Bars and restaurants in Minnesota can reopen dine-in services on a limited basis on June 1, but only in outdoor seating venues, a caveat that comes as economic frustrations are mounting in the service industry.
Gov. Tim Walz announced the new phase of the state’s COVID-19 response Wednesday, which also allows personal care businesses and campgrounds to open with limitations on the same date. He called the newest phase of reopenings a “measured” response as state models show the peak of coronavirus cases is still more than a month away.
Starting June 1, bars and restaurants can serve people on site with outdoor seating at a capacity of 50 people and workers are required to wear masks. Indoor seating at limited capacity is part of the next phase of reopenings, but the governor said there’s no timetable to move forward.
“If it were up to me, we wouldn’t have coronavirus and everything would be open,” Walz said during a press briefing Wednesday. “We are trying to move this in a manner that makes sense.”
Critics of the next steps, including Republican House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, said Wednesday that the state’s response is inconsistent — allowing some businesses to open indoor settings and others not.
Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said the science behind the decisions comes down to proximity and length of exposure, noting bars and restaurants by nature are generally where people go to stay and converse for longer periods of time, while haircuts are a rather short experience.
But with no timetable on the next phase for restaurants, which DEED Commissioner Steve Grove said would include indoor seating and require masks for workers and patrons, the state’s business community is worried about who will be able to open and who still be in business by that point.
Walz and Grove acknowledged Wednesday that some cities and businesses will have to be innovative in order to open outdoor seating, which may involve closing down a street for tables or loosening restrictions on sidewalks, while some already have outdoor spaces to serve people.
Doug Loon, president of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, said through a statement that he understood the focus on safety, but hoped the administration’s actions would go further and allow businesses the same chance to be creative and safe within an indoor setting.
“This additional delay must have a timetable for the future,” Loon said. “Without further action to promptly open, more of our small businesses will be unable to return, serve their customers and support their communities.”
Some business owners and communities have flirted with the idea of reopening ahead of or in defiance of the governor’s stay-safe order that went into effect Monday.
A Stearns County bar and restaurant owner dropped his attempt to open earlier this week after Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison filed a lawsuit against the business. In Eveleth, on Tuesday, the city council passed a resolution vowing not to use additional resources to enforce executive orders that it said infringed on citizens’ rights.
Walz said Wednesday that legal action against businesses defying executive orders is the state’s “last resort” and hoped they would follow the state’s guidance because it’s the right thing to do.
Bar, restaurant and salon owners from across the Iron Range met separately in Eveleth on Tuesday and said they would not defy the executive orders. They shared ideas on reopening safely that could include using plastic cups and other measures.
“Our job is to provide a clean and safe environment,” said Margie Koivunen, owner of Margie’s Roosevelt Bar in Eveleth. “It’s critical to maintain the rules until June 1.”
Minnesota health officials reported 29 more COVID-19 deaths on Wednesday, the second-highest one-day death toll of the pandemic. The new deaths raised the state’s total to 777, which includes 635 residents of long-term care facilities. All but three of the new deaths involved residents of long-term care facilities.
The department also reported 645 new confirmed cases for a total of 17,670.
Malcolm said the state has had five straight days of slower growth and models show the state’s peak will arrive sometime between late June and early August. The commissioner said the numbers don’t reflect recent actions to allow some retailers to reopen, noting it takes about two weeks to understand the impacts of the phased reopenings.
“It’s far too soon to declare that a trend,” Malcolm said of the slower growth rates.
The state is tracking double time of the virus, testing rates as well as community spread as the administration determines when to implement the next phases of reopening the economy. She said the key is finding cases through testing, isolating positive cases and tracing their steps.
Health officials said Wednesday that requiring reservations at eateries and salons, as outlined in Wednesday’s newest phase, will help them trace cases in the event of a localized outbreak.
On top of the guidance issued to restaurants, salons will be allowed to open June 1 at 25 percent capacity and require workers and customers to wear masks. Churches across the state are still limited to 10 people at indoor and outdoor settings, though a federal lawsuit is challenging this portion of the stay-safe order.
Grove, the DEED commissioner, said one big concern with places of worship is singing, noting a number of outbreaks among choirs.
Walz said the question of churches is something his administration has struggled with and that he didn’t have a “perfect answer,” but said there’s a very strong sense of urgency to figure this next piece out.”
Leah Ryan and The Associated Press contributed to this report.