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Latest on COVID-19 in MN: Walz plan slow-walks bar, restaurant restarts

May 20, 2020 05:43AM ● By Editor
Diners stand in line outside and eat on the patio of Punch Pizza in Minneapolis on Wednesday, May 20, 2020.   Photo: Evan Frost | MPR News

By Brian Bakst from Minnesota Public Radio News - May 20, 2020

In a cautious plan for reopening close-contact businesses, Gov. Tim Walz on Wednesday said restaurants can start serving sit-down customers beginning June 1 — but only at outdoor tables. 

He’s stopping short of letting customers sit at the bar, in restaurant dining rooms or other indoor tables for now. Hair care businesses can provide in-shop services at a limited capacity.

Walz said he was trying to give “as much consistency and predictability” as possible, and that the ongoing restrictions on daily life are maddening and frustrating, especially for bars and restaurants that he called integral to Minnesota life, but the virus won’t allow business as usual.

“These health guidelines are not an impediment to opening the economy. They’re key to opening up the economy,” Walz said, adding that consumers ultimately will decide when it’s safe to return to bars and eateries.

Under Walz’s plan, restaurant staff would have to wear masks; customers who are waiting for food would be encouraged to. There must be 6 feet between tables, and patios will have to operate at a lower capacity than normal — no more than 50 people at a time, with parties limited to four, or a family of six. Reservations will be required.

Curbside pickup for takeout food would be permitted as before.

The governor’s new guidance will permit a gradual reopening of personal care businesses, such as barbershops, salons and tattoo parlors. They would be required to have clear plans for social distancing, sanitizing and other safety measures to keep coronavirus risks down, including operating at 25 percent capacity at first.

Walz said he planned to get a haircut on June 4, his wedding anniversary.

An administration document says individual youth sports can resume per Health Department guidelines but no games can be played. Summer camps will remain day camps only. Campgrounds and charter boats are now considered "open.”

Indoor worship services still on hold

Steve Grove, the state’s employment and economic development commissioner, outlined future phases of reopening — but wouldn’t put dates to them.

In that next phase, gatherings of 20 or fewer would be OK, and indoor service in restaurants and bars would be allowed at half capacity. 

Grove said religious services would be part of that next phase — including allowing outdoor services of up to 100. However, he said singing at those services would have to be limited. As far as COVID-19 goes, “singing is one of the worst things you can do,” Grove said.

The decision to delay the regular return of in-building religious services drew an immediate rebuke from Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake. “If you get a haircut, shop at a mall or eat at a restaurant, you should be able to go to church,” he said in a statement.

Walz acknowledged the delay on large indoor religious services was “not a perfect answer” and that “there is a very strong sense of urgency to figure this next piece out."

In a later phase, gyms and fitness centers would be allowed to reopen with guidelines, along with bowling alleys, movie theaters and other entertainment venues. Grove said only that the governor hoped to get to those next phases as soon as possible.

The governor has previously said June 1 was his goal to reopen establishments as well as salons and barbershops, bowling alleys, theaters and other places of public accommodation.

Walz’s two-month stay-at-home order expired Monday, loosening the restrictions on some retail operations. While the order pushed back the disease’s peak in Minnesota and bought officials time to prep the health care system for a surge, it delivered a huge economic blow to Minnesota’s restaurant and hospitality industry. 

Bar and restaurant owners have become increasingly concerned they’ll go under if they can’t reopen soon to dine-in customers. Many have pressed to ease restrictions in time for the upcoming Memorial Day Weekend. Walz, though, indicated that will not happen, noting the virus does not respect calendars.

Strategy paying off?

The plan comes as Minnesota’s COVID-19 toll continues to rise, with the state on Wednesday reporting 777 deaths since the pandemic began, up 29 from Tuesday. The number of Minnesotans currently hospitalized rose slightly to 550 while those needing intensive care slipped to 212.

“It is going to get worse here before it gets better,” Walz said of the expected surge in cases and hospitalizations now expected later this summer.

Walz has said he won’t hesitate to retighten restrictions if coronavirus cases shoot up and hospitals come under strain. He kept the stay-home order in place for about two months to check the spread of the disease and push back the expected peak so it would not overwhelm the state’s health care system, one of his biggest fears.

A graph showing the number of COVID-19 positive cases to date

While deaths, case counts and hospitalizations are still growing, there have been signs that the strategy is paying off despite the economic pain it’s triggered.

Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm on Tuesday noted that the time it now takes for case counts to double is stretching out longer — about 13 days currently — helping to make the spread of the disease more manageable.

On Wednesday, statistics showed that of the 17,670 people who’ve tested positive for the disease in Minnesota since the pandemic began, nearly 70 percent have recovered to the point they no longer need to be isolated.

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.

The state continues to add investigators to contact those infected and work to reach others who might have had contact with them and might also be potentially infected. 

A graph showing the percentage of cases tested and their current status

While the numbers of positive tests and hot spots for the disease are spread across sectors and regions of Minnesota, more than 80 percent of those who’ve died from the disease were living in long-term care, nearly all had underlying health problems.

On Tuesday, officials also announced that the state has purchased a former food warehouse in St. Paul to use as a temporary morgue in case COVID-19 deaths overwhelm existing capacity.

A purchase agreement released by the Minnesota Department of Administration on Tuesday shows the state paid about $5.5 million for the 71,000-square-foot property. State officials say the space is expected to have capacities to hold up to 5,100 bodies, and could be needed if predictions of 1,000 deaths per week at the coronavirus peak hold up.

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.

On Tuesday, Malcolm said health leaders were focused on eight counties outside the Twin Cities metro area where outbreaks were centered around packing plants. 

