May 13 update on COVID-19 in MN: Walz ending stay-home order, keeping dine-out ban

A man holding a face mask gestures.
Gov. Tim Walz answers questions while holding his mask at a press conference inside the Department of Public Safety in St. Paul on April 30, 2020. Gov. Tim Walz is expected to brief the state in a 6 p.m. address.
Evan Frost | MPR News file

Updated 7:30 p.m. | Posted: 5:49 a.m.

Gov. Tim Walz will let his stay-at-home order expire as planned on Sunday night, rather than adding on more time to slow transmission of the coronavirus.

In a 6 p.m broadcast to the state, the governor confirmed what sources had told MPR News earlier in the day: He will let retail businesses resume in-store operations at reduced capacity, starting Monday. Group gatherings of 10 or fewer people, including at places of worship, will be allowed.

Walz, however, will keep in place restrictions on restaurants, bars, theaters, bowling alleys and venues that attract large crowds.

"We’re not flipping a switch and everything’s going back to normal at once,” he said in his broadcast address.

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The DFL governor won’t permit restaurants to legally resume dine-in service for now, keeping them takeout-only. He said he’s instructed his agencies to assemble a plan over the next week for a "limited and safe" reopening of bars, restaurants and other places of public accommodation on June 1.

When they do come back, those establishments are likely to face capacity limits.

Walz also said he signed an executive order ensuring that people can raise safety concerns about their workplaces without discrimination or retaliation.

It’s a similar situation for hair salons and barber shops, gyms and other currently restricted activities that haven’t been able to serve customers since March. Salons and barbershops are allowed to sell products for curbside pickup but aren’t allowed to provide services in-shop.

Other noteworthy changes, assuming people follow the distance and gathering rules:

  • Families are allowed overnight camping at a single campsite, not in a developed campground. Private and public developed campgrounds remain closed to recreational camping. Summer day camps are allowed but not overnight camps.

  • Small one-on-one or one-on-two person guided and instructional activities such as guided fishing, birding, or outdoor fitness training can resume.

  • Outdoor tournaments, competitions, practices, and sports that allow for social distance.

During his Wednesday evening address, Walz praised Minnesotans for toughing it out the past two months, saying the stay-home order keeping Minnesotans from congregating in crowded public places had helped check the spread of the disease, saved thousands of lives and bought Minnesota time to secure needed health care supplies and prepare for a surge of COVID-19 hospitalizations.

He acknowledged that the move had cost tens of thousands of Minnesotans their jobs as retail, hospitality and other sectors shut down.

Even as he announced the end of the stay-at-home order, he pleaded with Minnesotans to stay smart about being safe. He said he was counting on people to work from home if possible, wear masks out, stay 6 feet from others even when you’re in groups of 10 or fewer and get tested if you show symptoms of COVID-19.

"We are still in the heart of this pandemic and this can go in a bad direction quickly,” he said. The goal, he added, was to keep the spread of the disease to a simmer and not a boil.

Deaths, cases continue to climb

Walz’s next steps came hours after news that disease’s toll continued to climb. The Health Department reported 638 deaths, 24 more than Tuesday, while the total number of cases since the pandemic began approached 13,000. COVID-19 is the disease caused by the coronavirus.

Minnesotans currently hospitalized (494) and needing intensive care (199) stayed roughly stable from the prior day.

Officials for the first time also began noting probable COVID-19 deaths, where the disease was listed as the cause of death but a positive test wasn’t documented. The department listed nine probable deaths.

New modeling, new approach

Minnesota unveils new COVID-19 modeling, new approach
by Tim Nelson | MPR News

Walz’s shift in approach also comes as state health officials released new modeling that showed only modest differences in potential deaths if the stay-at-home mandate was stretched out for two more weeks.

It found that social distancing and similar mitigation hadn’t been as effective at curbing infection as once thought.

Since March, Walz has issued a series of executive actions that disrupted daily life, closed school buildings for the year and led to a surge in unemployment. The goal was to push off a COVID-19 peak until hospitals could stock up on protective gear and stage for a growth in intensive care beds.

