Walz to keep COVID bar, restaurant curbs in place through holidays

He'll also lay out a plan that "priortizes in-person learning" for elementary school kids

Virus Outbreak Vaccine Minnesota
Gov. Tim Walz inspects the first delivery of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccines to the Minneapolis VA Hospital as FedEx driver Seth Warnecke carries the box on Monday.
Aaron Lavinsky | Star Tribune via AP Pool

Updated 10:52 p.m.

Gov. Tim Walz on Wednesday will announce he is extending his current monthlong ban on indoor bar and restaurant service through the year-end holidays; he’ll also detail a strategy to get elementary schools back to in-person learning, an aide to the governor said Tuesday night.

News that the restrictions will continue is likely to come as a blow to the thousands of bar and restaurant owners and workers across the state. Those businesses have been forced to do takeout-only or delivery the past few weeks as health officials worked to slow the spread of COVID-19.

Those restrictions were set to expire on Friday.

Walz’s move to extend the curbs comes in the wake of several days of relatively positive news on new COVID-19 caseloads and hospitalizations.

Tuesday’s COVID-19 data showed new caseloads and hospitalizations continuing to retreat from their recent highs, with no sign of an expected surge from Thanksgiving holiday celebrations.

Officials say they’ve been working to balance the recent improvement in conditions with the reality that the pandemic isn’t over. Walz’s office said Tuesday night that the extended bar and restaurant curbs are intended as a “bridge” to vaccinating Minnesotans against COVID-19, an effort that began this week.

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Owners had already begun pushing back on the curbs. Representatives of a group called the Reopen Minnesota Coalition say dozens of businesses plan to defy the governor's order in the coming week. An East Grand Forks, Minn., business has already been sanctioned for opening.

Beyond bars and restaurants, the current monthlong restrictions have also kept health clubs closed.

Walz, though, will allow those businesses to reopen starting Saturday, according to people briefed on his plans ahead of the announcement. Gym visitors will be required to wear masks throughout and keep extra distance between themselves and other patrons.

Youth sports teams can resume practice on Jan. 4, but games won’t be allowed until later, the people given advance details say.

21 more deaths; case counts slow

Tuesday’s Health Department report included news of 21 more deaths, a relatively low toll so far in an otherwise dreadful December, with 890 deaths reported in the first 15 days of the month.

New hospital admissions are pulling back from their late November, early December highs, although about 1,300 people remain in the hospital with COVID-19 as of Monday, with 300 needing intensive care.

New COVID-19 hospitalizations in Minnesota

Tuesday’s count of 2,340 newly confirmed or probable cases was the lowest single day count since late October. It raised Minnesota’s pandemic total to 384,164. In about 92 percent of those cases, people have recovered to the point they no longer need to be isolated.

New COVID-19 cases per day in Minnesota

The deaths reported Tuesday raised Minnesota’s count to 4,483. Among those who’ve died, about two-thirds had been living in long-term care or assisted living facilities; most had underlying health problems.

New COVID-19 related deaths reported in Minnesota each day

More than 2,000 COVID-19 deaths have been reported in the past six weeks. That’s nearly half of all the deaths in the pandemic.

Caseloads spread across age groups

People in their 20s still make up the age bracket with the state’s largest number of confirmed cases — more than 74,000 since the pandemic began, including nearly 40,000 among people ages 20 to 24.

New Minnesota COVID-19 cases by age, adjusted for population

The number of high school-age children confirmed with the disease has also grown, with about 30,000 total cases among children ages 15 to 19 since the pandemic began.

Although less likely to feel the worst effects of the disease and end up hospitalized, experts worry youth and young adults will spread it to grandparents and other vulnerable populations.

It’s especially concerning because people can have the coronavirus and spread COVID-19 when they don’t have symptoms.

New cases ebb in rural Minnesota

Central and western Minnesota drove much of the increase in new cases over the past five weeks, while Hennepin and Ramsey counties showed some of the slowest case growth in the state.

New COVID-19 cases by Minnesota region

After a spike in confirmed cases through much of November and early December, all regions of the state have seen new case numbers plateau or fall.

Hot spots continue to pop up in rural counties relative to their population.

