Minnesota to close bars, restaurants, gyms for 4 weeks

Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz plans to announce new COVID-19 restrictions on Wednesday that will shut down indoor dining at bars and restaurants, close gyms and fitness centers, and put organized indoor youth sports on hold for four weeks.

The announcement comes on a day when Minnesota recorded a record 67 new COVID-19-related deaths, pushing the state’s toll to 3,010. The Minnesota Department of Health also reported 5,102 confirmed new cases, rising the state’s total to 242,053.

Bars and restaurants will still be allowed to offer takeout during the four-week pause, according to a person with knowledge of the governor’s plan. The person spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because the person was not authorized to speak ahead of the governor’s Wednesday night announcement.

In a call with reporters Tuesday, Walz said the state is trying to ease the strain on hospitals, which are struggling with a dramatic increase in COVID-19 patients and staff shortages as coronavirus cases surge statewide. He said restrictions would be targeted and based on data.

Business groups were quick to point out that little state or federal aid is available for them this time around, unlike earlier in the year when the Democratic governor first ordered shutdowns. They said restaurants, bars and gyms have already made big investments to protect staff and patrons and stand to lose big on food that will spoil.

“Today’s action will push many small restaurants, food service and other hospitality businesses over the cliff,” Liz Rammer, president and CEO of the trade group Hospitality Minnesota, said in a statement. She called for “immediate financial assistance from the state or these businesses will not be here in four weeks.”

Tony Chesak, executive director of the Minnesota Licensed Beverage Association, which represents bars and restaurants that serve liquor, predicted a “devastating” further permanent loss of places to eat and drink.

“Bars and restaurant leaders and staff are heading into a bleak holiday season with little to no support from our elected leaders,” Chesak said in a statement. “The state and federal government both need to take steps to aid employees and the hospitality industry with relaxed regulations, direct financial support, unemployment assistance, and loans to get through this dark winter.”

Bahram Akradi, CEO of the Chanhassen-based Life Time Fitness chain of gyms, said he was “dumbfounded” by the decision.

Akradi said he’ll have to furlough 4,000 workers in Minnesota who were brought back when the clubs reopened earlier this year, while 120,000 members will lose a “safe haven” for maintaining their health. He said it’s unfair that gyms are being singled out when retailers are not.

Arkadi said his clubs have had 21.5 million visits across the country since they began reopening, with just 962 cases reported among members and no documented cases of spread linked to the clubs. He said they have a unique ability to contact trace because every member checks in at the door, and must register in advance for fitness classes. The clubs have a 500-page COVID-19 safety manual, with mandatory temperature checks, touchless check-in, mandates for masking and social distancing, sanitation protocols and special ventilation systems to minimize the risks of coronavirus exposures.

“There is no industry, there is no company that is doing what we have done,” Arkadi said.

There were 1,423 new cases per 100,000 people in Minnesota over the past two weeks, putting Minnesota seventh in the country for new cases per capita. One in every 119 people in Minnesota tested positive in the past week, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.

“The velocity that this is moving now, compared to any other time, is simply stunning,” Walz said.

An additional 5,945 positive cases were reported in Minnesota on Tuesday, along with 26 more deaths. The state has seen a total of 236,949 cases since the pandemic began and 2,943 deaths.

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