Walz extends curbs on bars, eateries; grade schools OK'd to reopen

Gyms can open conditionally starting Saturday

Children sit behind plastic barriers at desks spaced apart in a classroom.
Paraprofessional Jaevon Walton, center, reminds a student to wear his face mask in a learning pod of second through seventh graders at Harvest Best Academy Sept. 8 in Minneapolis.
David Joles | Star Tribune via AP file

Updated 3:33 p.m.

Gov. Tim Walz on Wednesday extended his current monthlong ban on indoor bar and restaurant service through the year-end holidays, a move he described as a painful but necessary step as they state continues to struggle to stem the spread of COVID-19.

The current restrictions limiting bars and restaurants to takeout-only were set to expire on Friday.

Walz’s revamped order will continue to prohibit indoor service at bars and restaurants. It allows limited outdoor seating — a request he said that came from the state’s brewpub industry — but they can’t be fully enclosed, making dining unlikely in a Minnesota winter.

The restrictions will stay in place through Jan. 10, short-circuiting celebrations at bars and restaurants on New Year’s Eve, traditionally a huge night for those businesses. The move quickly drew the ire of state hospitality executives.

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“We have to beat the virus before the economy comes back,” Walz told reporters after announcing the restrictions and signing legislation that will target $88 million in payments directly to bars and restaurants.

Minnesota continues to see high levels of community spread — infections that can’t be traced to a specific source — and the state remains in a “high-risk category” despite recent improvements in COVID-19 metrics, Walz said during an online address.

He said later that officials are worried now about a February spike. “You can’t pretend this isn't there,” he said of the virus. “Let’s use the best science we can and the best decisions we can to save peoples’ lives.”

Schools, gyms, youth sports

The governor said Wednesday he’s also giving the go-ahead to elementary schools to conditionally open to in-person learning starting Jan. 18.

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.

Other changes laid out Wednesday include:

  • Gyms and fitness centers. These businesses, which have also been shut for the month, will be allowed to conditionally reopen starting Saturday. They can run at 25 percent capacity with no showers or pool activity allowed, and no group exercise before Jan. 4.

  • Youth sports. Teams will be allowed to resume practices on Jan. 4, the people given advance details say, but games won’t be allowed until later.

  • Indoor gatherings. The guidance is that Minnesotans may gather inside with one other household up to 10 people.

  • Outdoor entertainment venues: They can open at 25 percent capacity, up to 100 people at a time. If food and drink are served, people must be seated.

The governor on Wednesday also signed into law a $216 million economic relief package to aid small businesses and workers damaged by the restrictions to stem the spread of the virus.

The measure, approved in a special session, includes grants to struggling small businesses and an extension of unemployment benefits for out-of-work Minnesotans. 

‘Gravely disappointed’

News that the bar and restaurant 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.

Liz Rammer, CEO of the trade group Hospitality Minnesota, said Wednesday morning she was “gravely disappointed” at news of the plan and pleaded with the governor to reconsider.

“Hospitality is a force for good in our communities, and the Governor and his administration would be wise to leverage that force, rather than watch it flicker out,” she said in a statement.

Harsher words came from Tony Chesak, executive director of the Minnesota Licensed Beverage Association. “Today’s news is not only devastating, it’s shameful and unjust,” he said in a statement, adding that a fraction of COVID-19 cases have been tracked back to bars and restaurants.

When the restrictions went into place in November, Minnesota was deep into some of its worst days of COVID-19’s surge across the state since the pandemic began, frequently breaking records on daily case numbers, deaths and hospitalizations.

The virus’ spread put immense pressure on health care workers and hospitals.

In the past few days, though, there’s been 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.

‘So much easier if the neighbors weren't dying’

Officials say they’ve been working to balance the recent improvement in conditions with the reality that the pandemic isn’t over.

Walz on Wednesday, though, said the recent improvements in conditions haven’t been significant enough for Minnesota to let down its guard.

“We went from really horrendous to just horrendous,” Walz told reporters.

Walz and other officials have expressed hope that the vaccines arriving now in Minnesota and across the country will ease the strain and the need for restrictions eventually, but not yet.

After receiving final federal approvals over the weekend, the Pfizer pharmaceutical company began distribution of its COVID-19 vaccine — the country’s first — with shipments arriving in a handful of Minnesota hospitals and clinics Monday.

Shots began going into arms in Minnesota this week, but officials caution it will take months for vaccinations to be widespread in the state.

The governor told reporters that he realizes the restrictions are painful, but said the pandemic is still threatening to overwhelm hospitals.

“It would be so much easier if none of this was happening,” he said. “It would be so much easier if the neighbors weren't dying. But that's not reality. And you deserve to have your leadership, your governor, tell you what you need to hear and where things are at, not what maybe we want to hear."

Watch: Walz unveils changes to state’s COVID-19 orders:

Walz and state officials take questions from reporters:

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.