Republicans have increasingly lashed out at what they see as a go-it-alone-approach by Walz. On a day in which he was set to extend his peacetime emergency declaration — the foundation for his other response measures — a Senate committee backed a bill to change how future emergencies are handled.

The Legislature would have greater control to dictate the length of such an order.

“I’m not saying Governor Walz is a king,” said Sen. David Osmek, R-Mound, said before Walz’s 6 p.m. address. “But I am saying that we as a legislative body must have our power, our authority. We are not just a rubber stamp for whatever the governor or whatever the executive branch wants to do.”

Sen. Jim Carlson, DFL-Eagan, dismissed the bill as a partisan play given that Senate leaders and the governor are of competing parties.

“We’re involved in a very, very serious crisis and what we don’t need to do is add politics to it,” Carlson said.

Osmek responded that he would be pushing the bill even if a Republican governor was in office.

Walz late Wednesday signed an order to stretch the peacetime emergency authority out through June 12.

Speaking to reporters following his broadcast remarks, Walz conceded his moves were something of a gamble on human behavior and on the virus not spreading too aggressively.

“This is either going to work or not work,” the governor said. “People are either going to stay out of the hospital or get in it."

Developments from around the state

Duluth closes city’s parks, delays July Fourth fireworks

The city of Duluth says its parks will be closed to team sports and many other activities until at least July 1.

 The city says no one can take part in any contact athletic activity on city property through the end of June. That includes informal pickup games, as well as organized team sports. 

Youth summer programs, like summer camps, also can't operate on city property. And all public and private gatherings of more than 10 people are prohibited. 

Duluth’s director of public administration Jim Filby Williams said the city won't remove basketball rims or lock access to parks. Instead, he said, the city is trusting the public to voluntarily comply. 

"So far we're really seeing people making responsible choices, self-policing, they know what's at stake, and they don't want to mess up a good thing for everybody,” he said.

The city also announced it's postponing its Fourth of July fireworks until Labor Day. 

— Dan Kraker | MPR News

Pilgrim's Pride plant implements measures to curb virus spread after outbreak

Pilgrim's Pride has taken steps to protect workers at its plant in Cold Spring in central Minnesota, a company representative told the City Council Tuesday. 

The Pilgrim's Pride plant is one of two poultry processing facilities in Stearns County experiencing a COVID-19 outbreak. 

Manager Wesley Smith said the plant is testing workers' temperatures and screening them before they enter. It's requiring workers to wear masks and staggering start times and breaks to promote social distancing, among other safety measures.

Advocates say actions weren't taken soon enough before many workers got sick.

Natalie Ringsmuth, executive director of the nonprofit UniteCloud, told the council the plant should be closed for two weeks for cleaning.

"We are in an emergency, and we need you as community leaders to join with us and understand your role in helping to ensure that everyone in our community is safe,” Ringsmuth said.

Stearns County now has more than 1500 confirmed cases of COVID-19.

— Kirsti Marohn | MPR News

St. Paul Saints to hold a virtual home opener

The St. Paul Saints will hold a virtual home opener next week, with the independent minor league baseball club unable to start their defense of the American Association championship due to the virus-related restrictions in place.

The Saints have dubbed the event “Nopening Day,” which will begin on Tuesday night at CHS Field with curbside pickup of free T-shirts for fans and end with a fireworks display at the empty 7,000-seat ballpark.

The Saints will then rebroadcast on their social media platforms the 2015 home opener that marked the first game at CHS Field in the Lowertown area of Minnesota’s capital city.

The team’s usual off-the-wall in-game promotions will be staged from the homes of various staff members. Then on a serious note, video clips honoring front-line workers at Twin Cities hospitals will be aired.

— The Associated Press

GOP lawmakers raise health data privacy concerns

A data collection policy involving Minnesota hospital patients has two Republican legislators sounding an alarm, but state health officials insist no personally identifiable information is changing hands.

Rep. Peggy Scott of Andover and Sen. Michelle Benson of Ham Lake said the Minnesota Department of Health shouldn’t be collecting admission, discharge and transfer data on patients if they aren’t being treated for COVID-19.

