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Latest on COVID-19 in MN: New 'stay safe' order takes effect

May 16, 2020 05:54AM ● By Editor
Peter Vang and Tanaya Walker Vang of Shoreview take shelter from the rain Sunday after shopping at the St. Paul Farmers' Market. Photo: Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

From Minnesota Public Radio News - May 18, 2020

Restrictions on daily life in Minnesota begin to ease Monday as Gov. Tim Walz’s “stay safe” order takes effect, allowing retailers to reopen with limited capacity. Group gatherings of 10 or fewer people, including at places of worship, will be permitted once again. 

Meanwhile, the COVID-19 cases and deaths only continue to increase with dozens more fatalities reported over the weekend as the confirmed case count eclipsed 15,000.

Here are the latest coronavirus statistics:

  • 15,668 confirmed cases via 150,605 tests

  • 722 deaths

  • 2,090 cases requiring hospitalization

  • 487 people remain hospitalized; 221 in intensive care

  • 10,897 patients recovered

Health officials say they’re watching several key metrics to gauge if the disease is accelerating as restrictions are lowered. Among them: the number of days it takes for cases to double, the amount of daily testing, the proportion of positive tests and the level of community spread that can’t be traced to specific contacts — an indication the disease might be more widespread.

State leaders said they hope Minnesotans continue practicing social distancing, wearing masks and avoiding unnecessary travel. 

“There absolutely is a need for vigilance. This is not going back to the way things were before the pandemic,” Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said Thursday. 

Curbs continue on large group venues

Restrictions on restaurants, bars, theaters, bowling alleys and venues that attract large crowds will remain even as restrictions ease starting Monday.

The DFL governor won’t permit restaurants to legally resume dine-in service for now, keeping them takeout-only. He said he’s instructed his agencies to assemble a plan over the next week for a "limited and safe" reopening of bars, restaurants and other places of public accommodation June 1.

On Thursday, the Mall of America said it would begin a limited reopening of stores on June 1. Rosedale Center in Roseville announced similar plans to open stores on Monday and restaurants on June 1 following the government guidelines. Ridgedale Center and Burnsville Center are among the other malls planning to reopen on Monday, along with Apache Mall in Rochester.

When they do come back, restaurants, bars and theaters are likely to face capacity limits. Walz also said he signed an executive order ensuring that people can raise safety concerns about their workplaces without discrimination or retaliation.

It’s a similar situation for hair salons and barber shops, gyms and other currently restricted activities that haven’t been able to serve customers since March. Salons and barbershops are allowed to sell products for curbside pickup but aren’t allowed to provide services in-shop.

On Friday, Ehresmann, the state’s infectious disease director, said the restrictions on visitors to long-term care facilities would also continue on after Monday.

Meatpacking hot spots remain

Many of the recent outbreaks outside the Twin Cities metro area are focused around meatpacking plants. Officials have intensified testing in those hot spots, uncovering more infections.

In southwestern Minnesota’s Nobles County, where an outbreak hit Worthington’s massive JBS pork plant, about 1 in 16 people have tested positive for COVID-19. In mid-April, there were just a handful of cases. By Sunday, there were 1,361 confirmed cases, although the numbers are rising at a much slower rate than in previous weeks.

The JBS plant shut on April 20 but has since partially reopenedwith expanded hygiene and health monitoring measures.

Similar problems have been reported in Stearns County, where COVID-19 cases tied to two packing plants — Pilgrim’s Pride poultry plant in Cold Spring and Jennie-O Turkey in Melrose — have skyrocketed. An undisclosed number of workers at both plants have tested positive for the virus.

There were about 55 confirmed cases in Stearns County two weeks ago. By Sunday, confirmed cases were at 1,713 with 10 deaths.

Kandiyohi County in west-central Minnesota is also seeing cases jump three weeks after officials with the Jennie-O turkey processing plant there said some employees had tested positive for the coronavirus. The county had confirmed three COVID-19 cases back then.

On Sunday, the Health Department reported 412 people have now tested positive.

Developments from around the state

More details on state efforts to purchase building for morgue 

More details emerged Sunday on plans by the state of Minnesota to purchase a cold-storage facility it can use as a COVID-19 morgue if there is a surge in deaths in the state.

According to documents from Minnesota Management and Budget, on the Department of Administration's request for funding for the purchase, the state has identified a 71,000-square-foot facility on 5 acres in the Twin Cities metro area. The exact location has not been revealed.

