Walz's newest COVID-19 order: 7 questions, answered

A man wearing a mask hands another person a bag of food.
From left, Robin Harkins receives a takeout order from general manager Sean Corrigan on Nov. 18 at The Gnome in St. Paul.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News file

Updated: Jan. 4, 2021, 11 a.m. | Posted: Dec. 16, 2020, 1 p.m.

With COVID-19 cases moderating — but still high — across the state, and the first doses of a vaccine slowly rolling out, Gov. Tim Walz announced Dec. 16 he’s extending some of the restrictions on businesses and social gathering that he put into effect Thanksgiving, while lifting or softening others. 

Most notably, the current monthlong ban on indoor bar and restaurant service will extend through the typically busy holiday season, until Jan. 10 at 11:59 p.m. — but limited outdoor dining will now be allowed. 

Rules restricting social gatherings have been loosened. Under the previous guidance, the state banned gatherings, indoors or outdoors, among people from different households. Under the revised rules, small outdoor holiday gatherings — with specific restrictions — will be allowed. 

Additionally, gyms and fitness centers have been allowed to reopen, and youth and adult sports teams will be allowed to resume practice on Jan. 4. Walz also announced a plan to prioritize in-person learning for elementary school students. 

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State officials said they’re trying to strike an appropriate balance between public health and civic life, noting that while COVID-19 case numbers and hospitalizations have slowly dropped, the pandemic is still far from over. 

“We aren’t out of the woods yet,” Walz said in announcing the new plan. “This way forward will help bridge the gap to vaccination by continuing to protect hospital capacity while prioritizing getting our kids back in the classroom and supporting Minnesotans’ quality of life.”

Here’s what you need to know about the new rules, and what’s changed from the last dial-back plan:

1) What are the new rules for bars and restaurants? 

The new order will continue to prohibit indoor, sit-down service at bars and restaurants through Jan. 10. Drive-thru and walk-up service is allowed. Up to five people are allowed inside a bar or restaurant at a time, as long as social distancing is possible, to pick up their orders. 

The rules allow for outdoor seating at 50 percent capacity, with four customers per table, up to 100 people total. But people must be seated if food or drink is served, with tables at least 6 feet apart.

Seating also cannot be fully enclosed in shelters, which will likely severely limit the number of people willing to dine or drink outdoors during the Minnesota winter. And bars and restaurants must close by 10 p.m. 

In the event of inclement weather, customers may move inside to pay their bills and package up food, but must exit quickly. 

2) Can I now meet up with people outside of my household? 

Yes, but in a limited capacity.

While indoor gatherings are still not recommended, the new order allows people to gather inside with people who are members of one other household, for a total of up to 10 people — “as long as members of different households maintain at least 6 feet of separation from each other and adhere to additional precautions for social gatherings".”

Outside, social gatherings are allowed, and may include members of three households total, with a maximum of 15 people.

Masking and social distancing is strongly encouraged. 

3) What about other outdoor gatherings? 

Larger outdoor events — including rallies, spectator entertainment events, concerts, and similar organized events — are still not permitted.

But venues that offer outdoor entertainment, including race tracks, paintball arenas, go-karts complexes, mini-golf courses, performance venues, festivals, fairs  and amusement parks may be open. They are not allowed to exceed 25 percent capacity, and aren’t allowed to have any more than 100 people in attendance. 

4) Will gyms and health clubs be allowed to reopen? 

Yes. Gyms and fitness centers were allowed to reopen, beginning on Dec. 19.

They can run at 25 percent capacity for individual exercise, with masks and 12 feet — a new rule — of social distancing required when more than one person is exercising in a space.

No showering is currently allowed. Pools may open beginning Jan. 4 for lessons, lap swim and organized team practices — provided they follow industry safety guidelines.

Group exercise classes are allowed to resume on Jan. 4 with restrictions — including a limit on class size of no more than 10 people, a requirement that classes be held in a self-contained space and a requirement that participants maintain 12 feet of space while class is in session.

Other indoor and outdoor exercise and sports facilities — including climbing gyms, martial arts facilities and dance and exercise studios — are also allowed to reopen. 

5) What about indoor entertainment venues? 

Venues that offer indoor activities, like trampoline parks, movie theaters, concert halls, vendor fairs, festivals, museums, stadiums, performance venues, arcades, party buses and bowling alleys will continue to remain closed under the latest orders.

6) When can organized sports resume? 

Youth and adult sports teams’ activity had been on pause since November.

Organized youth and adult sports are allowed to resume practices on Jan. 4 in smaller groups with heightened precautions, and with COVID-19 preparedness plans in place. Teams will have to form “pods” of no more than 25 people, keep 6 feet of distance from each other when not actively playing and masks must be worn at all times with some exceptions.

Games won’t be allowed until after Jan. 14, with more guidance expected later.

“By starting small and keeping transmission low now,” the executive order reads, “we can begin to consider returning to games and competitions that require interactions between different teams and the presence of spectators.”

Organized sports restrictions will also no longer be tied directly to county COVID-19 case data or school learning model. 

7) What are the changes to school guidance? 

Elementary schools will be allowed to conditionally open to in-person learning starting Jan. 18, regardless of county case rates. They will no longer be required to consult with public health officials on reopening, but there is added emphasis on the importance of following safety regulations.

Those schools “may choose to operate in an in-person learning model as long as they are able to implement additional mitigation strategies, which include providing and requiring staff to wear a face shield and mask and offering regular testing,” according to a statement from the governor’s office.

Some highlights of the new plan include:

  • A COVID-19 testing program that gives staff the option to test for the virus every other week 

  • 3 feet of physical distancing or more is strongly recommended for full-time in-person learning

  • Students will need to mask up during physical activities that take place inside, including gym class or during indoor recess, in addition to the requirements in Minnesota’s mask mandate.

  • School staff must wear face masks and face shields at all times.

What questions do you have?

Have questions about the new restrictions? Tell us here and we’ll try to track down the answer.

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.

MPR News reporter Elizabeth Shockman contributed to this report.