June 5 update on COVID-19 in MN: Walz eases more life, business curbs

Gov. Tim Walz gets his haircut
Gov. Tim Walz gets his haircut by Erin Diede as he stopped in the morning at Capitol Barbers in the Minnesota State Office Building on Friday in St. Paul. Walz went for a haircut and then toured some of the sites where vandalism occurred during the George Floyd protests.
Anthony Souffle | Star Tribune via AP

Updated 4:48 p.m.

Gov. Tim Walz on Friday unveiled a further loosening of easing of restrictions on restaurants, salons and barbershops, religious services and other parts of daily life amid some evidence the pandemic may be plateauing.

“We believe we should be able to handle this,” Walz told reporters, but he cautioned the state needed to remain vigilant against the spread of the disease as people return in bigger numbers to public spaces. “COVID is still with us,” he said, “but we gotta live with it.”

Among the changes set to take effect Wednesday:

  • Indoor restaurant and bar service and personal services can open at 50 percent capacity with a 250-person limit

  • Places of worship can also hold services at 50 percent capacity with a 250-person limit; this applies to funerals, weddings and other similar gatherings

  • Entertainment venues can open 25 percent capacity with a 250-person limit

  • Personal care services, including salons, barbershops and tattoo parlors, can work indoors at 50 percent capacity

  • Gyms, yoga studio and fitness centers can reopen 25 percent capacity with a 250-person limit

With the loosened restrictions, the Mall of America, which has been closed since mid-March due to coronavirus concerns, will reopen Wednesday. Mall executives had intended to reopen June 1 but changed plans following the May 25 killing of George Floyd.

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Earlier this week, restaurants were allowed to resume table service but only at reduced capacity and for outdoor diners. Hair salons, barbershops, tattoo parlors and other personal services businesses also reopened for limited appointments. 

In recent weeks, religious institutions received permission to resume worship services, weddings and funerals to small audiences. The next phase could expand the ability of those entities and others to serve more people in more settings.

Youth sports leagues were also awaiting word on when they could start games. Some resumed practices with social distancing protocols in anticipation of getting back on the field for competition.

Officials continued their plea to Minnesotans to continue staying 6 feet apart, wear masks and stay home if you feel ill.

“We are not going back to normal,” cautioned Steve Grove, commissioner of employment and economic development as he praised businesses for the sacrifices they’ve made in the COVID-19 era. “We’re continuing to ask for personal responsibility in the next phase.”

State Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm indicated the recent patterns of cases and hospitalizations in Minnesota are showing “a plateau with small waves within in,” calling it an “encouragingly stable” situation.

“Statewide, we're in good shape for critical care capacity,” she added.

She cautioned, though, that the protests over George Floyd’s killing may have boosted the disease spread. It will take a few weeks to find out. But she expressed confidence that the state was positioned to handle the pandemic without it overwhelming the case system.

"We are likely dealing with high levels of COVID-19 transmission for months to come," she said.

Despite the looser restrictions, Republican legislative leaders said Walz, a DFLer, did not go far enough.

Earlier in the day, Senate Republicans released a statement from Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, saying, “the pandemic fear must end” and Walz “should not get to decide who gets to go to a funeral, a wedding, or attend large gatherings, and others don’t get to.”

Asked about the comments, Walz the decisions were complex” and that if ended all restrictions and more people died because of it, it would be on him.

“It’s easy,” the governor said, “to coach from the seats on the side and not have to be there."

Death toll rises

Walz’s update came hours after the Health Department reported 33 more deaths, bringing the total to 1,148 in Minnesota since the pandemic began.

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.

‘Need your help’

Grove heard concerns earlier Friday from lawmakers of both parties about economic despair in their communities from restaurant closures to business loans that will come due.

“We need your help,” Rep. Dave Lislegard, DFL-Aurora, pleaded with Grove, voicing criticism about outdoor seating as the only option for restaurants struggling to get by.

Patrick and Alissa Horan, who own the Sawmill Saloon and Restaurant in Lislegard’s district, said they had to put in a $20,000 temporary deck to prepare for that. But they said it’s not a sustainable business model, with sales down 90 percent since the March closures.

“I know the restaurant and bar industry has been absolutely brutalized,” Alissa Horan said. “Up here, we are ready to open.”

