Updated: 3 p.m.
Minnesota’s monthlong rise in daily COVID-19 cases continued Thursday as the Health Department reported 763 new confirmed tests for the disease.
Current hospitalizations (282) continued to rise. The count of people hospitalized but not needing intensive care (175) jumped to its highest point in a month even as intensive care cases (107) fell from Wednesday.
Officials have been bracing Minnesotans over the past week to expect hospitalizations to creep up following several weeks of a surge in new confirmed cases.
New case counts continue to jump, although the daily increases have flattened in recent days. The rate of positive tests for the disease has been steady recently at just under 5 percent.
Of the 48,721 positive cases in Minnesota since the start of the pandemic, about 87 percent of people infected have recovered to the point they no longer need to be isolated.
The Health Department also recorded nine more deaths from COVID-19. Among the 1,561 people who’ve died from the disease in Minnesota to date, about 77 percent had been living in long-term care or assisted living facilities.
The newest counts come a day after Gov. Tim Walz ordered Minnesotans to wear masks in restaurants, stores and other public indoor gathering spaces, beginning Saturday.
Walz on Wednesday announced a statewide mask mandate as a way to stem the spread of COVID-19 and put the state on a path back to normalcy.
“This is the quickest way to ending the COVID pandemic,” he told reporters. “It is the surest way to getting us to the therapeutics and vaccines” while continuing to reopen the economy.
If 90 to 95 percent of Minnesotans complied, businesses could stay open, kids could return safely to school buildings, and we "get back that life that we all miss so much,” he said.
Under the order, businesses will have to post notice of the new regulations and ensure patrons comply. Children age 5 and younger are exempt. Cities with tougher ordinances can go beyond the state indoor-only rules.
Walz compared the inconvenience of wearing a mask to wearing seat belts in cars and preventing smoking in indoor spaces, changes in behavior required by government that ultimately saved lives.
“This is a small sacrifice for a potential big gain,” he said.
The order met with pushback from Republican leaders, including Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, who said the move felt “like a heavy-handed, broad approach that won’t work well for every situation.”
No ‘mask police’
The state is working now with local chambers of commerce around the state to make masks available to businesses to give to customers who don’t have one.
Officials don’t want businesses to be in a position of being “mask police,” said Steve Grove, commissioner of the Department of Employment and Economic Development.
If a patron says she can’t wear a mask for medical reasons, store owners can allow it without delving into deeper explanations, he said. Bar and restaurant patrons don’t have to keep masks on as they eat and drink at a table with their party.
The order does allow for a petty misdemeanor with possible fine up to $100. Businesses could face steeper fines for noncompliance.
Walz, though, said he wants authorities “handing out masks, not tickets” and that businesses should not escalate confrontations, adding: "We don't want someone to accidentally get famous on the internet because they're throwing a tantrum in Trader Joe's."
Cases growing across age brackets, up north
State health officials continue to worry about the recent spike of coronavirus cases in younger Minnesotans, including that those infected will inadvertently spread the virus to grandparents and other more vulnerable populations.
Minnesotans in their 20s now make up the age group with the most confirmed cases in the pandemic, with more than 11,000. The median age of Minnesotans infected has been trending down in recent weeks and is now 37 years old.
Health investigators are also starting to see more cases in 30- and 40-somethings as more people get together for family gatherings and summer fun without social distancing, Kris Ehresmann, the state’s infectious disease director, said Monday.
It’s not like the situation the past few weeks where 20-somethings meeting in bars drove the increases. Now, analysts are seeing an evolution in the “larger, gradual increase in social activities,” she added.
New cases are also rising in northern Minnesota.
Cases in Beltrami County, home to Bemidji, have more than doubled in the past week and a half, from 53 to 122 on Thursday. Ehresmann this week said the case increase is tied to spread from athletic events and other public gatherings.
Walz sets schools announcement for July 30
The governor is expected to announce a plan next Thursday on bringing kids back into school buildings. The state Education Department has told school leaders to pretty much prepare for anything, including some combination of in-school and online instruction.
“Nobody wants kids in school more than me,” and state officials have been working for months on how to do that safely, Walz, a former high school teacher, said Tuesday.
