It has been a difficult few weeks in Minnesota, as COVID-19 continues its rampant spread across the state, leaving record-smashing case numbers and a devastating toll of hospitalizations and deaths.
Gov. Tim Walz announced an effort Tuesday to tamp down the spread, as he imposed new statewide restrictions on bars, restaurants and social gatherings.
What do the new restrictions entail?
Starting Friday, bars and restaurants can no longer serve alcohol and food to in-person customers after 10 p.m., but they will be allowed to sell to-go orders.
People eating and drinking in person have to sit at tables — and standing games such as darts and pool will be limited.
Meanwhile, the state is phasing in new capacity limits on wedding receptions and other private events, from 50 people on Nov. 27 to 25 by Dec. 11.
To be clear: No changes have to be made to wedding ceremonies; the caps apply only to receptions afterward. Minnesotans are also being called on now to limit private gatherings to 10 people from no more than three households.
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And these restrictions are added to the current rules at bars and restaurants around capacity, social distancing and mask-wearing.
Why are the restrictions in place?
These restrictions are primarily aimed at venues: bars and places that host weddings and other events, which, to this point, have been the nexus of hundreds of COVID-19 clusters.
And they're focused on an age group — 18- to 35-year-olds — that appear to be prevalent asymptomatic transmitters of the virus and make up the bulk of Minnesota's cases.
The 10 p.m. bar curfew is in place because contact tracing data indicates that there's a doubling of infections that happen after 9 p.m. — that's when people let down their guard, take off masks, start singing and dancing.
How will the state enforce these rules?
Walz said the state won't be trying to enforce rules around private gatherings. He framed the announcement as guidance for making safe decisions, with a heavy reliance on the social contract.
As for bars and restaurants and those wedding reception venues, it's been tricky.
Sometimes county environmental health divisions enforce regulations; in other cases, the state has been spot-checking compliance and responding to complaints brought in by the public.
But it’s hard to police these measures.
One example of how it’s playing out in real time in Rochester: On Halloween, one local bar had a huge party. Briefly, a video was posted on the bar's Facebook page: lots of people dancing, singing — and not wearing masks.
On Monday, Olmsted County suspended the bar's liquor license, and the bar will be closed for 72 hours or until it shows the county that it's following the rules.
But what the incident really shows is that it's nearly impossible to stop these events before they happen. Local officials didn't know about the Rochester party until a week or so later, and at that point, COVID-19 transmission has already happened.
How has the bar and restaurant industry responded to the new restrictions?
Walz stressed that most bars and restaurants have been in compliance with state rules around capacity, social distancing and masking.
The issue is that bars and restaurants appear to be places where the virus is more likely to be transmitted because patrons aren't following rules.
Nevertheless, Walz is getting pushback from the bar and restaurant industry, in large part because they took a financial hit in the spring when everything was on lockdown.
"We don't know when the world will open up to the hospitality any time soon,” said Tony Chesak, president of the Minnesota Licensed Beverage Association. “We've got no money. We're all broke at this point in time. More regulations, more restrictions mean less money.”
Chesak said he worries these new restrictions will just push people to have more house parties, which can't be regulated, and which will continue COVID-19 transmission.
What about the medical community?
Generally speaking, members of the medical community seem to be supporting these new restrictions. From their perspective, they're seeing the hospital system's supply of beds — and people to staff them — dwindle quickly and dangerously.
On Tuesday, Mayo Clinic held a press conference, in which one of the hospital's pandemic response leaders said that staffing to meet the need of this patient surge is by far the biggest concern right now.
But at the same time, there is a growing number of doctors, nurses and other medical professionals who say these restrictions don’t go nearly far enough to stop hospitals from overflowing.
Among them is Dr. Hannah Lichtsinn, an internal medicine and pediatrics physician at Hennepin Health in Minneapolis. She said she’s not speaking on behalf of her employer, but was involved in organizing a letter-writing campaign among health care providers asking Walz to take dramatic steps to stop the virus before hospitals crumble under its weight.
“I have colleagues caring for their patients in the hallways of emergency rooms, and the thought of someone going out to a bar or a restaurant is insulting to my colleagues who are taking huge risks to take care of their patients,” she said. “So: No, this is not enough."
The bottom line is that the state has had to navigate some strong competing interests: a medical and public health community that would like to see stricter rules and a business community that's really worried that stricter rules will make it harder to survive this pandemic economically.
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.