“We need to know that it’s happening. We need to know why it’s happening. And if it is related to a public health emergency, I think there can be a lot of cooperation in how we move that forward,” Benson said in a news conference Tuesday. “But if it’s generally related to a reduction in the right to privacy for Minnesotans, there is grave concern.”

The department in April began informing hospitals of the request for data, saying it was related to coronavirus surveillance efforts and needed because limited testing capabilities masked the true extent of COVID-19.

Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said “syndromic surveillance” isn’t new and is a tool for preventing and controlling disease outbreak. She said the agency isn’t collecting identifiable information such as name, address or birth dates, but is getting aggregate information on illnesses and symptoms that could relate to COVID-19.

“It helps us to identify outbreaks earlier than would be possible through disease-specific testing alone. It helps us monitor trends. It helps us to spot hot spots as soon as we can,” Malcolm said. “I think people would agree there is value in doing that.”

— Brian Bakst | MPR News

MN Senate backs $60M small business aid plan

More than 5,700 small businesses could qualify for state grants under a bill that the state Senate passed Tuesday. The proposal would award up to $10,000 each to businesses that experienced hardship from COVID-19 disruptions.

The money is reserved for Minnesota-based companies with 50 or fewer employees. Most of the $60 million would come out of federal coronavirus relief payments to the state. Sen. Paul Anderson, R-Plymouth, said the grants could be a lifeline for some companies.

“No community, no industry is immune to this. And it’s painful. And we are talking about it every day,” Anderson said. “I don’t think we have a true sense of the magnitude that’s going to hit in another three, six, 12 months.”

Some of the dollars would be designated by region, for businesses with six or fewer employees and for minority, veteran- and women-owned businesses. But senators defeated an amendment that would have carved out some of the money for retail with a strong ethnic cultural orientation.

Sen. Foung Hawj, DFL-St. Paul, said many of those businesses could get shut out of the grants because they have “technical barriers, have resource barriers and have language barriers.” 

Anderson said unlike federal programs criticized for the way money was distributed, the state grant awards will be determined by a lottery once an application window closes.

“It wouldn’t be first-come, first-serve, quickest-to-the-gate to try to grant one of these grants,” he said. “We want to make sure it is a fair process.”

Negotiations on the plan involving the DFL-led House and Gov. Tim Walz are ongoing.

— Brian Bakst | MPR News

Top headlines

Pressure on Walz grows as COVID-19 orders set to expire: Amid political pressure and outright defiance, Gov. Tim Walz must decide whether he will maintain restrictions aimed at containing COVID-19 or ease off of them.

Judge lost to COVID-19 remembered for wit, compassion: As a rural lawyer and judge, Steven Anderson never sought the limelight. On April 17, he became the first Mille Lacs County resident to die from the coronavirus.

Coronavirus concerns lead to a homegrown SPCO 2020-21 season: The St. Paul Chamber Orchestra will mount next season without guest artists and artistic partners due to financial and safety concerns.

Workplace protections still apply when you work from home: For many Minnesotans, their homes have become their workplaces but the situation raises legal issues that many employers may not have anticipated when they began having legions of people work from home — from privacy and ergonomics to on-the-job injuries and tracking employees' hours.

Restaurants face a staffing problem — Unemployment pays better: State jobless benefits are beefed up, for now, by an extra $600 a week from the federal government. That means many people are making more money unemployed at home than they were making at work.

COVID-19 in Minnesota

Health officials for weeks have been increasingly raising the alarm over the spread of the novel coronavirus in the United States. The disease is transmitted through respiratory droplets, coughs and sneezes, similar to the way the flu can spread.

Government and medical leaders are urging people to wash their hands frequently and well, refrain from touching their faces, cover their coughs, disinfect surfaces and avoid large crowds, all in an effort to curb the virus’ rapid spread.

The state of Minnesota has temporarily closed schools, while administrators work to determine next steps, and is requiring a temporary closure of all in-person dining at restaurants, bars and coffee shops, as well as theaters, gyms, yoga studios and other spaces in which people congregate in close proximity.