“We’re doing everything possible to get those kids back in those classrooms … to keep them there but also have some nimbleness” to move back to an online or hybrid model if cases start to climb, he said, adding: “This is gonna be a challenge.”
On Wednesday, the governor hinted that the state will lay out standards for schools on operating in the pandemic and then give them flexibility to work within those standards.
"It won't necessarily look the same everywhere,” he said, “but the outcomes need to be the same — kids and staff safe in that learning environment.”
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.
That includes Mower County in southeastern Minnesota, where there were 1,024 confirmed cases as of Thursday. Mower County is home to Hormel Foods and Quality Pork Processors. Both have been partnering with Mayo Clinic to ramp up employee testing.
While some of Mower County’s positive cases are associated with people who work in the facilities and with the people they live with, county officials say they are also seeing transmission among people who live in the county but work in other counties where coronavirus is present.
Nobles, in southwestern Minnesota, reported 1,714 confirmed cases as of Thursday, with six deaths. About 1 in 13 people now have tested positive for COVID-19 in the county since the pandemic began, although the count of new cases has slowed considerably in recent weeks.
Worthington’s massive JBS pork processing plant was the epicenter of the Nobles outbreak. The JBS plant shut on April 20 but has since 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 Thursday, confirmed cases were at 2,678 with 19 deaths.
Kandiyohi County in west-central Minnesota is also dealing with a significant caseload more than two months after officials with the Jennie-O turkey processing plant there said some employees had tested positive for the coronavirus.
As of Thursday, the Health Department reported 631 people have now tested positive. The county had confirmed three COVID-19 cases in late April.
Cases have also climbed noticeably in Lyon County (390 cases) around a turkey processor in Marshall.
Developments from around the state
Many MN teachers prefer distance learning this fall, survey shows
A survey of state educators by the state's largest teachers union found that nearly half would like to see distance education this fall.
The survey, which was done by Education Minnesota, was taken by a quarter of the union's membership — or around 20,500 people. About 29 percent said they'd like a hybrid-style class and 17 percent said they would prefer in-person instruction.
The union president Denise Specht said teachers are worried for their students, for their need to socialize and for students' families that are not be able to stay at home. She said teachers are also worried about their health.
"They are working hard, they are not expendable. Yet they feel that way when they hear politicians rush to open a school district when it is simply not ready. They're worried about their own health, their own children's health and the health of the people at home with them."
The survey also found that Black, Asian American, Latinx and Native American educators support distance learning at a higher rate than white educators.
Gov. Tim Walz is expected to make an announcement on schools next Thursday.
— Peter Cox | MPR News
Science Museum lays off more than 150
The Science Museum of Minnesota says it’s laying off more than 150 people, but will reopen in late August with limited hours and offerings.
The museum says the COVID-19 pandemic has kept away an expected quarter-million visitors since closing in mid-March. The museum has already lost $10 million and expects another $20 million drop in revenue this fiscal year.
Museum officials expect attendance to decline as much as 75 percent.
The museum will open initially only to members. Public visitors will be let back in starting the first week of September.
— Tim Nelson | MPR News
What you need to know about Minnesota's mask mandate: People in Minnesota are required to wear a face covering in all public indoor spaces and businesses, unless they are alone. This includes when waiting outside to enter an indoor public space. Masks are also required on public transportation, including buses and trains, and in taxis or vehicles that are used for a business purpose.
How decision to resume school might affect Minnesota’s communities of color: Minnesota’s education system has long produced better outcomes and opportunities for its white students than its students of color. The pandemic stands to widen those gaps even further.
Minnesota food shelves, already busy, brace for bigger demand: The COVID-19 pandemic has created huge demand for free or reduced-cost food across the state as Minnesotans have lost jobs and children missed out on school lunches. Food shelves anticipate even more people will rely on them to get enough to eat.
Arts board announces simplified grant program for MN artists struggling in COVID-19 economy: The Minnesota State Arts Board has approved a trio of new grants meant to help artists and organizations weather the economic turmoil created by COVID-19. But artists say the new grants don't go far enough to serve historically marginalized communities.
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.