Gov. Tim Walz announced Wednesday that he’ll loosen restrictions on restaurants, bars and other entertainment venues. Minnesota’s current COVID-19 restrictions, including a ban on indoor dining, run through Sunday night.
Among other things, he’s announced that restaurant dining will be allowed at 50 percent capacity with a maximum of 150 people, and bars can again have customers but they are limited to parties of six who are seated at properly spaced tables and parties of two at bar seating, according to the governor’s press release. Venues like bowling alleys, movie theaters and museums can reopen at 25 percent capacity.
Over the weekend, Walz said coronavirus test positivity rates are lower than they were when the restrictions were imposed, and hospitals aren’t under as much strain. The DFL governor said he personally would feel comfortable eating at a restaurant once indoor table service resumes.
Walz, however, cautioned that a return to normal operations for the hospitality industry, with full bars and restaurants, without any masks or restrictions, is still a ways off.
Here are Minnesota’s current COVID-19 statistics:
• 5,528 deaths (67 newly reported)
• 427,587 positive cases (2,346 newly reported), 406,910 off isolation (96 percent)
• 5.8 million tests, 3 million people tested (about 61 percent of the population)
• 5.9 percent seven-day positive test rate (officials find 5 percent concerning)
The governor’s announcement comes a day after the start of the regular legislative session at the Minnesota State Capitol on Tuesday, which will wrestle with the pandemic, disagreements over the governor's emergency powers and the need to reach a two-year budget agreement in the face of a projected $1.3 billion revenue shortfall.
Minnesota health officials also announced Monday they expect to receive enough COVID-19 vaccines to inoculate all its health care workers and most nursing-home residents by the end of January.
While enough vaccines are available for a first shot for all health care workers designated for phase 1A, which covers health care professionals, long-term care residents and others most likely to encounter the coronavirus, the state’s Department of Health infectious disease director Kris Ehresmann said it would take through the month to complete the first round.
The state reported only 2,455 new vaccinations distributed on Tuesday, putting the total at 80,857, and keeping vaccinations well behind the number of doses available across the state.
Ehresmann said Minnesota’s rollout is comparable to other states.
Case numbers have been mostly stable, although Monday marked a notable upturn. That said, state data show unusual deviations in other areas, like the percent of positive tests. That’s often a sign of data anomalies that can be linked to holiday reporting schedules.
Minnesota’s positivity rate has seen a mild uptick recently, with a seven-day rolling average at just under 6 percent.
New hospital admissions jumped to 157, slightly over the seven-day average for new hospitalizations of 122.
Caseloads spread across age groups
People in their 20s still make up the age bracket with the state’s largest number of confirmed cases — more than 80,000 since the pandemic began, including more than 42,000 among people ages 20 to 24.
The number of high school-age youth confirmed with the disease has also grown, with more than 32,000 total cases among those ages 15 to 19 since the pandemic began.
Although less likely to feel the worst effects of the disease and end up hospitalized, experts worry youth and young adults will spread it to older relatives and members of other vulnerable populations.
It’s of particular concern because people can have the coronavirus and spread COVID-19 when they don’t have symptoms.
New cases ebb across Minnesota
Central and western Minnesota drove much of the increase in new cases over the past two months, while Hennepin and Ramsey counties showed some of the slowest case growth in the state.
Cases continue to fall statewide, with most regions dipping down to levels before the state’s COVID-19 surge that hit in November and early December.
Hot spots continue to pop up in rural counties relative to their population.
Caseloads still heaviest among people of color
In Minnesota and across the country, COVID-19 has hit communities of color disproportionately hard in both cases and deaths. That’s been especially true for Minnesotans of Hispanic descent for much of the pandemic.
Even as new case counts ease from their peak a few weeks ago, the data shows people of color continue to be hit hardest.
Distrust of the government, together with deeply rooted health and economic disparities, have hampered efforts to boost testing among communities of color, officials say, especially among unauthorized immigrants who fear their personal information may be used to deport them.
Similar trends have been seen among Minnesota’s Indigenous residents. Counts among Indigenous people jumped in October relative to population.
Minn. bar, restaurant owners challenge Gov. Walz’s COVID rules in court
Even with looser restrictions expected to be announced this week, bars and restaurant owners in Minnesota filed a new pair of lawsuits this week challenging Gov. Tim Walz’s executive orders.
Attorney Matt Duffy represents two bars, a bowling alley and industry suppliers. He said that the state has not provided data on outbreaks at dining establishments to justify the rules and that the mandates violate the Constitution's Equal Protection Clause because they treat retailers differently than bars and restaurants.
"We're willing to work with the governor's office. We just felt like we've been shut out so far. And I think the lawsuit was kind of the last ditch effort to get the attention of the governor,” Duffy said.
A separate group of 27 bars and restaurants also filed a similar lawsuit. Earlier legal attempts to reverse Walz's executive orders have not succeeded.
A parents’ group that challenged a temporary ban on youth athletics dropped its federal suit this week after practices resumed as planned.
Prison population at high risk to COVID begin vaccination this week
Some people in Minnesota prisons with underlying health conditions are receiving a COVID-19 vaccine this week. Nearly 4,000 people incarcerated in Minnesota state prisons have tested positive for the coronavirus. Nine have died.
Some facilities, like Faribault and Stillwater, have seen large outbreaks.
In a memo to department staff late last month, Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell said the rollout of the first vaccines offers, quote, "a glimmer of hope for a day without COVID-19."
He said state corrections is following the priority order for vaccines set by the Minnesota Department of Health.
Health care workers at state corrections facilities were among the first to be vaccinated.
This week, vulnerable people incarcerated in specialized units at Faribault, Oak Park Heights and Shakopee are receiving the first dose of vaccine. The total number of incarcerated people expected to be vaccinated this week is 121.