The purchase price is estimated at $5.475 million, with the request including an additional $1 million in building operating costs and $425,000 in improvements and other costs -- for a total of $6.9 million. The request says 75 percent of the cost may be reimbursable through the federal government. That budget request does not include staffing and equipment costs.

The request says the warehouse could store up to 5,100 bodies; the current capacity in the metro area at funeral homes, medical examiners' offices and hospitals is currently 1,262, with up to about 2,000 in surge capacity.

In other documents, state officials said a lease arrangement is not possible, because the building's current owners indicated they could not sell it, if it was used as a morgue.

The funding request was approved by a 10-member panel of top lawmakers who are fielding administration requests for use of COVID-19 funds.

— MPR News staff

Boundary Waters reopens for overnight use

U.S. Forest Service officials say the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness will reopen to overnight use starting Monday.

That's as Gov. Tim Walz's COVID-19 stay-at-home order expires.

“We are happy to be fully allowing visitors into the BWCAW," Forest Supervisor Connie Cummins said in a news release. “We ask that visitors please continue to follow local, state and federal guidelines on staying safe and practice good hygiene and social distancing wherever they choose to visit.”

Officials said there may be some changes in how visitors pick up Boundary Waters permits, and they're asking people to stay as local as possible to their designated entry point and travel route.

Some closures remain in place across the Canadian border, in Ontario's Quetico Provincial Park. 

Elsewhere in northern Minnesota, campsites and houseboat mooring sites in Voyageurs National Park also will reopen on Monday. But permit-holders need to print those permits at home; there are no open facilities at the park to print permits.

— Andrew Krueger | MPR News

Metro Transit increases efforts to get riders to wear face coverings

Metro Transit is stepping up efforts to get all passengers to wear face coverings, starting Monday.

The Twin Cities transit agency says all train and bus riders need to wear a mask, scarf, bandana or other cloth face covering. There will be more signs and announcements to remind passengers.

While it called the new policy a requirement, Metro Transit said it won't deny service to people who don't wear a mask. It's seeking voluntary compliance to keep other riders and drivers safe.

Metro Transit continues to ask people to use mass transit only for essential trips.

— MPR News staff

Mall of America seeking state COVID-19 relief

The Mall of America is seeking financial help from the state as it tries to bounce back from its coronavirus closure.

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, said Friday that mall officials are seeking legislative approval to tap into a tax increment financing account to get through the current crisis. But he noted that the city of Bloomington and local legislators are opposed.

DFL Gov. Tim Walz told reporters that he is willing to listen.“All our businesses we need to figure out. But when you have one that has that big of draw, both nationally and internationally, there’s an impact that it has tax-wise, not just for the city of Bloomington but for the state. So, we are talking about it. It is one of the issues that came up.”

Rep. Mike Howard, DFL-Richfield, said on Twitter that the state should not be bailing out the wealthy owners of the mall while thousands of small businesses are struggling to pay rent or mortgages.

— Tim Pugmire | MPR News

Minnesota courts preparing to reopen

Minnesota courts are beginning the gradual process of resuming in-person hearings, as judges and court employees may return to their offices starting Monday. 

Chief Justice Lorie Gildea has ordered a preparedness plan to be implemented before more face-to-face proceedings may take place. 

Her plan includes social distancing, wearing masks, and the daily cleaning of courtrooms and offices. 

Starting June 1, a limited number of criminal jury trials may resume. But civil jury trials will not be held until September. 

Meanwhile, anyone going in to a federal courthouse in Minnesota must wear a face mask starting Monday. However many proceedings are still being conducted by phone and video link. 

Federal criminal jury trials are postponed until July 5, as are other proceedings such as sentencing hearings where defendants do not consent to videoconferencing.

— Matt Sepic | MPR News

Top headlines

More Minnesota restaurants announce permanent closures:While restaurants across Minnesota await the chance to resume some dine-in operations, a growing list of restaurants in the state say they won't reopen, even after COVID-19 business restrictions are lifted.

Health official says Rochester house party spawned cluster of COVID-19 cases: Through testing and contact tracing, health officials believe that a single person at the party spread the virus to multiple other individuals, who further spread the virus in the community, said Graham Briggs, Olmsted County public health director.

Major effect of quarantine is delaying COVID-19 peak, not preventing it: A scenario that mirrors Walz’s Wednesday announcement projects that by the end of May, an estimated 1,441 people will have died of COVID-19 in Minnesota. By next March, that model predicts that just over 29,000 people will have died from the disease in the state.

To read the original articles and more COVID-19 reporting, follow this link the MPR News website.

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