Minnesota businesses reopen as cases of virus variant appear
MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Some Minnesota bars and restaurants began reopening at half capacity on Monday, eager to get back in business under loosening restrictions even as a new coronavirus variant moves into the state.
The arrival of the variant, first identified in the United Kingdom in September and announced in Minnesota on Saturday, didn’t surprise officials. But they said it underscores the importance of slowing spread of the virus by wearing masks, maintaining social distance and quarantining if exposed.
“Whether this new strain infects more people will be determined to a large degree by how rigorously we all practice those protective measures that are so important,” said Sara Vetter, assistant director of the health department’s public health lab. “Getting as many people vaccinated as possible will also be critical in the control of spread of this variant and the emergence of other variants.”
The five cases, in people ranging from ages 15 to 37, are all in the Twin Cities metro area, with two reporting to have travelled internationally. Health officials said 63 cases of the variant have been found in eight states so far, and early evidence shows the vaccine is effective against the variant.
Amid questions around the pace of the state’s vaccine rollout, health officials said Monday they are looking at ways to improve efficiency, including challenging providers to give shots on weekends in addition to the current weekday schedule. More than 147,000 doses of the vaccine have been administered statewide as of Monday, and health officials said they expect numbers to steadily increase as the process becomes more efficient.
“Are we satisfied? No. We would like to speed up every step of that process that we can,” said Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm. “We are working hard with our vaccination partners to make sure that any part of the process that is under our control, that we are getting more and more efficient at that.”
The Minnesota Department of Health on Monday reported 980 new infections and four deaths, marking the second time since October that single-day cases dipped below 1,000 and the first time since early November the state reported single-digit deaths. The state’s totals now sit at 437,552 cases and 5,711 deaths since the start of the pandemic.
Deaths and hospitalizations continue to decline, with the seven-day average of daily deaths dropping from 42.43 on Dec. 27 to 39.57 deaths per day on Sunday, according to The COVID Tracking Project. Patients hospitalized due to COVID-19 numbered about 686 as of Sunday, including 141 in intensive care.
As COVID-19 cases have been declining, Minnesota bars and restaurants may resume indoor service with limits starting Monday after Gov. Tim Walz eased restrictions following a “pause” in response to soaring cases in November. They can resume indoor service at 50% capacity, but must still abide by 10 pm. curfews and take measures to distance people.
The restrictions had generated sharp pushback, with some bars and restaurants defiantly reopening in recent weeks, risking fines and losses of their liquor licenses. The state has gone to court against several violators.
Other businesses are also seeing some loosened restrictions starting Monday. Indoor entertainment venues such as movie theaters, bowling alleys and museums can reopen at 25% capacity for a maximum of 150 people in each area of the venue. Face coverings will remain required, and they can’t serve food after 10 p.m.
During a virtual forum on Monday, Minnesota’s legislative leaders discussed the fate of Walz’s peacetime emergency powers now that the Legislature is in session. While Republican leaders argued the Legislature should scale back the governor’s emergency powers and share in that decision-making, Speaker Melissa Hortman pointed to the differences in masking policies between the Democratic House and GOP-controlled Senate as why sharing those powers could make reaching agreement challenging.
“When you see that difference on something so basic, and so fundamental about protecting human beings’ lives as these different approaches on masking policy, it starts to explain to you the difficulty that we’ll have in governing the state together with regard to COVID-19,” Hortman said.
Mohamed Ibrahim is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.