Gov. Tim Walz on Friday dramatically loosened COVID-19 restrictions, expressing optimism that life in Minnesota would soon return closer to normal a year after he first declared a peacetime emergency because of the pandemic.
Starting Monday, social gatherings with multiple households will be allowed, with up to 50 people outdoors and 15 indoors, largely the result of the state besting vaccination expectations.
Minnesota has already vaccinated 1.2 million residents, including an estimated 72% of residents ages 65 and older — weeks ahead schedule, Walz’s office said. COVID-19 cases have also fallen drastically.
“We’re beating this thing,” Walz said during a statewide address outlining his latest moves.
His announcement comes a day after President Joe Biden instructed all states to open up vaccination to all adults starting May 1, signaling optimism that the pandemic is nearing an end. The World Health Organization first declared the pandemic on March 11, 2020.
Among the changes coming:
Starting March 15, religious services will no longer have occupancy limits, but social distancing will still be required. Youth sport pod sizes can increase to 50 for outdoor activities.
In a boon for businesses, bars and restaurants will see occupancy limits rise to 75%, with a limit of 250. The limits apply separately to indoor and outdoor seating. Bar seating can now increase to parties of four.
Salons and barbershops will have no occupancy restrictions, but social distancing will be required.
Gyms, fitness centers and pools will see occupancy rise to 50% and outdoor fitness classes can grow to 50 people.
Entertainment venues can have occupancy of 50%, both indoors and outdoors, with a limit of 250.
Starting April 1, venues with normal capacity of greater than 500 people can add additional guests.
Seated and unseated outdoor venues will have a limit of 10,000 people; seated indoor venues will have a limit of 3,000 people; unseated indoor venues will have a limit of 1,500 people.
This means the Minnesota Twins can host games with 10,000 people in the stands.
The Minnesota Licensed Beverage Association said in a statement that while the capacity limit increases are welcome, they are likely to only benefit large bars and restaurants.
The social-distancing requirement means that small establishments will not be able to add additional seating. “Today’s announcement… is only helpful to a small handful of larger establishments, as most bars and restaurants’ capacity is already capped at a much lower percentage due to distancing rules.”
Even as the state moves toward re-opening businesses fully, risks remain, Walz said.
New variants of COVID-19 worry health officials, but Walz said he is confident they can be managed.
Walz said that despite the positive trends, he will still extend his peacetime emergency declaration on Monday for another 30 days, despite protests from Republican lawmakers.
Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, has for months called on Walz to relinquish his emergency powers.
House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said in a statement: “It’s clear based on today’s announcement that the emergency phase is over, and we need to talk seriously about how we’re going to end the governor’s emergency powers as the vaccination rollout continues and our case counts, ICU usage, and case positivity rates decline.”
Walz pushed back on the criticism, saying that he hopes to see the Legislature take a more active role in managing the pandemic response. But he added that some actions require swiftness that come with an empowered executive branch.
Despite the vaccination ramp up, Walz also indicated that he would keep in place his statewide mask mandate, saying it is likely to be one of the last mitigation measures to be rolled back.
“The last thing to go will be masks,” he said. “It’s just so effective, and cost effective.”