May 18 update on COVID-19 in MN: 731 dead; life curbs loosen, risk remains

Two people wearing face masks stand under an umbrella.
Peter Vang and Tanaya Walker Vang of Shoreview take shelter from the rain Sunday after shopping at the St. Paul Farmers' Market.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

Updated 8 p.m. | Posted: 5:30 a.m.

Minnesota’s top health official on Monday implored residents to wear masks outdoors and keep their distance from others as the state loosens restrictions on daily life driven by COVID-19.

“Lower risk does not equal no risk,” Malcolm told reporters hours after Minnesota’s stay-at-home order, in place since late March, expired. “We’re really going to have to keep up these behaviors for a long time to come.“

Her remarks came as Minnesota’s COVID-19 toll climbed again. The state Health Department reported 731 Minnesotans have died from the disease, up 9 from Sunday; 488 people are currently hospitalized, with 229 in intensive care, counts that have stayed roughly stable over the past few days.

It was the first day in two weeks that the Health Department had reported daily deaths came in at single digits. However, the total number of cases in the pandemic continued to rise, jumping to 16,372.

The agency also continued to report nine probable deaths in Minnesota from COVID-19. Those are cases where COVID-19 is listed on a death certificate but a positive test was not documented.

A graph showing the number of COVID-19 positive cases to date.

The latest numbers come on the same day Minnesota’s stay-at-home order ends. Retailers may now reopen with limited capacity and group gatherings of 10 or fewer people, including at places of worship, will be permitted once again.

Monday’s data showed some encouraging trends, including that cases are doubling about every 12 days now, a longer time period than the state’s seen in recent weeks. Malcolm called it a “positive sign” of the disease’s relatively stable growth.

Health officials say they’re watching several key metrics to gauge if the disease is accelerating as restrictions are lowered. Among them: the number of days it takes for cases to double, the amount of daily testing, the proportion of positive tests and the level of community spread that can’t be traced to specific contacts — an indication the disease might be more widespread.

Officials also said they were continuing to add investigators to contact those infected and work to reach others who might have had contact with them and might also be potentially infected.

Curbs continue on large group venues

Restrictions on restaurants, bars, theaters, bowling alleys and venues that attract large crowds will remain even as restrictions ease starting Monday.

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 June 1.

On Thursday, the Mall of America said it would begin a limited reopening of stores on June 1. Rosedale Center in Roseville announced similar plans to open stores on Monday and restaurants on June 1 following the government guidelines. Ridgedale Center and Burnsville Center are among other malls planning to reopen on Monday, along with Apache Mall in Rochester.

A graph showing the percentage of cases tested and their current status.

When they do come back, restaurants, bars and theaters 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.

Kris Ehresmann, the state’s infectious disease director, reiterated Monday that the restrictions on visitors to long-term care facilities would also continue after Monday.

Meatpacking hot spots remain

Many of the recent outbreaks outside the Twin Cities metro area are focused around meatpacking plants. Officials have intensified testing in those hot spots, uncovering more infections.

In southwestern Minnesota’s Nobles County, where an outbreak hit Worthington’s massive JBS pork plant, about 1 in 16 people have tested positive for COVID-19. In mid-April, there were just a handful of cases. By Monday, there were 1,387 confirmed cases, although the numbers are rising at a much slower rate than in previous weeks.

The JBS plant shut on April 20 but has since partially reopened with expanded hygiene and health monitoring measures.

Similar problems have been reported in Stearns County, where COVID-19 cases tied to two packing plants — Pilgrim’s Pride poultry plant in Cold Spring and Jennie-O Turkey in Melrose — have skyrocketed. An undisclosed number of workers at both plants have tested positive for the virus.

There were about 55 confirmed cases in Stearns County two weeks ago. By Monday, confirmed cases were at 1,740 with 10 deaths.

Kandiyohi County in west-central Minnesota is also seeing cases continue to climb four weeks after officials with the Jennie-O turkey processing plant there said some employees had tested positive for the coronavirus. The county had confirmed three COVID-19 cases back then.

On Monday, the Health Department reported 415 people have now tested positive.

Developments from around the state

Fewer fliers at MSP airport

This past March, 1.7 million fare paying passengers traveled through Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. The Metropolitan Airports Commission says that's less than half the number who landed or took off from the Twin Cities airport in March of 2019.

Delta, the airport's dominant carrier, saw its March passenger count in the Twin Cities drop by more than 600,000 on the year.

Matt Sepic | MPR News

Rochester schools OK drive-up graduation ceremonies

Rochester Public Schools announced Monday that graduating seniors can partake in their rites of passage through drive-up ceremonies.

Earlier this month, the district unveiled a plan to host graduations allowing 30 seniors at a time. But the next day, state education officials released their own guidelines forbidding large, in-person commencement gatherings.

Under the new plan, students would be able to receive their diplomas from the principal – who will be wearing gloves and a face mask – or pick up the diploma from a stand without having to make any contact with another person.

