ST. PAUL — Gov. Tim Walz on Wednesday, Nov. 18, announced that bars and restaurants would close for indoor service for four weeks starting Friday, Nov. 20, and that fitness centers and other places of entertainment would be closed in an effort to curb the spread of the coronavirus.
The Democratic-Farmer-Labor governor said restaurants and other establishments would still be able to offer takeout or delivery options during the closure. Gyms, bowling alleys, theaters, museums and other places of public entertainment would also be required to close their doors Friday, and youth and prep sports would be put on hold.
The latest restrictions come in response to a surge of COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths in the state and as health care workers have called for help in managing an onslaught of new patients while facing staffing shortages as they fall ill or are asked to quarantine.
Recent Department of Health data show that restaurants, bars, fitness facilities, sporting events and wedding receptions have been the sites of large COVID-19 outbreaks. Since June, the state reported that nearly 3,200 cases had been tracked back to outbreaks in bars and restaurants while 950 stemmed from wedding receptions.
Walz in a televised address urged Minnesotans to again heed the state guidance despite the challenges they may pose.
"Much has been asked of you. And I need to ask a little more. We're at a point in this pandemic that the decisions we make now will have huge repercussions on the health and well-being of our neighbors, of our health care providers of our daycare providers, of our teachers," Walz said. "No one thinks that this is easy. And no one thinks this is fair in how it's hitting. This virus is not fair."
The measures are set to take effect Friday, Nov. 20 at 11:59 p.m. and last through Friday, Dec. 18. Social gatherings with members outside of a person's household will also be prohibited at that time, though state officials said they would not actively enforce that provision.
Retail stores can continue to operate as usual as can salons and places of worship. Department of Health data has pinpointed fewer COVID-19 cases to those settings as people tend to spend less time there and often wear masks.
Child care facilities and schools will also remain open under the new guidance and school districts will determine whether in-person, distance-learning or a hybrid model are appropriate given local case totals.
Walz also advised against out-of-state travel and urged those entering the state to quarantine upon arrival. And while wedding and funeral services will continue to be allowed, the state prohibited receptions that follow, citing clusters of cases stemming from those events in recent months.
Outdoor recreational activities will also be allowed to continue but the state guidance requires participants to partake in groups that include only other members of their household. Races, tournaments, sporting events and outdoor classes involving participants from more than one household would not be allowed.
Professional and collegiate sports will be allowed to continue but no spectators will be able to attend the events, under the guidance. Youth and high school sports will be paused for at least a month.
Those found in violation of the executive orders could face a $1,000 fine or up to 90 days in jail. Business owners that violate the guidelines face steeper penalties.
The latest round of restrictions come after the state on Wednesday reported 5,102 new COVID-19 cases and 67 more deaths from the illness, a new one-day record. In all, 3,010 Minnesotans have died from the disease and its complications.
Across the state, health care workers have become sick with the virus in greater numbers or had to quarantine following interactions with people who've tested positive. That has shrunk the number of people able to care for COVID-19 patients along with all other patients. The Mayo Clinic this week announced that more than 900 staff had contracted the virus in the last two weeks alone.
Health care organizations around the state voiced their support for the new regulations Wednesday and asked Minnesotans to abide by them.
"The need for these actions is clear and the opportunity to limit them is in the hands of Minnesotans," Minnesota Medical Association President Marilyn Peitso said. "Please help us – stay home, limit your social contacts, wear a mask, get tested if you have symptoms or believe you have been exposed. On behalf of the physicians of Minnesota, please help us as we work to provide care for all who need it.”
The trade group Hospitality Minnesota in a statement ahead of the speech said the new limits would push businesses "off a cliff." And the Minnesota Licensed Beverage Association said the move would devastate business owners around the state who would struggle to survive financially on takeout orders alone.
"Bars and restaurant leaders and staff are heading into a bleak holiday season with little to no support from our elected leaders," MLBA Executive Director Tony Chesak said. "The state and federal government both need to take steps to aid employees and the hospitality industry with relaxed regulations, direct financial support, unemployment assistance, and loans to get through this dark winter."
Ahead of the announcement, Republicans in the Minnesota House of Representatives called for relief payments from the state to help businesses survive the blow of another closure and Senate Republicans called on the governor to provide evidence that a prior stay-at-home measure flattened the state's curve in new cases.
"We should have been prepared for this, and another round of lockdowns won’t change that," Sen. Eric Pratt, R-Prior Lake, said. “Minnesotans can’t afford another round of closures; they’re barely making it as it is."
Democrats, meanwhile, urged Congress to pass another COVID-19 relief package that could help businesses affected by closures.
Despite the grim predictions about mounting case counts and deaths on the horizon, Walz said the prospect of COVID-19 vaccinations nearing approval to be rolled out should give Minnesotans hope that these restrictions could be some of the last.
"We've got a light at the end of the tunnel. I believe with every fiber of my being that there's an incredibly strong possibility, more like a probability, that we will be vaccinating people before the end of this four-week pause in our long-term care facilities and our frontline health care providers," he said. "We can do this, Minnesota. We can get this right."