Walz backs 10 p.m. curfew on in-person service at bars, eateries, curbs on events to stem COVID

A man walks towards a collection of microphones outside of a store.
Gov. Tim Walz puts on a mask as he walks away from The Daily Grind Espresso Café in Stillwater in September.
Mark Zdechlik | MPR News file

Updated 4:30 p.m.

With Minnesota’s COVID-19 caseload skyrocketing and hospitalizations and deaths rising steeply, Gov. Tim Walz on Tuesday ordered new restrictions on late-night social life to stem the disease’s spread and he implored Minnesotans to take personal responsibility in the fight.

Starting Friday, Minnesota bars and restaurants must end in-person service at 10 p.m., although takeout and delivery would still be allowed after 10 p.m. Patrons will not be allowed to sit at bars, and standing games such as darts and pool will be limited.

Beyond that, the state plans to cap wedding receptions and other events at 50 people on Nov. 27, down to 25 after Dec. 11. Minnesotans are also being called on now to limit private gatherings to 10 people from no more than three households.

In an online address to the state, Walz said it was necessary to restore some curbs on life given the uncontrolled spread. He said more than 70 percent of that was being fueled now by informal gatherings, meetups and get-togethers with family and friends, transmitted unknowingly by people who have the virus but do not have symptoms.

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Retail stores are no longer a major problem — officials said Tuesday that all capacity restrictions had been lifted. However, data shows infection rates rising around bar and restaurant activity happening after 9 p.m. among people ages 18 to 35, Walz added, noting that people who have the virus but don’t have symptoms are driving the spread.

“This is dangerous because we can’t see it,” Walz said. “They are not sick,” he said of asymptomatic people, “but they are infected and they are contagious.”

He said the state would make available some $10 million in small business relief that would help bars and restaurants stay afloat. “If we can break the back of this thing,” he said of the pandemic, “we can get to the other side of this without putting people at more risk.”

The enforcement plan for all of this isn’t clear at this point.

The state is on stronger footing with enforcement of food establishments because they are regulated under terms of their operating licenses.

The private gathering limits have been tougher to oversee but have come into play in rare instances where police have broken up sprawling parties, according to officials. "We're not going into someone's home and arresting them on Thanksgiving," Walz said of his 10-person gathering limit.

The governor, though, put the onus on Minnesotans to take personal responsibility to control the spread of the disease — wearing masks in public gathering spaces, socially distancing, washing hands regularly and staying home if you don’t feel well.

“You have control over where this thing goes … this is not inevitable that we end up in a crisis,” he said. “But if we don’t do these things we we certainly will be there.”

The 10 p.m. curbs on bars and restaurants are similar to those unveiled Tuesday by Utah’s governor and earlier this week by New Jersey’s governor as that state tries to check its rampant spread.

Walz’s moves won applause from the Minnesota Medical Association. However, they quickly drew the ire of state hospitality leaders before the official announcement.

“Unfairly singling out every bar and every restaurant in Minnesota is not a scalpel — it’s a hatchet targeting one of Minnesota’s hardest hit industries this year,” Tony Chesak, executive director of the Minnesota Licensed Beverage Association, said in a statement.

“Bars and restaurants are only affiliated with 2 percent of the cases, but this new blanket rule across the state will drive more businesses under, leaving more people unemployed and unable to support their families,” he added.

Skyrocketing cases, calls for action

The moves come after a week of grim records in the COVID-19 fight. The state hit a high-water mark of nearly 6,000 new daily cases, and hospitalizations and deaths have been marching upward, too.

As of Monday, more than 30,000 people in Minnesota had active COVID-19 cases.

Walz has said he would issue new restrictions if the state’s coronavirus numbers deteriorated — and on Monday, the governor told reporters he plans to announce new restrictions that target active spreaders of COVID-19, beginning Tuesday.

The state has identified 117 COVID-19 clusters connected to bars, which have directly infected at least 2,400 people. Half of those clusters were identified in October alone, just as community spread of the virus began to spiral out of control.

Weddings were the riskiest group settings for outbreaks. In October, there were 44 outbreaks linked to Minnesota weddings. Since June, there have been 851 coronavirus cases involving people at weddings, according to state health authorities.

But Walz also signaled that a widespread shutdown, similar to what he imposed in the spring, as the pandemic was beginning to take hold in Minnesota, is unlikely at this point.

He called the springtime shutdowns “a blunt instrument.” He hinted that the measures he plans to announce this week would be more “surgically, much more aggressively” focused.

The governor has been under increasing public pressure to make some changes to the state’s COVID-19 response as numbers rose starkly last week, much of that pressure coming from doctors.

On Monday, 400 doctors signed a letter to Walz, asking him to issue new restrictions on bars, restaurants, gyms and other nonessential business. They wrote that the time to act to prevent further cases and deaths is now.

More than 1,000 people are hospitalized in Minnesota with COVID-19 — on top of hospitals' regular caseload of patients, a reality that is putting a dangerous strain on the state's hospital systems.

Also on Monday, health officials announced that the state is adding more than a dozen new COVID-19 testing locations over the next few weeks, including 10 in armories around the state and several locations at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.

The expansion in testing is based on the idea that the more people are tested, and the more frequently, the more likely the state will be able to isolate people from others when they have positive cases, and prevent the spread of the virus.

Walz said that the state's expansion is aimed especially at 18- to 35-year-olds, a group that officials have identified as what the governor calls "the heart and soul" of the virus’ spread.

People who fall into that age cohort are often asymptomatic or have mild symptoms, but also tend to be the people going to bars and restaurants, or getting together with friends, which state health official have warned against.

Asymptomatic transmission has become a primary driver of COVID-19’s community spread — but it eventually ends up in schools, long-term care facilities and hospitals.

The state’s message right now continues to be that, for people who continue to socialize outside their household, they should be tested — and often.

Walz acknowledged the restrictions he ordered would be a hardship to the economic of bars and restaurants and to the people connected to them.

He also braced Minnesotans that things would get worse in the near term.

“We’re gonna see some really bad data over the next couple of weeks,” he told reporters. “We are going to see really high numbers of cases, hospitalizations and, unfortunately, deaths. If we don’t as a nation buckle down and have a national strategy and get this right, this will continue on indefinitely.”

Gov. Tim Walz’s address to Minnesota:

COVID-19 in Minnesota

Data in these graphs are based on the Minnesota Department of Health's 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.