Grove assured lawmakers the governor was moving toward relaxing restrictions in a way that will guard against coronavirus flare-ups.“We know that without moving into phase three, we will have an increasing number of businesses that will cease to exist and not have the jobs that are there for workers,” Grove said. 

Rep. Tony Juergens, R-Cottage Grove, said gyms are at risk of going under unless they can let people back in, even with reduced capacity. Wedding venues and caterers in his district have seen a season of business evaporate, he said.

“Their inventory is available dates,” Juergens said. “And if a bride pushes her wedding until next year, that’s inventory the venue can’t sell. It’s lost.”

Grove said the fallout “is real and it is painful,” but he disagreed that the public health decisions that sparked the closures have been flawed.

He said the outbreak would have been worse without them and the road back must be carefully plotted out to bolster confidence “so that customers actually show up and that we don’t see hot spots or spikes that force us to shut things back down. That would be even more devastating for our economy.”

Community spread remains worrisome

Health officials remain concerned that mass demonstrations in the wake of Floyd’s death in police custody will cause a spike in cases. They have urged anyone who participated in a protest to seek a test.

Malcolm said her department has made clear to providers around the state that people involved in demonstrations or any following cleanup efforts should be tested for COVID-19 — even if they have no symptoms.

She urged people to get tested right away if they have symptoms. If they don’t, she said, they should wait five to seven days after they participated in a protest or cleanup effort to get tested.

And if their test result is negative, but they suspect they were exposed, Malcolm encouraged people to get retested around 12 days after they think they were exposed.

Malcolm added that the state should start to see the impact of the state’s efforts to reopen in about a week.

The fact that people without symptoms of the illness can still be spreading the virus continues to be among the biggest challenges, said Kris Ehresmann, the state’s infectious disease director.

“There is a big role for asymptomatic transmission,” and it’s hard to identify who those people are, she said.

Meatpacking hot spots remain

Many of the 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 15 people have tested positive for COVID-19. In mid-April, there were just a handful of cases. By Friday, there were 1,577 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 — skyrocketed in May.

An undisclosed number of workers at both plants have tested positive for the virus. There were about 55 confirmed cases in Stearns County in early May. By Friday, confirmed cases were at 2,056 with 14 deaths.

Kandiyohi County in west-central Minnesota is also seeing cases continue to climb more than a month 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 then.

On Friday, the Health Department reported 514 people have now tested positive in the county.

While the counts in those counties are high relative to their population, officials say the growth in new cases in those areas appears to be stabilizing.

Mower County in southern Minnesota, another county with a large meatpacking presence, is becoming a hot spot.

MN counties with the fastest per-capita growth in COVID-19 cases

Mower County has jumped the past few weeks, reporting a total of 446 positive COVID-19 cases now with two deaths. The Rochester, Minn., Post-Bulletin reports two meat plants in Austin, Minn., are seeing COVID-19 cases rise rapidly.

Developments from around the state

Beware of contact-tracing scams, MN officials warn

The state is warning Minnesotans to be on alert for text scams related to contact tracing of COVID-19.

According to the Federal Trade Commission, scammers are targeting people via text, saying that someone they know has tested positive for coronavirus and that they should click on a link for more information.

Some texts ask people to download software on to their phone, while others seek information like Social Security numbers and banking information.

Contact tracing is the practice of figuring out who someone who has tested positive for coronavirus has been in contact with. It's a strategy meant to mitigate the spread of the virus.

The state is encouraging people who get these texts to report them to the FBI.

— Catharine Richert | MPR News

U of M study: Hydroxychloroquine can’t prevent coronavirus infection

A new University of Minnesota study shows hydroxychloroquine is not able to prevent the development of COVID-19 better than a placebo.

The results of the first randomized clinical trial of the drug will be published in the New England Journal of Medicine. Researchers also found that 40 percent of the trial participants taking hydroxychloroquine developed nonserious side effects like nausea and diarrhea.

However, the trial found no cardiac complications from taking the drug, which is typically used for lupus.

The trial included 821 people in the United States and in Canada who had been exposed to someone with the virus, either members of their household or in their work as a health care worker or first responder.

President Donald Trump has touted the drug as a treatment for coronavirus, despite warnings from medical professionals that there was no research to back up his claims.

— Catharine Richert | MPR News

COVID-19 in Minnesota

Data in these graphs are based off Minnesota Department of Health cumulative totals released at 11 a.m. daily. You can find more detailed statistics on COVID-19 at the Health Department website.

The coronavirus 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.