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 Tuesday, there were 1,396 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 Wednesday, confirmed cases were at 1,831 with 11 deaths. 

Kandiyohi County in west-central Minnesota is also seeing cases continue to climb a month 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 then.

On Wednesday, the Health Department reported 426 people have now tested positive.

While the counts in those counties are high relative to their population, officials say the growth in new cases in those areas appears to be stabilizing.

Developments from around the state

Mpls. to reopen basketball and tennis courts, play areas 

Minneapolis parks officials say they’re ready to start reopening basketball and tennis courts and other amenities closed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Minneapolis park board said that it will gradually reopen about 100 basketball courts and more than 120 tennis courts across the park system, as well as six skate parks and nearly 120 play areas.

Bike and boat rentals in some locations have already reopened. Food stands are opening for takeout only.

Parks officials say that social distancing rules still apply, and group activities like basketball or volleyball should be limited to people from a single household. They also say that shared equipment like playground fixtures and picnic tables will not be sanitized and should be avoided.

Parks officials also say groups should be limited to 10 people or fewer and recreation centers will remain closed. The park board still intends to keep beaches and pools closed for the summer.

— Tim Nelson | MPR News

Nurses warn masks, gear shortages continue

Minnesota nurses told lawmakers Tuesday that shortages of masks and other protective health gear remain a problem in their hospitals.

“We’re maxed out. We worry about the safety of our patients. We worry about our own safety and the safety of our families,” Ericka Helling, a nurse at Fairview Southdale Hospital, told a Minnesota House panel examining health care worker safety. “We need you to help us to do better work, to keep us all protected.”

Securing supplies of masks, gowns and other gear turned urgent at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic as officials feared the virus would overwhelm the health system. To conserve those supplies, Gov. Tim Walz placed a temporary ban on elective surgeries and nonemergency dental procedures. Walz recently lifted the ban, saying hospitals had sufficient supplies.

On Tuesday, though, Helling and other nurses disputed that, saying that the shortage had changed the standards in many hospitals and that nurses must now reuse face masks and other items.

The virus has already sickened 1,500 nurses, said Mary Turner, president of the Minnesota Nurses Association.

While no nurses have died from COVID-19, Turner said she dreaded the day she would have to announce a nurse died “because they weren’t properly protected at the bedside.”

While the situation has improved significantly over the past month, there are still issues in the supply chain, Mary Krinkie, vice president of government relations at the Minnesota Hospital Association, told committee members.

Lawmakers will be considering a possible legislative response to the nurses’ concerns, said House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, the chair of the panel.

State Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm told reporters later that the decision to restart elective surgeries might get another look if supplies of masks and other gear tighten.

"Nothing is off the table in terms of what can and should be revisited," she said.

— Tim Pugmire | MPR News

Ramsey County asks state to help address homelessness amid pandemic

Ramsey County is requesting aid from the state to support emergency shelter beds for 200 people in the county who have no home. 

County Manager Ryan O'Connor said the county has been working closely with the state and other counties in the metro area to come up with a plan to address homelessness during the COVID-19 pandemic. He told Ramsey County Board members on Tuesday that he expected a response from the state on the request for aid this week. 

"I hope it's a positive response and we get to see that help is on the way to help us manage an issue that's gone beyond our operational capacity to address alone,” O'Connor said.

O'Connor estimates that the county spent more than $10 million addressing COVID-19 between March and mid-April. The state of Minnesota earlier this month established a fund of $7.2 million to assist people experiencing homelessness who have symptoms or a diagnosis of COVID-19.

— Jon Collins | MPR News

Walz signs bill aiding MN farmers facing foreclosure

Gov. Tim Walz has signed a bill that stops farm foreclosures until Dec. 1 for farmers struggling with the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic who elect to take part in creditor mediation.

Minnesota’s Farmer-Lender Mediation Act requires any creditor foreclosing on agricultural debt of $15,000 or more to provide the debtor a legal notice of their right to a neutral state mediator. The law normally provides for 90 days to reach agreement. But the legislation that unanimously passed the House and Senate last week and was signed Monday temporarily extends the deadline to 150 days or Dec. 1, whichever is later.

Rep. Todd Lippert, of Northfield, said his bill is meant to help farmers stay on the farm as they face packing plant and ethanol plant shutdowns, low milk prices and the need to euthanize hogs and poultry.

Paul Sobocinski, an organizer with the Land Stewardship Project who farms near Wabasso, says farmers need to be aware of their rights under the new law. He says it protects them from foreclosure through harvest time, and buys time for the markets to recover and for federal aid to come to farmers.

— The Associated Press

Top headlines

Unemployment claims up — way up — among Asian Minnesotans: At a time when Asian Americans are reporting experiences with bigoted abuse because of COVID-19, they’re also reporting a surge in unemployment. The trend has created uncertainty about how Asian-owned businesses will survive.

Interest in foster care parenting on the rise, even as fewer kids enter the system: State officials say the number of children entering foster care is down significantly since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. At the same time, they say more Minnesotans are inquiring about becoming foster parents.

Republican Senate candidate sues Walz over COVID-19 restrictions: Republican Senate candidate Jason Lewis filed a federal lawsuit Tuesday against Democratic Gov. Tim Walz, arguing that restrictions meant to contain the spread of the coronavirus violate his ability to campaign as he wishes.

Older Minnesotans sheltering at home need help, volunteers step up: Because the new coronavirus is especially dangerous for older adults and those with underlying health conditions, the need for services for those stuck in their homes has increased. Several nonprofits say more volunteers have come forward.

To read the original stories and see related COVID-19 reporting, follow this link to the MPR News website.

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