Twin Cities tightening COVID bar, restaurant rules as cases climb

A woman uses a shaker to mix a drink
Kate Engelstad mixes a drink at St. Paul's Gnome pub in November 2020 during what was Minnesota's largest COVID wave. On Wednesday, the St. Paul and Minneapolis mayors ordered new COVID rules on restaurant and bar patrons as active cases leaped.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

Posted: Jan. 12 | Updated: Jan. 14

With COVID-19 cases climbing quickly, Minneapolis and St. Paul will soon require proof of vaccination or a recent negative COVID test to enter places serving food and drink. 

Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey and St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter announced their plan Wednesday, saying the restrictions were needed as COVID’s omicron variant spreads rapidly across the region. 

Some business owners, however, worry the move will spark new confrontations with patrons.

The cities will require proof that customers have received a full course of vaccine, which includes the paper copy or photo of their vaccination card or an app like Docket. If they can’t provide proof of vaccine, they can show proof of a negative test from a lab within the previous 72 hours. The tests must be conducted by health professionals.

The policy covers bars, restaurants and other places like stadiums where people eat or drink, according to city staff. It doesn’t cover places like schools or nursing homes or areas like seating in the skyway system. 

It applies to all people at least 5 years old who are eligible for vaccination. Children under the age of 5 in St. Paul were exempt from the order there. On Friday, Minneapolis updated its policy to eliminate a testing requirement for children between 2 and 5 years old. Minneapolis’ policy now also exempts children under 5.

The policies go into effect on Wednesday, Jan. 19 for non-ticketed events and on Jan. 26 for ticketed events. They are set to expire after 40 days.

Frey called the move a critical last step to avoid the need to close businesses again. 

“The surge in COVID cases across our city is causing pileups in testing sites and is overwhelming our hospitals and health care workers,” he said. “The data is exceedingly clear that more is needed to keep our city safe while we weather this highly contagious variant.”

Wes Burdine, owner of the bar Black Hart in St. Paul, shares his thoughts on the restrictions

Keeping workers healthy is a priority for businesses at a time when they are struggling to retain staff, said Jonathan Weinhagen, president and CEO of the Minneapolis Regional Chamber of Commerce. 

“Minneapolis and St. Paul are open for business, and we want to keep it that way,” Weinhagen said. “Testing, vaccines and masking are the very best tools we have at our disposal to mitigate the impacts of this virus and to keep our economy open.”

‘You’re speaking to a hungry, angry person’

Some bar and restaurant owners, however, are worried about the potential for conflict between patrons and employees asking for proof of vaccination or testing.

Frederick Brathwaite and his wife Sheila own Mama Sheila’s House of Soul in south Minneapolis. The new mandate will be difficult for business owners to enforce, he predicted.

“It's going to be hard to tell (patrons), 'No you can't get food.' You're speaking to a hungry, angry person. They might have the vaccine, but they might not have their card with them,” he added.

"Serving somebody a meal is such a personal thing, and now the first thing we're going to do is get you on the combative and go 'I need to see your medical records.' That's just so counterintuitive to the hospitality industry,” said St. Paul restaurateur Brian Ingram, who with his wife Sarah owns Hope Breakfast Bar and the Gnome pub.

Ingram said 99 percent of his employees are vaccinated, but he fears the new mandate could mean a continued loss in sales and lead to more confrontations.

Liz Rammer, CEO of the trade group Hospitality Minnesota, echoed those sentiments. While the hospitality industry is concerned about public health, “this new vaccine and testing mandate for businesses serving food and beverages adds another enormous challenge … as our operators struggle with historic labor shortages and a stalled economic recovery,” she said.

The Minnesota Licensed Beverage Association said its members were being targeted unfairly.

“They say we’re in this together, but this mandate shows that the hospitality industry is clearly targeted alone,” Tony Chesak, the association’s executive director, said in a statement. “We know both vaccinated and unvaccinated people spread the virus. And it happens at schools, work-out facilities, other retailers, sporting events and more.”

Cities that have instituted vaccine requirements have helped flatten the curve of COVID-19 cases and preserve the health care system, said Heidi Ritchie, interim health commissioner for Minneapolis, adding she hopes other nearby cities follow suit.  

“The vaccine mandate will help build our immunity wall in Minneapolis, and with the help of St. Paul, the region,” Ritchie said.

The new requirements follow a reinstituting of mask mandates in each city, which went into effect last week.