Minnesota bars and restaurants can move their business indoors Wednesday following a new executive order by Gov. Tim Walz, a little more than a week after outdoor seating reopened for the first time since March.
The loosened restrictions come as the state’s top health official said COVID-19 cases have hit “kind of a plateau with some smaller waves within it.”
Starting Wednesday, bars and restaurants can operate indoors at 50 percent capacity with a limit of 250 people for either indoor and outdoor settings as long as social distancing measures are in place. Workers will be required to wear masks, guests are strongly encouraged and reservations are still necessary.
“We believe we should be able to handle this,” Walz said in a press conference Friday. “We can’t get complacent and we can’t get lazy about what will happen here.”
Phase three of the state’s reopening plan also increased church and personal care capacity to 50 percent and opened entertainment venues and gyms for limited crowds.
The administration faced stiff backlash after rolling out phase two late last month, a step that was widely criticized for allowing bars and restaurants to open only outdoor seating at 50 people and allowing church services at a limit of 10 people.
Earlier Friday, the House Select Committee on Minnesota’s Pandemic Response and Rebuilding met in a video conference to address the next steps. DEED Commissioner Steve Grove was among those testifying that the state was trying to reopen businesses without a “flareup” of cases that would shut them down later in the process.
State Rep. Dave Lisleagrd, DFL-Aurora, also spoke at the hearing as an appointed member of the committee. He said the state made an effort to reopen the economy, but it was one that didn’t work in Greater Minnesota.
Liselgard represents a large portion of St. Louis County, which reported one new coronavirus case on Friday, its first since May 29, bringing the total to 119 cases and 14 deaths.
“We are painting with one brush,” he said. “We don’t have the cases in places that don’t have the population density … We need your help.”
Lislegard was also in support of the state providing small businesses grants or forgivable loans, asking “Why should they be taking a loan out when they didn’t do anything?”
Pat and Alissa Horan, owners of the Sawmill Saloon and Restaurant in Virginia, also testified to the committee Friday. They said business dropped off 90 percent since Walz ordered bars and restaurants closed to dine-in services on March 18, forcing them to lay off 33 of their 39 employees.
The restaurant received loans to help them through the pandemic, but the owners are hoping things pick up so they can return the funds, citing a potential $11,000 monthly expense increase this fall.
Pat Horan told the committee that the Sawmill spent thousands of dollars anticipating when they could reopen and what it would look like in terms of capacity and the need for personal protective equipment.
“We literally guessed,” he said. The restaurant took financial losses from the pandemic and also spent about $20,000 on a new patio area that reopened in time for Monday’s outdoor seating guidelines. “Out of our pocket, we spent over $60,000 trying to anticipate just being open and what that’s going to be. We don’t have the ability to not be all in.”
In Friday’s press conference, Walz singled Lislegard out as one of the state lawmakers bringing Greater Minnesota issues with the phase two reopening plan to the administration.
Minnesota’s death toll in the COVID-19 pandemic rose by 33 more deaths, bringing the total to 1,148. Total cases increased to 26,980. The total number of people currently hospitalized came in at 478. However, the number of people currently in intensive care (220) fell significantly from the prior day and is at its lowest point in two weeks, a positive sign on a closely watched measure of the state’s ability to handle the disease.
“Statewide we are in good shape for critical care capacity,” said Minnesota Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm, who also reported signs of a plateau in cases.
“What I can’t say with any confidence is if that pattern is going to last,” Malcolm said later. “Something changed between April and May. We’re in a more-stable situation at present.”
Health officials are bracing for an uptick in cases related to the massive protests in Minneapolis and other cities across the state related to the death of George Floyd, a black man who died in police custody on Memorial Day, which was caught on video showing Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on the Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds.
When asked about the large protest crowds, Walz said it was a “perfect storm” of a national moment on racism and the deadly virus that has swept across the country for months.
“It would be naive of us to not think we are in a singular moment, a unique moment,” he said. “This is a perfect storm if you will. The two of them are intersecting in a really bad way.”