Minnesota's restaurants prepare for reopening, again

A customer sits at a bar.
A customer sits at a bar on Nov. 10, 2020, at a Bloomington, Minn., restaurant. Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz is lifting some restrictions on in-person, indoor service in bars and restaurants.
Jim Mone | AP Photo 2020

Catherine Fyre owns Catz Billiards and Blues, a pool hall and bar in Ely, Minn. Fyre said it’s critical for people in her rural community to be able to get together.

“People need to get out of their homes. And I’m worried for people. They go to the grocery store to socialize,” she said.

For bars and restaurants across Minnesota, forced closures and capacity restrictions have been devastating. Fyre said business fell by half in the last 10 months.

Even though she can reopen in a few days, Fyre says she’s still frustrated that big retailers have been able to operate normally. Fyre said she’s careful to follow sanitation protocols.

“The big, huge stores can be open, and the Menards and everything. And they’re touching things. We clean up every pool table after people leave,” Fyre said.

Starting Monday, Minnesota restaurants may reopen, but only at 50 percent capacity. Gov. Tim Walz also is easing up on restrictions at bars, movie theaters, gyms and sporting events.

At the start of the pandemic last March, bars and restaurants in the state were required to shut down indoor table service. Then in June, Walz allowed them to reopen at half capacity.

But amid a sharp increase in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in mid-November, Walz again turned the dial back, limiting eateries to takeout only. Now, with case counts on the downswing and a vaccine being distributed, he’s again allowing limited in-person service.

“Restaurants and bars are going to go back to 50 percent capacity, looking like we were in the summer, 150 people maximum,” the governor said as he announced the new order on Wednesday.

The changes will take effect Monday. Restaurants are again limited to six people at a table and parties of two at the bar. Reservations are required, and dine-in service ends at 10 p.m.

Entertainment venues including movie theaters, museums, and bowling alleys may reopen at 25 percent capacity. And face coverings are required. Gyms and fitness centers are also capped at a quarter capacity. State officials aimed restrictions at places where large groups of people spent time unmasked and would potentially spread the coronavirus, especially if they spent hours together.

“The first shutdown was one thing, and you saw a certain impact and then when things opened back up, the floor raised significantly,” said Max Bialick, purchasing manager for American Fish and Seafood, a small company based in Hopkins, Minn. “But then we’re seeing the roller coaster after the second shutdown that really put a lot of pain out there to a lot of our customers and upstream to us.”

With a dearth of weddings and banquets and the shutdown of office cafeterias, demand from big institutional customers has also fallen. The company adapted by selling directly to the public online. And it continues to distribute wholesale seafood in neighboring states that have fewer restrictions.

Bialick said he’s cautiously optimistic that even a partial reopening of restaurants could be the start of a rebound.

“When things reopened the first time, we certainly saw some glimpses of restaurants and other food establishments starting to get some traction again, so we’re hopeful we’ll see the same thing,” Bialick said.

The new executive order also allows the resumption of limited private parties, including wedding receptions. Houses of worship must remain at half capacity, but there are no more limits on the total number of congregants.

While there is reason for hope, Walz said he may have to resume restrictions if the situation warrants.

“We'll keep our hand on the dial. States are peaking. We have mobile morgue trucks and a shortage of body bags in LA County. Arizona is peaking back again,” the governor said in an address Wednesday afternoon. “This thing seems to move to different regional parts. The Upper Midwest has come back down some. There's every reason to be optimistic, Minnesota, but there's every reason to be believe it can get out of hand pretty quickly.”

In a statement, Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said that in this pandemic, improvements can be tenuous, and if we let our guard down, COVID-19 can “surge back in terrifying ways.”

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