Gov. Walz announces new COVID-19 restrictions as surge strains hospitals

Gov. Tim Walz at a press conference announcing a new executive order that eases restrictions on restaurants, gyms, and other areas of the economy on June 5, 2020 in St. Paul, Minn. Photo by Anthony Souffle/Star Tribune.

Gov. Tim Walz on Tuesday announced tighter restrictions on bars, restaurants and social gatherings as Minnesota continues what could be its bleakest month of the pandemic so far.

Starting Friday night, bars and restaurants will have to end in-person service from 10 p.m. to 4 a.m. and can have no more than 150 people in them, nor exceed 50% capacity. They can no longer offer bar seating, counter service or games like darts that are played standing up.

Wedding receptions, funerals and similar events will be capped at 50 people beginning Nov. 27, then 25 people beginning Dec. 11, and can’t take place between 10 p.m. and 4 a.m.

Indoor and outdoor private gatherings will be limited to 10 people from no more than three households, down from the current limit of 25 people outdoors and 10 indoors.

“I feel like the guy in Footloose: No dancing, no fun, no whatever. That is not my intention. My intention is to keep you safe,” Walz said. “But I recognize this is painful. It’s no fun. I’m as frustrated as you are. We should’ve broke the back of this thing months ago in this country. We have not, but now is the time to do it.”

The state’s reaction showed the difficult political situation Walz finds himself in, as public health advocates argued his restrictions won’t go far enough, while Republicans and the bar and restaurant lobby said he risked putting many out of business. 

Liz Rammer, CEO of Hospitality Minnesota, released a statement saying half of bars and restaurants are facing closure in the coming months, and her group is concerned about the economic impact of the governor’s restrictions.

But Dr. Rahul Koranne, president and CEO of the Minnesota Hospital Association, said in an interview with the Reformer that one in four ICU patients statewide are COVID patients, and the most urgent problem is health care workers falling ill.

“We are definitely concerned about the increasing community spread and our most urgent worry right now is our staff who are getting exposed to this virus in our communities,” he said. “While we have the ICU beds and the medical-surgical beds and the spaces ready, we’re really worried about our care teams to be able to care for Minnesotans who need hospital care.”

The new restrictions come as Minnesota reports record numbers of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations that are beginning to strain health care systems statewide.

Minnesota has reported an average of 4,122 new cases each day this month, compared to roughly 1,500 new daily cases in mid-October. Monday’s new case count of 5,908 was a record high, following multiple consecutive days of record-breaking daily totals last week. The positivity rate has surpassed 10% — double the level at which the virus spread is considered controllable. 

Hospitalizations have also increased, and a record 262 COVID-19 patients were admitted to hospitals Monday. In the metro, 97% of the metro’s critical care beds were occupied, leaving 22 of the region’s 659 beds open for additional patients, according to data presented during Walz’s address. ICUs were at least 90% full in the northeast, central and southeast regions of the state, and at least 50% full in other regions.

Walz urged Minnesotans to remain vigilant as pandemic fatigue sets in and winter weather and peak influenza season approach. Early in the pandemic, the state had one of the nation’s lowest infection rates — now, Minnesota is the 10th worst. Walz laid some blame on neighboring states and the lack of a national strategy. 

“This is horrific; it’s awful. It’s awful what’s happening with the numbers, and it’s terrible we have to do this. Just to be clear, choices were made state by state,” he said. 

He singled out South Dakota, saying “the Sturgis (motorcycle) rally was absolutely unnecessary, and there’s a lot of data to show that.” He also called out the governor there, Kristi Noem, if not by name. 

“This one is a little bit personal because the governor of South Dakota has taken to traveling to other states and criticizing others now at a time when that state’s hospital capacity is overwhelmed,” Walz said.

Walz said he should have implemented a mask mandate earlier and takes responsibility for that.

Minnesota’s infection rates still remain lower than those in neighboring states, which are experiencing some of the nation’s worst outbreaks.

North Dakota has the nation’s highest daily case rate, with more than 216 new cases per 100,000 residents, according to the Brown University School of Public Health. South Dakota has the second-highest rate, at 130.5 new cases. Minnesota comes in 10th, with 69.3 new cases per 100,000 residents.

But there’s no guarantee that Minnesota won’t climb those rankings.

“We will quickly join that group, if we don’t make the decisions that can mitigate (case counts) and start to bring that down,” Walz said.

Minnesotans still have a chance to slow the spread of COVID-19 and maintain hospital capacity to care for every patient who needs it, he said. But residents have to act fast, or the situation could deteriorate quickly.

Walz said the new restrictions are intended to target settings that have proved to be the highest-risk during the pandemic.

Over the summer and fall, more than 70% of Minnesota’s COVID-19 cases have been connected with private social gatherings, funerals, weddings and bars and restaurants, Walz said. The other 30% are linked to controlled environments, like workplaces.

The state has also found that infection rates increase after 9 p.m., he said.

“Our hospitality industry has done more than anybody should have ever asked of them,” Walz said. “This is happening not because they’re being lax, but because it’s the setting this virus is most effective at spreading in.”

Under current restrictions, bars and restaurants are allowed to operate at 50% capacity with at least 6 feet of space between tables. Parties are limited to 10 people in dining rooms and four people in bars.

Since June, the Minnesota Department of Health has identified 117 restaurant outbreaks linked to 2,406 cases statewide. There have been 851 cases connected to outbreaks at weddings, 712 cases connected to gyms and 599 connected to social gatherings. Relatively few cases have been associated with grocery stores and other shops, Walz said.

“This is not a situation where we panic, this is not a situation where people are not going to get care,” Walz said. “But it is a situation that will change dramatically, and our ability to be able to deal with this will change very, very quickly.”

Even in hospitals that have capacity to take in more patients, staffing shortages due to COVID-19 illness or exposure could limit how much care they can provide, Walz said.

A record-breaking 200-some staff at Children’s Minnesota were out sick Tuesday, the vast majority because of COVID-19 exposure outside of work, said Dr. Marc Gorelick, president and COO of Children’s Minnesota, during the briefing. 

“Early on, our challenge was primarily around supply shortages. But now our primary limitation is around staffing,” Gorelick said. “While we have extensive measures in place to prevent exposure to COVID-19 for our staff within our walls, they are part of our community and therefore at risk from community spread just like the rest of us.”

Dr. Hannah Lichtsinn said in an interview with the Reformer that hospitals are full and staffers are at their breaking point, and if Minnesotans don’t start changing their behavior, the governor should close indoor dining and bars. 

“Patients who need hospital care are, more and more, spending up to a day in the (emergency department) before a bed opens up. That has then filled our emergency departments with people sometimes being cared for in the hallways or makeshift care spaces,” she said.

Lichtsinn thinks Walz should do more. 

“While the new curfew may help a little, the virus doesn’t care what time you’re in a group of people,” she said.

Rilyn Eischens
Rilyn Eischens is a data reporter with the Reformer. Rilyn is a Minnesota native and has worked in newsrooms in the Twin Cities, Iowa, Texas and most recently Virginia, where she covered education for The Staunton News Leader. She's an alumna of the Dow Jones News Fund data journalism program and the Minnesota Daily. When Rilyn isn't in the newsroom, she likes to read, add to her plant collection and try new recipes.
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Deena Winter is a freelance journalist who has covered state and local government in four states over the past three decades.