ST. PAUL — Minnesota restaurants, bars and hair salons will be allowed to reopen June 1 with new safety protocols in place to limit the spread of the coronavirus, state officials announced Wednesday, May 20.
Under new guidance from the Walz administration, restaurants will be able to offer exclusively outdoor dining options and barbers and salons will be able to service customers in their shops. In both settings, new safeguards will have to be implemented to limit the potential transmission of COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus.
The announcement frustrated business owners who'd expected broader rollbacks of state restrictions and church leaders on Wednesday said they would hold worship services Tuesday, May 26, though they may be in violation of state orders.
Gov. Tim Walz and health officials said the move was the latest effort to allow businesses to restart while also attempting to curb the spread of COVID-19. In both settings, employees will be asked to wear masks and the state will recommend that customers also wear them while having their hair done or waiting for food.
“These health guidelines are not an impediment to opening our economy, they’re the key to opening our economy,” Walz said. “While it’s not perfect, it’s safe and it’s moving the dial.”
The news comes after the businesses have remained largely shuttered for months and as some owners said they would reopen in violation of the state's stay-safe order. One Albany, Minnesota bar tried to reopen Monday but after Attorney General Keith Ellison sued the owner and a Stearns County judge issued a restraining order, the owners walked back their plans.
The closures have financially gutted many businesses and dozens announced they would close permanently as a result. And as restaurant and bar owners around the state considered opening ahead of the Memorial Day holiday, Walz urged them to wait.
Campgrounds and charter boat services would also be allowed to open under the latest orders with guidance from the state. But gyms and fitness centers, theaters, bowling alleys, churches and other places of amusement would have to wait. Plans to allow bigger social gathering spaces to reopen would likely come later in the summer, the governor said.
The Minnesota Department of Health on Wednesday reported that 645 more Minnesotans had tested positive for the illness, bringing the total to date to 17,670. Health officials warn that count underreports the number of Minnesotans who have or have had COVID-19. In all, 777 people have died from the disease and its complications and 550 were hospitalized with the illness.
“The decision the governor has come to is a cautious one and I think it’s incremental and it’s cautious because the data indicate that we need to continue to be cautious,” Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said.
Beginning June 1, restaurants and bars can reopen for dine-in services on patios or outdoor dining spaces and tables must be six feet apart. Takeout and delivery options can continue under the order. Patrons will need to make reservations and restaurants will have to limit capacity at 50 people.
Groups visiting bars and restaurants will be limited to groups of four or six if the customers are a family.
Walz and Department of Employment and Economic Development Commissioner Steve Grove said they would ask local governments to consider amending zoning requirements to free up more space for restaurants and bars to seat customers outside.
And personal care businesses like tattoo parlors, hair salons and barbershops would be able to open their doors on the same date if they operate at 25% capacity. State officials recommend that business owners temperature check customers before offering services and require that workers and customers wear masks. Customers will have to make reservations for services.
The news of the gradual reopenings received mixed reviews Wednesday with some business owners celebrating at the chance to reopen and others calling for a quicker move to opening restaurants, bars and other services.
“While continued progress to reopen is important, we hoped the governor would take more meaningful steps today," Minnesota Chamber of Commerce President Doug Loon said. "The approach announced today doesn’t sufficiently recognize the ability of businesses – many of them small businesses – to innovate and protect employees and customers."
Officials with Hospitality Minnesota, the organization that represents restaurants, hotels and resorts around the state, said they expected a bigger breakthrough from Wednesday's announcement.
"As these businesses stare into the face of financial collapse, today’s announcement further delays the incoming revenue these small businesses need to survive," Ann Kirby McGill, the group's director of strategic alignment, said. "If these businesses are being asked to remain closed or mostly closed, then they need the state’s help with a targeted relief package that provides the support our businesses need to navigate this financial catastrophe."
Restrictions on churches draw backlash
Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, said he was "dumbfounded" at the governor's move to allow restaurants, bars and salons to reopen, but not letting churches reopen.
"I see no reason why churches are any more dangerous a place for coronavirus transmission than Walmart or a mall," Gazelka said. "If you can get a haircut, shop at a mall, or eat at a restaurant, you should be able to go to church.”
Walz and economic development officials said they were working to find ways to allow congregations to hold larger outdoor services and hoped to quickly find protocols to allow religious leaders to do so.
"There is a very strong sense of urgency to figure this next piece out," Walz said.
But faith leaders on Wednesday said that wasn't good enough. In a statement, leaders of the Minnesota Catholic Conference and the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod in Minnesota said they would hold services beginning next week despite state orders restricting gatherings to 10 people or fewer.
“Darkness and despair have taken hold of so many of our fellow Americans in the face of the economic and social hardship of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Archbishop Bernard Hebda said. “Faith has always been a source of comfort and strength and now more than ever it is of the utmost importance that we are able to meet the spiritual needs of our community.”
If businesses and restaurants can reopen at limited capacity, churches ought to be able to as well, faith leaders said.
“Now that the State has deemed the risk of spreading coronavirus low enough to reopen non-essential business, we respectfully believe that it is our right and duty to safely resume public ministry to the faithful even without the support of the governor," Rev. Lucas Woodford, president of the Minnesota South District of The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod, said.
This story will be updated. As a public service, we’ve opened this article to everyone regardless of subscription status. If this coverage is important to you, please consider supporting local journalism by clicking on the subscribe button in the upper right-hand corner of the homepage.