Walz order shifts bars, eateries to takeout only to stem COVID-19 spread

The governor also announced a measure to help hospitality, entertainment and restaurant workers whose jobs will be affected

Walz, state officials, business owners.
Gov. Tim Walz speaks during a news conference about the outbreak of the novel coronavirus in St. Paul on Monday. Walz ordered bars and restaurants across Minnesota to temporarily close to customers who dine in amid fears of coronavirus cases. He is with MDH Commissioner Jan Malcolm, Employment Commissioner Steve Grove, restaurant owners Andrew Zimmern, Stephanie Shimp of the Blue Plate and John Puckett of Punch Pizza.
Glen Stubbe | Star Tribune via AP

Updated: 11:03 p.m.

Gov. Tim Walz announced Monday that the state will temporarily close bars, restaurants and other venues that serve dine-in guests — and introduced a measure to help employees of those businesses — in the state’s ongoing effort to curb the spread of the new coronavirus, COVID-19.

The governor’s latest executive order requires bars, restaurants, gyms, coffee shops, breweries and other venues to close to dine-in guests as of 5 p.m. Tuesday. It extends until 5 p.m. March 27 — but Walz said it’s likely that this is just the beginning.

“I don’t see a situation … where there wouldn’t be an extension on these dates,” he said.

The measure allows businesses to continue takeout and delivery services. It does not cover grocery stores, convenience stores or pharmacies, the governor said.

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The move comes on the heels of government and public health officials’ pleas that people stay home, wash their hands, disinfect surfaces and practice “social distancing” as a way to mitigate the spread of the highly contagious respiratory disease.

“We are not going to stop this from spreading, but we can stop how fast it spreads,” Walz said.

The governor’s order did not take the hospitality industry by surprise. Many businesses had already closed, slashed hours or settled into just offering take-out before Monday’s announcement. Sales were plunging as fear of the coronavirus kept customers away, according to Liz Rammer, CEO of Hospitality Minnesota, which represents restaurants, hotels, lodging, resorts and campgrounds.

She says members reported drops of “anywhere from 25 to 75 percent.”

“That is devastating on its own. And everyone is trying to figure out how they can keep the lights on and what's going to happen next,” she said.

John Puckett of Punch Pizza said it was tough telling 400 employees their restaurants are closing through no fault of their own. But he joined Walz at the news conference and said he supports the governor’s move.

“For the good of our community and the safety of our employees, it's better that we all hunker down and and protect our vital health care resources, so more damage doesn't happen in our community,” he said.

Puckett vowed to reopen.

“We're going to have a bright future. But the next two to three to four months are going to be very difficult,” he said.

The governor announced a second executive order to address the needs of food and hospitality workers in the state, whose jobs will be affected by the temporary closure. The order bolsters the state’s unemployment insurance trust fund, in part to make benefits available to workers and suspend payments in by the impacted employers.

"This will be the single largest unemployment request in Minnesota history," the governor said.

He added that the measure won't make workers or small businesses whole, but is aimed at making sure the temporary closure doesn’t financially destroy them.

Minnesota’s confirmed cases of COVID-19 rose to 54 Monday, up from 35 the day before.

"This is now the time, if we are going to break this chain," Walz said.

And as the numbers of confirmed cases grows, governments on the city, county and state levels are adjusting their operations to support public health officials’ pleas that people stay home.

President Trump announced new coronavirus guidelines Monday, recommending all Americans avoid groups of more than 10 people, discretionary travel — and eating and drinking at bars, restaurants and food courts. He also recommended that schools close. Minnesota’s schools are set to close for a week and a half, beginning Wednesday.

Walz’s announcement Monday came during a news conference open only to the press, in keeping with efforts to limit large groups of people in public spaces. News organizations instead livestreamed the news conference.

The temporary in-person restriction — set to begin on the eve of St. Patrick’s Day, which often draws large crowds to the state’s bars and restaurants — also includes breweries, theaters, concert halls, bowling alleys, bingo halls, amusement parks, fitness clubs, yoga centers, spas, golf courses, museums and skating rinks.

Walz emphasized that these closures mark the beginning of a new normal, which, he acknowledged, has already been “incredibly disruptive.”

“It’s just going to be ever-evolving,” Walz said of the response.

Flanked by his health and economic development commissioners, as well as leaders from several health care organizations and Twin Cities restaurants, Walz said the measures the state has already taken — and will continue to take — to blunt the spread of the new coronavirus in the community is “all for the greater good.”

“We know it is uncertain times,” he acknowledged.

But it’s also a crucial time, he said. Pointing toward countries like Italy that have already experienced rapid spread of the disease and devastating losses, Walz said the state’s response requires partnerships between the government and private industry to get ahead of the disease while there’s still an opportunity to mitigate its spread.

“We can't cross that threshold where the people coming in for care outpace our ability to deliver it," he said.

Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said Monday her department also recommends that public buildings, including libraries, remain open — as long as they employ social distancing practices for patrons. Several Minnesota libraries have reduced their services during efforts to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

Malcolm also recommend restaurants that remain open for takeout and delivery should use sealed or tamper-resistant containers, offer contact-less delivery and accept electronic payments.

Department of Employment and Economic Development Commissioner Steve Grove said hundreds of thousands of Minnesotans will be affected by the closures. He said the state’s unemployment office will extend its hours and is anticipating and preparing for an increased call volume.

"We know unemployment insurance alone isn't the only tool that's going to be needed in this crisis,” Grove said. “It is a start."

Tony Chesak, executive director of the Minnesota Licensed Beverage Association, an industry group for the state’s bars and restaurants, said in a news release, “We believe in prioritizing the safety of our employees and our guests, but we must call upon our government leaders to mitigate the devastating economic effects.”

While the closures are set to begin at 5 p.m. on Tuesday, Walz asked that bars and restaurants — and the public — start enacting the spirit of the order as quickly as possible.

“I'm not naive, and I send a message for Minnesotans: Please don't go out to crowd the bars one more time before they close,” he said.