmed with more patients than they could handle.

State data now show 140 people in intensive care with COVID-19, down from a peak of 399 on Dec. 1. The state’s seven-day positive case average, which lags by a week, is 6.5 percent, a sharp decline from a peak of 15.5 percent. That case average even dipped below 5 percent, a threshold the state says signals a concerning level of disease spread, though it has increased for four consecutive days.

MDH says virus transmission is still at a high level in Minnesota and the pandemic is worse than during the summer downturn. The state reported 67 deaths Wednesday and there have been 205 deaths reported so far in January. But Walz said he decided to relax restrictions because Minnesotans heeded calls to follow distancing guidelines and because vaccine distribution is under way. “Because of what everyone has done, we’ve slowed the spread,” Walz said in a televised address Wednesday. He added he hopes the state can continue to shift toward a more normal public life if cases continue to drop and vaccination is successful.

The governor’s rollback of health restrictions, implemented by executive order, come as the Legislature convenes for the 2021 session.

The hospitality industry, Republicans and some Democrats have pushed for Walz to ease his rules as businesses struggle to survive the winter on takeout and delivery orders. And even House Democrats, who have guarded Walz’s ability to continue the emergency powers that give him authority to implement broad public health rules, said Tuesday they were open to tweaking the governor’s abilities.

Here’s what we know about the governor’s executive order, which takes effect Monday:

Bars and restaurants can open — with a curfew

Bars and restaurants can serve customers indoors at half capacity — as determined by the fire marshal — on Monday if they follow rules on the number of people at tables and the distance between patrons.

The businesses will have a maximum capacity of 150 people, and can’t serve parties larger than six people at tables or two people at bar seating. Reservations are required for customers and bars and restaurants have to close in-house service by 10 p.m.

Read more on what Minnesota knows about COVID-19 outbreaks in bars and restaurants here.

Indoor entertainment and events can open with attendance limits

Places like movie theaters and museums can open at 25 percent capacity starting Monday, though they also have a maximum limit of 150 people in “each area of the venue,” according to a news release from the governor’s office.

Those establishments can’t offer food after 10 p.m.

Small wedding and funeral receptions are allowed

The state says people can hold small wedding receptions and other private parties beginning on Monday. Any such event where food and drinks are served can only include people from two households or 10 people indoors and three households or 15 people outside. But if there isn’t food or drinks, they must follow guidelines for indoor and outdoor events. Weddings, funerals or similar ceremonies will follow rules on religious services.

Religious services can host more people

Churches, synagogues, mosques and other places of worship will continue to have rules limiting attendance to 50 percent capacity, though restrictions that set a maximum capacity of 250 people are being removed starting Monday.

Maximum capacity increased at outdoor events

Maximum capacity at outdoor events and entertainment businesses such as racetracks and performance venues will be increased from 100 people to 250 people starting Monday, as long as physical distancing is maintained. Venues can still only operate at 25 percent capacity, however.

Gyms and fitness centers can have more people in classes

A 25 percent capacity limit remains for gyms and health clubs, though the maximum number of people allowed inside the business will be increased from 100 to 150 and the number of people in exercise classes is bumped up to 25 people — as long as physical distancing is followed.

People, and exercise machines, have to be 9 feet apart and masks are still required while exercising. Walz’s most recent order required 12 feet of distance between people and machines.

Spectators will be allowed at organized sports

Sports leagues for kids and adults were allowed to start practices with some limitations Jan. 4 and can resume games on Jan. 14 with spectators. Sports arenas have to follow rules on indoor and outdoor venues, meaning indoor buildings can open at 25 percent capacity with a total limit of 150 people in a space.

Mask requirements for athletes remain.

Hospitality industry and Republicans cheer Walz’s latest order

In a statement, the Minnesota Licensed Beverage Association applauded Walz for relaxing his restrictions on bars and restaurants. The group’s executive director Tony Chesak said they “appreciate Governor Walz recognizing how seriously our bars and restaurants are taking the pandemic and that keeping our customers and staff members safe is a top priority by turning the dial for indoor dining and service.”

“We will continue to work with the Governor and the Legislature on quick and decisive relief for these struggling businesses,” Chesak said in the written statement. “We are and have been ready to open our doors. Welcome back, Minnesota!”

Liz Rammer, president and CEO of Hospitality Minnesota, said: “Reopening will bring in much-needed revenue at a desperate time for these businesses.”

Republican Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka said in a statement that he’s “glad Governor Walz listened and loosened the restrictions on businesses.”

“Now it’s vitally important Walz manage a faster vaccination process, so we don’t have to go through this again,” Gazelka said. “Protecting the vulnerable with a vaccine is going to the key to reopening.”

Walker Orenstein reports on the state Legislature for MinnPost, with a particular focus on covering issues affecting Greater Minnesota.

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