The announcement follows a failed push Sunday to let schools bypass the state’s graduation restrictions.

— MPR News Staff

Driver's license exams, road tests to resume

Minnesotans soon will be able to take driver's license exams and road tests again.

The Minnesota Department of Public Safety said it's implementing a plan to reopen 16 exam sites with safety measures in place. Those select stations will be open for exams as well as motorcycle and commercial driving road tests starting Tuesday. Standard road tests will begin next week.

But to start, people who had appointments canceled during stay-at-home orders will be given priority.

Staff plan to screen visitors for COVID-19 symptoms, and ask whether they've been exposed to others who have tested positive for the virus. Those with symptoms or exposure will not be allowed into the exam sites.

— Riham Feshir | MPR News

More details on state efforts to purchase building for morgue

More details emerged Sunday on plans by the state of Minnesota to purchase a cold-storage facility it can use as a COVID-19 morgue if there is a surge in deaths in the state.

According to documents from Minnesota Management and Budget, on the Department of Administration's request for funding for the purchase, the state has identified a 71,000-square-foot facility on 5 acres in the Twin Cities metro area. The exact location has not been revealed.

The purchase price is estimated at $5.475 million, with the request including an additional $1 million in building operating costs and $425,000 in improvements and other costs — for a total of $6.9 million. The request says 75 percent of the cost may be reimbursable through the federal government. That budget request does not include staffing and equipment costs.

The request says the warehouse could store up to 5,100 bodies; the current capacity in the metro area at funeral homes, medical examiners' offices and hospitals is currently 1,262, with up to about 2,000 in surge capacity.

In other documents, state officials said a lease arrangement is not possible, because the building's current owners indicated they could not sell it, if it was used as a morgue.

The funding request was approved by a 10-member panel of top lawmakers who are fielding administration requests for use of COVID-19 funds.

— MPR News staff

Boundary Waters reopens for overnight use

U.S. Forest Service officials say the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness will reopen to overnight use starting Monday.

That's as Gov. Tim Walz's COVID-19 stay-at-home order expires.

“We are happy to be fully allowing visitors into the BWCAW," Forest Supervisor Connie Cummins said in a news release. “We ask that visitors please continue to follow local, state and federal guidelines on staying safe and practice good hygiene and social distancing wherever they choose to visit.”

Officials said there may be some changes in how visitors pick up Boundary Waters permits, and they're asking people to stay as local as possible to their designated entry point and travel route.

Some closures remain in place across the Canadian border, in Ontario's Quetico Provincial Park.

Elsewhere in northern Minnesota, campsites and houseboat mooring sites in Voyageurs National Park also will reopen on Monday. But permit-holders need to print those permits at home; there are no open facilities at the park to print permits.

— Andrew Krueger | MPR News

Metro Transit increases efforts to get riders to wear face coverings

Metro Transit is stepping up efforts to get all passengers to wear face coverings, starting Monday.

The Twin Cities transit agency says all train and bus riders need to wear a mask, scarf, bandanna or other cloth face covering. There will be more signs and announcements to remind passengers.

While it called the new policy a requirement, Metro Transit said it won't deny service to people who don't wear a mask. It's seeking voluntary compliance to keep other riders and drivers safe.

Metro Transit continues to ask people to use mass transit only for essential trips.

— MPR News staff

Minnesota courts prepare to reopen

Minnesota courts are beginning the gradual process of resuming in-person hearings, as judges and court employees may return to their offices starting Monday.

Chief Justice Lorie Gildea has ordered a preparedness plan to be implemented before more face-to-face proceedings may take place.

Her plan includes social distancing, wearing masks, and the daily cleaning of courtrooms and offices.

Starting June 1, a limited number of criminal jury trials may resume. But civil jury trials will not be held until September.

Meanwhile, anyone going in to a federal courthouse in Minnesota must wear a face mask starting Monday. However many proceedings are still being conducted by phone and video link.

Federal criminal jury trials are postponed until July 5, as are other proceedings such as sentencing hearings where defendants do not consent to videoconferencing.

— Matt Sepic | MPR News

Top headlines

Central Minnesota bar owner keeps doors closed despite threat to reopen: Kris Schiffler vowed Sunday he would defy the state order. But on Monday, after a Stearns County judge blocked the reopening, Schiffler complied, even as a long line of noontime customers stood at his door.

High school yearbook staff shifts from prom to pandemic: Spring is usually a busy time for high school yearbook staffs. But this year, instead of documenting sports, concerts, prom and graduation crammed into a few weeks, the staff of Moorhead High School’s Cho Kio are documenting a pandemic.

Girl Scout camps in Minnesota canceled for the summer: Girl Scout councils covering most of Minnesota have canceled their overnight and day camps through August, amid concerns about whether they could operate safely during the coronavirus pandemic.

More Minnesota restaurants announce permanent closures: While restaurants across Minnesota await the chance to resume some dine-in operations, a growing list of restaurants in the state say they won't reopen, even after COVID-19 business restrictions are lifted.

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.

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