ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz announced plans Wednesday, Dec. 16, to get children back into elementary schools and ease some restrictions on fitness centers and other businesses that were shuttered last month to curb the spread of COVID-19, though bars and restaurants will remain closed for indoor service through the holidays.
The governor updated the state's Safe Learning Plan used by schools across the state on Wednesday to allow all elementary schools to operate in-person starting Jan. 18. Walz cited young kids' lesser susceptibility to serious complications from COVID-19 and a better understanding by state health officials of how to mitigate spread of the virus in school buildings.
"There is strong evidence we are starting to turn a corner thanks to the hard work of Minnesotans over the last few weeks to keep each other safe. But we aren't out of the woods yet," he said. "This way forward will help bridge the gap to vaccination by continuing to protect hospital capacity while prioritizing getting our kids back in the classroom and supporting Minnesotans' quality of life."
Walz also announced he will be extending the restrictions he imposed last month as part of a four-week "pause" that was due to expire Friday to prevent further community spread, citing concerns of hospital capacity statewide. The governor's new order keeps bars and restaurants closed for indoor service while allowing fitness centers and outdoor entertainment venues to open at 25% capacity, and youth sports to resume practice on Jan. 4.
The order also expands guidelines for social gatherings, allowing indoor gatherings of two households of up to 10 people and outdoor gatherings of three households of up to 15 people.
The Minnesota Department of Health reported Wednesday that 92 more people have died due to COVID-19 and 2,279 more people have been infected, putting the state at 4,575 deaths and 386,412 cases since March. Wednesday's death toll matches the third highest single-day total reported by state health officials since the start of the pandemic.
Minnesota House Republicans called for Walz to open bars and restaurants in a statement prior to the governor's address, saying only a fraction of the explosion in case growth across the state can be linked to those types of businesses. Multiple organizations, including the Minnesota Licensed Beverage Association and Hospitality Minnesota, have also expressed concerns about the extension of bar and restaurant closings, saying many small businesses can't afford another shutdown and will close for good.
"The tide is turning, as we have witnessed all week as more and more businesses are willing out of desperation to risk fines and penalties to save their livelihoods," Hospitality Minnesota President Liz Rammer said in a statement. "Hospitality is a force for good in our communities, and the Governor and his administration would be wise to leverage that force, rather than watch it flicker out."
Several businesses across the state have defied the order in recent weeks, serving customers indoors despite legal consequences. Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison's office works with the state health department, department of public safety, and labor and industry officials to enforce the order, which could result in a fine of $1,000 and up to 90 days in jail if violated.
Walz is expected on Wednesday to sign the state COVID-19 relief package into law. The $216 million relief package passed by the Legislature earlier this week aims to assist businesses and workers hit hardest by the four-week shutdown imposed last month.
Up to $88 million will be distributed to establishments that have seen at least a 30% drop in sales revenue from last year. Checks ranging from $10,000 to $45,000 will be sent to those businesses by the end of December or early January. The Department of Revenue estimates that 5,800 businesses in the state will qualify for relief.
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.