Minneapolis limits bar service as people crowd too close together in some establishments

A man speaks at a podium.
Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey answers a reporter's question during a press conference Wednesday announcing new restrictions on bars.
Evan Frost | MPR News

With COVID-19 cases on the rise in Minneapolis, Mayor Jacob Frey is imposing new restrictions on bars.

The emergency order takes effect Saturday evening. It does not close the establishments entirely, but they’ll be table service only. Patrons will no longer be able to sit at the counter.

Seven weeks ago, Gov. Tim Walz allowed Minnesota bars and restaurants to reopen at 50 percent capacity. Since then, Minneapolis city officials say bars in particular have become COVID-19 hot spots. City Health Commissioner Gretchen Musicant says nine establishments have been linked to outbreaks among patrons.

“As of last Monday, we know that there have been 367 positive cases who named a Minneapolis bar as a place where they were exposed to COVID or where they might have exposed others to the virus,” she said.

Musicant says the city is averaging 18 cases per 100,000 residents per day, well above the state’s average of 11. That puts Minneapolis squarely in what the Harvard Global Health Institute calls the zone of accelerated spread.

Younger adults who frequent bars have a higher likelihood of being asymptomatic carriers, and may not know when they’re infecting more vulnerable people. And Musicant added that enforcement by city inspectors has not been enough to curb the contagion.

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Frey said the city is not seeing the high test positivity rates that states such as Florida and Arizona are. He said the new restrictions are aimed at preventing such a scenario.

“We want to have a proactive approach now, not a reactive approach later to account for the dramatic increases that we would and could otherwise see,” the mayor said.

Under the new rules, patrons may still go inside bars, but they have to be seated at tables spaced at least 6 feet apart. No more than four unrelated people, or six people who are related, may sit at each table. Staff are still allowed to mix drinks at the bar, but they must serve them tableside.

Dance floors and open space near the bar where people would normally congregate may be converted to seating without any additional city permits.

Businesses that fail to comply face a $200 fine; the penalty doubles for each subsequent violation.

Since bars reopened, health inspector Kevin Keopraseuth said 59 inspections at 26 businesses have resulted in three bars being fined. 

“Things that we are seeing in these bars are noncompliance with physical distancing, waiting to order a drink at the bar. There’s no physical distancing around there. People are standing up. People are dancing.”

Statewide, COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations are rising after hitting plateaus last month. But Walz says it’s not likely that the new bar restrictions in Minneapolis will be needed statewide. The DFLer — speaking at a separate news conference earlier Wednesday — says he’s hopeful that his new mask mandate will work as intended.

“We think this could give us a position where we don’t have to roll backwards and we can start thinking about the next steps forward.”

But the new city regulations pose yet another challenge for many bars in the city, which are operating at half capacity after being forced to shut down for nearly three months. Larry Ranallo has owned the Northeast Moose Bar & Grill in Minneapolis for 20 years, and says he’s barely hanging on.

“It’s getting to the point where we’re deciding whether to stay open or not.”

Ranallo does not deny that COVID-19 is a major problem. But he says he and his 30 employees are following the rules and should not have to pay the price for an uptick in cases among young people.

“The young kids seem to think they can go crazy with this. And they’re not at the bars. They’re at their home parties. They’re in the back yard with 75 people partying, where you can’t have 75 people in the bar partying.”

Ranallo says he’s having frank discussions with his staff about whether to continue operating the business. But for now, he’s taking it one day at a time and is buying some more picnic tables so his customers can still come inside, sit down and have a drink.