ST. PAUL — Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz Wednesday, Dec. 16, announced that he would extend an order keeping restaurants and bars closed for indoor service and would authorize elementary schools to reopen with coronavirus mitigation measures in place.
The orders and tweaked restrictions on health clubs, social gatherings and other venues came two days before a monthlong set of curbs were set to lapse in Minnesota. And they garnered mixed reviews from health care groups, business owners, educators and lawmakers.
The first-term Democratic governor said hospital capacity in the state remains a concern but the recent closures helped curve the spread of the illness and bring down demand for hospital beds and ICU care. And because children face a lower risk of developing severe symptoms from the illness, Walz said districts around the state would be able to opt for in-person learning with additional personal protective equipment and testing for teachers.
“That sun is rising, this will be the week with the longest, darkest nights. But next week starts moving towards spring," Walz said. "Rest assured, this pandemic will end. This pandemic is starting to transfer. But there is a lot of work left to be done. We are not out of the woods yet."
The governor also announced that he would lift closures of gyms and fitness studios, youth and adult sports and outdoor entertainment venues. And restaurants, bars and breweries would be allowed to offer outdoor service. Additional capacity restrictions and social distancing requirements would also be involved in the reopenings.
He also announced that he would change restrictions on social gatherings beginning Friday to allow groups of up to 10 from at a maximum two households to gather indoors.
In an effort to cushion some of the blow to business owners affected by the new or extended curbs, Walz on Wednesday signed into law a $217 million aid package for those hit hardest by the pandemic.
"I know this doesn't make folks whole. But like so many of these things, we're trying to move as much as we can to mitigate the risk, to provide some of that economic activity," he said.
Here's a more detailed breakdown of the new or extended restrictions:
- Elementary schools were set to get the okay to reopen as early as Jan. 18 with new mitigation measures in place. The decision on whether to use in-person instruction would be up to district leaders.
- Restaurants, bars and breweries can remain open for takeout and delivery and will be able to offer outdoor service at 50% capacity with a maximum of 100 guests. The limit on people at each table is four and tables must be spaced at least six feet apart. And they will also face a 10 p.m. closing time for onsite service.
- Indoor social gatherings, while still not recommended, would be allowed in groups of up to 10. Those gatherings are not to include people from more than two households. Outdoor gatherings can include up to 15 people from three households. The change is set to take effect Friday.
- Gyms and health clubs will be allowed to reopen for individual exercise at 25% capacity with a maximum of 100 people. Face masks and social distancing are required. Guidance for group classes is forthcoming and those will be allowed to restart Jan. 4.
- Youth and adult sports can resume Jan. 4 with additional guidance set to come out ahead of that date.
- Outdoor entertainment venues can reopen at 25% capacity of up to 100 people. Indoor entertainment centers like theaters, museums and bowling alleys are to remain closed.
Hospital and medical groups around the state said the restrictions were needed to limit extensive community spread and the resulting demand for hospital care. And they urged Minnesotans to continue wearing facemasks in public, social distancing and limiting social gatherings to continue tamping down new cases of COVID-19 in the state.
"We have planned, we have coordinated but it still does not obviate the toll that it has taken on our workforce and you, the citizens of Minnesota," Dr. Kenneth Holmen, CentraCare president and CEO, said. "I am worried. I am worried about the next few weeks, as the end of the year approaches and I continue to worry about the strain on our staff and facilities and on our citizens."
Minnesota Chamber of Commerce President Doug Loon on Wednesday said businesses were reaching a "crisis point" after extended closures.
“Businesses are doing their part to protect employees and customers," he said. "Small businesses are at a crisis point and this could mean closing their doors forever.”
Liz Rammer, president and CEO of Hospitality Minnesota, said the industry group was "gravely disappointed" to see the news of a continued closure of indoor restaurant and bar services after members urged the governor to allow business owners to reopen at 50% capacity.
Minnesota Republican lawmakers, meanwhile, said the extended restrictions were too harsh on businesses already buckling under strain and said the amended rules were unclear. Democrats in a separate statement expressed support for the curbs.
"Thousands of businesses had no problems before, but Walz shut down every single one of them anyway. They are just desperate to keep their business going and the data doesn’t support these new restrictions," Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, said. "Let the businesses and employees who were keeping people safe go back to their jobs with simple, easy to follow guidelines.”
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