Almost exactly a year after they were put in place, Minnesota is easing back some of its COVID-19 restrictions, taking another step toward some semblance normalcy into the spring.
Beginning noon March 15, bars and restaurants will be allowed to serve customers at 75 percent capacity. Salons, barber shops and churches won’t have capacity limits at all, but will still be required to follow social distancing guidelines.
Small gatherings will be more open, as well, with groups of 50 people allowed to mingle outdoors, and groups of 15 indoors, with no limit on the number of households allowed to be represented.
“It’s not over,” Walz said. “We’re not turning the dial all the way to 11. We are turning it up, though, to a point where normalcy is on the horizon.”
Even large event venues will expand capacity early next month — which means the Minnesota Twins will be allowed to host up to 10,000 fans at Target Field for their home opener in April.
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What does this all mean for life in Minnesota? Here’s what you need to know.
And if we’ve missed something: Let us know. Share your questions here, and we’ll track down the answer. We’ll continue to update this FAQ as new questions — and answers — arise.
What’s included in these latest rollbacks?
There’s a long list of specifics — and guidance for individual circumstances and industries — on the state’s website. Here’s a quick overview:
Social gatherings are expanded to allow up to 50 people outdoors and 15 people indoors — but the news here is that there is no longer a limit on how many households are allowed to participate. Social distancing between households, though, must be maintained.
Places of worship and religious services like weddings and funerals no longer have a capacity limit, though masking and social distancing between households are still required. Food and drink also continue to be prohibited, “except when essential to perform a ritual or service (e.g., Communion).” Singing will be allowed, as long as people are wearing masks.
Businesses that provide personal services, like barber shops and tattoo parlors no longer have a capacity limit, though social distancing is still required between groups.
Gyms, fitness centers and indoor entertainment venues will be open up to 50 percent capacity on March 15. On April 1, the current cap of 250 people will be removed. Indoor venues are subject to other capacity limits, depending on whether people are seated or moving around.
Bars and restaurants will be allowed to expand to 75 percent capacity — with a maximum of 250 people — for indoor and outdoor dining, beginning March 15. On April 1, that 250-maximum cap drops. Patrons will still be required to be seated; tables must still be set six feet apart; bar seating continues to be limited to groups of four and table seating will still be limited to groups of six. And bars and restaurants must still be closed by 11 p.m., and can’t reopen till 4 a.m.
Larger outdoor venues, like Target Field, will open at 50 percent capacity, with a cap of 250 people, on March 15. But by April 1, that capacity will be significantly increased, depending on whether people at the venue are seated — as in a stadium — or not. Social distancing and masks are still required, and venues will be prohibited from serving food or beverages between 11 p.m. and 4 a.m.
The state has also outlined its updated guidelines for pools, swim parks, youth sports, reception spaces, large private events and working from home, set to go into effect March 15 and April 1.
Are these changes the start of a full return to normal?
Maybe. But state health officials said they’ll be watching infection rates — and will be tracking variants of the virus — closely over the next few weeks. If those rates continue to fall, Walz said he thinks it will be possible to ease restrictions further.
But if the emerging variants cause a spike in cases, hospitalizations or deaths, state officials say restrictions could be ratcheted back up.
With new variants on the rise, is this really the time to open things up?
Walz addressed the variants during his announcement Friday where he acknowledged that increasing capacity at bars and restaurants, family gatherings and Twins games is not without risk.
Michael Osterholm, a prominent epidemiologist and the director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, has expressed deep concerns about the new B.1.1.7. variant of COVID-19 — the so-called U.K. variant — which has proven to be more infectious and more dangerous than the original strain. He has even suggested that officials should reconsider opening schools to in-person learning.
Walz said he and his team took those risks into account. Their decision to ease restrictions, he said, was based on Minnesota’s relatively high vaccination rate, advanced computer modeling and a desire to balance the health of Minnesota’s economy with the health of its people.
And if the variants do cause a spike, he said, more stringent restrictions can always be put back in place.
Do we still have to wear masks?
Masks will likely be the last COVID-19 mitigation measure to go, state officials say. Walz said masks are an inexpensive and incredibly effective tool for limiting the spread of the virus. They’re not popular with everyone, but too effective to abandon.
How do people keep themselves safe, as things reopen?
State leaders said the best way to stay safe as the state opens is to cling to the basics: Wear a mask. Stay socially distanced. Get a vaccine if it’s offered to you.
The strategies haven’t changed much, but state leaders said they’re as important as ever.
What does this mean for activities like youth sports?
Youth sports pose a complex set of risks.
Recent reports in which outbreaks — and, specifically, outbreaks involving COVID-19 variants — were associated with youth sports have been top of mind for state health officials.
Even so, state officials said they are cautiously optimistic, without offering too many specifics on which events will be allowed to go forward.
State officials Friday reiterated that organized sports’ practices and games will continue to be open, but with limited spectators, according to the changing rules around capacity and venues.
Tournaments, according to the state’s guidance, continue to be allowed but discouraged — as is out-of-state play.
Mask requirements, at games and practices, will remain for the foreseeable future.
My local bar can serve more people now. Can I stay later, too?
Even while pulling back restrictions on bars and restaurants from 50 percent to 75 percent capacity, state officials elected to keep one of its more controversial restrictions in place: the 11 p.m. curfew.
DEED Commissioner Steve Grove said the curfew question was heavily debated.
“When you see outbreaks at bars, they often happen later in the evening,” he said. “Alcohol plays a role in decision-making. We’re not quite ready to move that restriction.”
Will I be allowed to travel for the walleye fishing opener?
Thousands of anglers typically travel north for Minnesota’s May 15 walleye fishing opener. Last year’s official Governor’s Fishing Opener was canceled by the start of the pandemic, though fishing season went on as usual.
State health officials continue to recommend against unnecessary travel, but they’re optimistic about the possibility for this year’s opener.
By then, vaccination rates will likely be high, Walz said. He told Minnesotans to buckle down, wear a mask — but make fishing plans.
“I really want this opener,” he said. “I anticipate we’re going to be able to have it.”
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.