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

New caseloads still heaviest among people of color

In Minnesota and across the country, COVID-19 has hit communities of color disproportionately hard in both cases and deaths. That’s been especially true for Minnesotans of Hispanic descent for much of the pandemic.

New COVID-19 cases per capita by race

Even as new case counts ease from their peak a few weeks ago, the data shows people of color continue to be hit hardest.

Distrust of the government, together with deeply rooted health and economic disparities, have hampered efforts to boost testing among communities of color, officials say, especially among unauthorized immigrants who fear their personal information may be used to deport them.

Similar trends have been seen among Minnesota’s Indigenous residents. Counts among Indigenous people jumped in October relative to population.

Officials continue to plead with Minnesotans to wear masks in public gathering spaces, socially distance, stay home if they don’t feel well and otherwise stay vigilant against the spread of COVID-19.

No sign yet of Thanksgiving celebrations surge

Officials have been anticipating another wave of climbing caseloads and hospitalizations soon originating from Thanksgiving holiday celebrations. But it hasn’t happened yet.

State public health leaders last week said they were somewhat hopeful that many families heeded the public pleas to not gather in big groups for Thanksgiving, and so the worst-case scenarios of a post-holiday surge might not materialize.

Active, confirmed COVID-19 cases in Minnesota
Active, confirmed COVID-19 cases in Minnesota.
David H. Montgomery | MPR News

But they’ve also cautioned that it’s too soon to say a Thanksgiving celebration surge will not happen.

Percent of COVID-19 tests to come back positive

While the drops in cases and hospital admissions are encouraging, “we’re still way above what is considered a more manageable rate of growth in cases,” Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm told reporters Tuesday.

“We’re still in a volatile state, a risky state,” she added. “Rapid case growth can happen at these levels.”

Walz decision nears

Tuesday’s numbers will influence a key decision this week for Gov. Tim Walz. His current order banning in-person bar and restaurant service runs until Friday. The governor last week said he wanted to see several more days of data before making a call on whether to extend that ban.

That decision is expected Wednesday.

State officials haven’t signaled what Walz will do, although Malcolm told reporters on Tuesday that the monthlong restriction appears to have had a “really positive effect” in slowing the growth of new cases.

Malcolm and other officials have said they’re trying to balance the recent improvement in conditions with the reality that the pandemic continues at a worrisome pace.

She and other state health leaders continue to urge Minnesotans to do all they can — wearing masks in public gathering spaces, socially distancing and staying home if you don’t feel well — to guard against the spread of the disease.

They emphasized that the pandemic is not over yet.

Developments around the state

State suspends liquor license for bar that continued in-person service

The Minnesota Department of Public Safety on Sunday suspended the liquor license of an East Grand Forks, Minn., bar that had been operating in violation of state COVID-19 restrictions.

The Boardwalk Bar and Grill reopened to in-person service last week. Owner Jane Moss said her business would go under if she could not serve patrons in person.

The 60-day liquor license suspension announced Sunday is set to expire in February; another violation could result in a five-year license revocation.

The action follows a temporary restraining order issued Friday by a Polk County District Court judge, ordering the bar to close to in-person service.

Minnesota’s monthlong shutdown of in-person bar and restaurant service, along with youth sports and other activities, is set to expire at 11:59 p.m. Friday. Gov. Tim Walz has not yet said whether he'll extend the restrictions.

Representatives of a group called the Reopen Minnesota Coalition told KARE-TV on Friday that dozens of businesses plan to defy the governor's order in the coming week.

— MPR News Staff

Top headlines

VA starts vaccinations at Minneapolis hospital: Shots are heading into lots of arms now at the VA, one of the state’s largest medical centers, and at selected hospitals and clinics around Minnesota as shipments begin to arrive.

Legislature passes COVID aid bill for businesses, workers: Minnesota lawmakers passed a plan that will give $216 million to businesses struggling with COVID-19 restrictions and extends unemployment benefits by 13 weeks.

How one restaurateur is managing 2020: Many bars and restaurants are struggling to stay in business amidst the pandemic and Minnesota’s latest clamp down on the hospitality industry is making it even more difficult for them. The owner of a usually thriving Woodbury restaurant says they’re looking for help.

College students weigh the risks of holiday travel: Spikes in COVID-19 cases and statewide restrictions on gatherings mean what used to be typical trips home need to be considered carefully.

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.