Gov. Walz orders temporary closure of bars, restaurants and gyms as COVID-19 cases rise

By: - March 16, 2020 5:03 pm

Gov. Tim Walz took his most drastic action yet on Monday, ordering the temporary closure of bars, restaurants and gyms and other places of public accommodation. Photo by Ricardo Lopez/Minnesota Reformer

DFL Gov. Tim Walz on Monday ordered the temporary closure of bars, restaurants, gyms and other places of public accommodation throughout the state no later than Tuesday at 5 p.m.

Restaurants will not have to close entirely; under the Walz executive order, restaurants can continue delivery and takeout services, but state health officials have issued guidelines to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, including limiting face-to-face delivery and using digital forms of payment. 

Walz issued a pair of executive orders outlining his most severe action to date to slow the spread of COVID-19 in Minnesota, which now has more than 50 confirmed cases. The second executive order is intended to help laid off workers whose jobs are affected by the coronavirus response. It expands the administration of unemployment insurance to include pandemics and will streamline the immediate payment of jobless benefits.

State health officials have grown increasingly alarmed, particularly after finding the state’s first cases of “community spread” Sunday, meaning some new infections are being caused by people who have no known travel history outside of the state. 

Walz’s extraordinary decision comes just a day before St. Patrick’s Day, which typically draws thousands of revelers to bars and restaurants. He said despite recommendations by state officials to limit large gatherings, many Minnesotans have not heeded the warnings, necessitating the executive order. 

“We’re not going to stop this from spreading, but we can stop how fast it spreads,” Walz said, issuing a stern call to Minnesotans: “We need to stop congregating.”

The list of businesses and places affected by the executive order is long and includes coffeeshops, hookah bars, movie theaters, museums, gyms, bowling alleys, arcades, bingo halls and country cubs.

Minnesota Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said on Monday that the order to temporarily close bars and dine-in services at restaurants comes as health officials are seeing a trend of young people who have been infected with COVID-19. 

“Those are the very folks that are still congregating in these social settings,” Malcolm said. 

State and local officials have announced a slew of actions in recent days that are upending daily life. Walz on Sunday said schools must close by Wednesday, calling on educators to prepare for weeks of distance learning. 

Metro Transit announced it will suspend service from 11 p.m. to 4:30 a.m. starting Tuesday. “We are doing this to help focus our limited resources on times when demand is greatest,” Metro Transit General Manager Wes Kooistra said in a statement. “It is also an important safety measure as the region and nation works through this pandemic.”

On Sunday, St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter declared a state of emergency and ordered libraries, parks and recreation centers to close through March 27. Shortly before Walz’s announcement, Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey declared a state of emergency, ordering bars, restaurants and coffee shops to close by noon Tuesday. 

Minneapolis restaurateur Andrew Zimmern joined Walz at the news conference, speaking on behalf of restaurant owners, who stand to be greatly affected by the drop in foot traffic. 

“These closures are the right thing to do in the interest of public health,” Zimmern said. “Public health needs to come first.”

The executive order is going to mean massive economic strain for restaurant and bar employees. The Minnesota Restaurant Association estimated there were nearly 11,000 restaurants throughout the state in 2018 that support nearly 276,000 jobs. They tallied $10.7 billion in sales. 

Commissioner Steve Grove, head of the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, said Walz’s executive order expands the administration of unemployment insurance to cover job losses caused by pandemics. Specifically, the order suspends the waiting period for the dispersal of unemployment checks. 

“It will allow workers to take advantage of those benefits right away,” Grove said. 

Additionally, workers who become sick with COVID-19 or are forced to self-quarantine because of exposure will also be eligible for the benefits, Grove said. 

Legislative leaders, who have been in regular consultation with the Walz administration, have already announced a severe curtailing of operations, including the suspension of most committee meetings and limiting public access to the Capitol. 

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, earlier Monday said the actions by the Legislature, which include requiring some staff to telecommute, were prudent.

“We are putting the health of the people of Minnesota first while also prioritizing ways we can still keep #mnleg business going to make sure the issues we have heard so much about from our constituents are addressed and worked on,” he said on Twitter.

In a statement, House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, said the governor’s actions “are in the best interest of Minnesotans.” 

She urged Minnesotans to limit their time in public spaces, particularly those who are older or have underlying health conditions putting them at higher risk: “Social distancing and drastically limiting the size of crowds are critically important to slowing the spread of COVID-19.”

Senate Minority Leader Susan Kent, DFL-Woodbury, praised Walz’s acknowledgement of the impact on restaurants. 

“I’m grateful the governor is also taking action to address the impact this will have on small businesses across the state,” she said. “I look forward to working with my colleagues in the legislature to continue supporting workers and small business owners affected by these closures.

mn covid-19 state executive order

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Ricardo Lopez
Ricardo Lopez

Ricardo Lopez is the senior political reporter for the Reformer. Ricardo is not new to Minnesota politics, previously reporting on the Dayton administration and statehouse for The Star Tribune from 2014 to 2017, and the Republican National Convention in 2016. Previously, he was a staff writer at The Los Angeles Times covering the California economy. He's a Las Vegas native who has adopted Minnesota as his home state. In his spare time, he likes to run, cook and volunteer with Save-a-Bull, a Minneapolis dog rescue group.