Bars and restaurants, wedding receptions and social gatherings are the targets of new restrictions Gov. Tim Walz announced last week in answer to rising COVID-19 case numbers.
Meeker County Commissioner Beth Oberg sees the numbers, worries about public health and knew the governor was likely to act.
But as the manager of the Nelsan-Horton American Legion restaurant and bar, Oberg struggles with the plan.
“At first I thought, ‘well, it could have been worse,’” Oberg said of the restrictions announced Nov. 10. “But as I sat back and thought about it … it’s not good at all.”
The restrictions, Oberg said, are likely to have a negative effect on the lunch time business at the Legion. Many lunch regulars sit alone at the bar, which already has a socially distanced seating arrangement. The new rules forbid bar seating, so those single customers will likely take up a table themselves, impacting the number of clients who can be served over the noon hour.
“We’re going to have to figure it out,” Oberg said. “My issue with Gov. Walz is I feel it’s unfair that everybody is getting painted with the same brush. I suppose that’s how it has to be done. But these (changing restrictions) make it difficult.”
And yet, as one of the County Board’s representatives on the Meeker Memorial Hospital Board of Directors, Oberg knows the seriousness of the recent rise in COVID cases.
“From the hospital board side, I understand it, I do,” Oberg said. “It’s about the staffing, it’s community spread. It’s a tough call.”
Minnesota has seen about 190,000 cases and 2,729 deaths since the coronavirus outbreak began. State health officials announced 4,906 new cases on Nov. 10, and 6,000 new cases Sunday. Recent death counts have regularly been in the double digits, according to state data.
“We are in the midst of a significant surge,” Walz said, citing rising COVID-19 case numbers, especially among the 18- to 35-year-old age group.
Walz said the new restrictions were intended to be targeted at reducing the spread among younger people, many of whom do not show symptoms but are contagious. Those individuals are at high risk of passing COVID-19 to vulnerable groups and are the most frequent visitors to bars and restaurants.
Walz said that during previous national spikes, Minnesota was able to maintain lower infection rates than other states due to safety measures taken by residents. But during the most recent outbreak, data shows Minnesota is trending in a manner similar to other hot spots.
“That type of spread will continue unless we take mitigation measures,” Walz said.
Taking measures now, he argued, will make sure there are sufficient hospital beds to deal with COVID and other illnesses, such as during the upcoming flu season, and keep the state ahead of staffing concerns as health workers become infected.
The venues targeted in the determination are meant to curb the spread of COVID-19 where it is most often transmitted. Since June, 71 percent of spreading cases have been at private social gatherings, weddings, funerals, restaurants and bars. Risk factors identified include gatherings of friends and family who are comfortable with each other, but live in different households, eating and drinking without face coverings for an extended period of time, and gatherings where people talk loudly, laugh or sing, especially with alcohol.
BARS AND RESTAURANTS
Starting 10 p.m. Friday, bars and restaurants were not to exceed 50 percent capacity, and all indoor capacity is capped at 150 people. Dine-in service is prohibited between 10 p.m. and 4 a.m. Bar counter service is not permitted unless that is the only place for service.
Walz acknowledged bars and restaurants have already sacrificed much due to COVID-19, and encouraged Minnesotans to support those businesses.
“This is going to be painful for them,” he said.
He is proposing $10 million in small business relief.
Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development Steve Grove said the precautions are necessary for the economy in the long term.
“We can’t begin economic recovery in a real sense until we get this pandemic under control,” he said.
A 50-person limit will be placed on wedding and funeral receptions, and similar events, starting Nov. 27. The limit will shift to 25 people on Dec. 11.
“The data shows a bunch of our outbreaks are coming from these types of activities,” Walz said.
He said there will be no change to weddings and funerals, as the data shows those events have not caused significant problems.
A 10-person limit will be placed on indoor and outdoor private gatherings as of 10 p.m. Friday, Nov. 13. All social gatherings will be limited to members of three households or fewer.
In a news release, Minnesota Medical Association President Marilyn Peitso said, “The governor’s action will help slow the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic and protect the health and lives of all Minnesotans. We are seeing, firsthand, the rapid spike in COVID-19 cases. These are not just statistics, but rather these are our patients, health care professionals, our teachers, our family members, our fellow Minnesotans.”
Minnesota House of Representatives Minority Leader Kurt Daudt was less pleased with the announcement.
“These restrictions are another hit to Minnesota bars and restaurants,” he said in a statement, “many of whom have been doing everything the right way to protect the health and safety of their guests and employees. We’re very concerned for the impact this will have on these businesses owners and their hardworking employees.”
Oberg agreed with Daudt’s concern, saying that she will have to review staffing at the Legion. She was less concerned with the 10 p.m. bar curfew, because the Legion doesn’t have a lot of late-night activity, except on weekends, though she questioned how effective it might be.
“I also don’t believe … just between me and you, that the 25-year-old is going to go home and go to bed just because the bar closes,” Oberg said.
The bigger issue, she said, was the employees of the Legion, and whether or not they all will be needed as restrictions affect business.
“We have tried to stay open seven days (a week) because of the regulars that come in,” Oberg said. “I employ 20-some people, but will I need to keep 20-some people?”