ST. PAUL — Gov. Tim Walz announced Wednesday, Jan. 6, that he would lift a ban on indoor dining at Minnesota bars and restaurants.

When it takes effect the following Monday, Jan. 11, the move will put an end to a 54-day stretch during which dining rooms across the state were ordered to close. Such establishments have only been able to offer takeout and delivery services to customers in the interim.

Restrictions on other venues where COVID-19 is believed to spread more easily will ease next week as well.

"There's reasons to be optimistic about this issue," Walz said at a news conference Wednesday, pointing to the growing number of Minnesotans who are being vaccinated against COVID-19.

Hospitalizations and COVID-19 test positivity rates have been declining as well, he said. State health officials have said much the same thing as of late.

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The announcement may come as relief to the owners of restaurants and bars, which have had to operate at reduced capacity since pandemic began but were ordered not to admit patrons for in-person dining in November amid a surge in COVID-19 infections. But such public-facing businesses targeted by the executive order issued Wednesday will still have to abide by certain occupancy limits. They include:

  • A 50% capacity limit on bar and restaurant dining areas up to a maximum of 150 people. Parties of up to six people must be seated at least 6 feet away from one another. Parties of no more than two people can sit at the bar.
  • A 25% capacity limit on gyms that was already in effect. Up to 150 people can work out in a gym at a time beginning next Monday, however, and fitness classes will be able to admit up to 25 people. Guests will have to practice social distancing and wear face masks. Exercise machines must be spaced apart from one another. Pools may also operate at 25% capacity, having been open since Monday, Jan 4.
  • A 25% capacity limit on movie theaters, bowling alleys and museums with a 150-person cap. Patrons will have to wear masks at such venues as well.
  • A 50% capacity limit for places of worship with no maximum limit.

The order maintains a 10 p.m. curfew, past which bars and restaurants cannot stay open for dine-in service. Movie theaters and bowling alleys that serve food may not do so after 10 p.m., either.

Liz Ramer, president and CEO of Hospitality Minnesota, a restaurant and lodging trade group, called Wednesday's announcement "great news" in a statement to the press. The hospitality industry has been particularly hard-hit by the pandemic, which prompted some Minnesota restaurants and bars to reopen defiance of the in-door dining ban in December.

"Reopening will bring in much-needed revenue at a desperate time for these businesses. We know that operators committed to following the protocols will keep their guests and workers safe and the data supports this," she said. "For an industry that provides 300,000 jobs in Minnesota and is integral to every community in the state, the road to recovery is going to be long and we’re very glad to get started."

The trade group representing liquor retailers in the state made similarly celebratory statements about the news. Minnesota Licensed Beverage Association Executive Director Tony Chesak said it recognizes "how seriously our bars and restaurants are taking the pandemic."

"We will continue to work with the Governor and the Legislature on quick and decisive relief for these struggling businesses," Chesak said. "We are and have been ready to open our doors."

News of restrictions on sports was received less warmly. While youth and adult organized sport teams have been able to meet for practice since Monday, Jan. 4, and spectators can attend live games beginning Jan. 14, players are still being required to wear face masks.

A self-described grassroots group called Let Them Play MN announced plans to file a lawsuit this week against the mask mandate for sports.

"Returning to practice is one step forward, but imposing masks during sports are a dangerous two steps back for Minnesota’s young people," Dawn Gillman, the group's founder and executive director said in a statement. "We don’t want another kid to pass out, or worse, at practice or upcoming game. We call on Governor Walz to stop harming our athletes."

Health officials have nonetheless cautioned that fewer COVID-19 detecting tests were administered between Christmas and New Year's, however, making it somewhat difficult to assess the pandemic's hold on Minnesota. Precautions still need to be taken lest COVID-19 come roaring back.

Walz reiterated the need to make safe choices Wednesday, and said that signs of community spread are still being observed in Minnesota. That means COVID-19 is still spreading in the state to the point that individuals who fall ill with the disease are not always sure of how or where they contracted it.

Health officials are also trying to see if the more transmissible mutation of COVID-19 first identified in the United Kingdom is present in Minnesota, Walz said. It is likely here already, the governor said.

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