Starting Monday, a host of coronavirus restrictions in Minnesota will relax to levels not seen in months, or in some cases, since before the pandemic.
Citing falling COVID-19 cases and rising vaccinations, Gov. Tim Walz on Friday morning released details of what amounts to the largest easing of restrictions since he began ordering them a year ago, loosening restrictions on social gatherings, fitness centers, hair salons, bars and restaurants, religious gatherings, and entertainment venues, including professional sports stadiums.
The easing, announced a year to the day after Walz declared a state of emergency, will come in phases, with the first starting Monday, successive easings taking effect in April, culminating with removing the work-from-home requirement April 15.
Mask wearing and physical distancing will still be required throughout society, and regular testing, especially for students, athletes and those who frequently interact with others, remains encouraged.
Walz discussed the matter live on the office’s YouTube channel at 11 a.m. He began by describing the changes as “the next step as we win this battle with COVID-19 and take us on the next step toward normalcy.”
The following take effect at noon Monday, March 15.
- Social gatherings: Up to 50 people will be allowed to gather outdoors, or 15 people indoors, both without household limits.
- Youth sports: Pod size increases to 50 people for outdoor activities.
- Religious services: The occupancy limit will be removed, but social distancing required.
- Celebrations: Follow venue guidance.
DINING, LOCAL BUSINESSES
- Bars and restaurants: Occupancy increases to 75 percent, up from 50 percent, with a limit of 250 people. The limits apply separately indoors and outdoors. Bar seating increases to parties of 4.
- Salons and barbers: The occupancy limit will be removed, but social distancing required.
- Gyms, fitness centers, pools: Occupancy to 50 percent, up from 25 percent. Outdoor classes can increase to 50 people. Masks will still be required.
- Entertainment venues: Occupancy increases to 50 percent, up from 25 percent, both indoors and outdoors, with a limit of 250.
APRIL 1: 10,000 AT TWINS GAMES
The following will take effect April 1.
- All venues can open at 50 percent capacity, up to 250 people. Venues with normal occupant capacity over 500 can add additional guests.
- Seated outdoor venues can add an additional 25 percent of their capacity over 500, with a limit of 10,000 people. This includes Target Field, where the Twins play baseball, and Allianz Stadium, where Minnesota United plays soccer.
- Non-seated outdoor venues can add an additional 15 percent of their capacity over 500, with a limit of 10,000 people.
- Seated indoor venues can add an additional 15 percent of their capacity over 500, with a limit of 3,000 people.
- Non-seated indoor venues can add an additional 10 percent of their capacity over 500, with a limit of 1,500 people.
WORK FROM HOME
Beginning April 15, the requirement that anyone who can work from home must work from home will be lifted “but it will continue to be strongly recommended,” according to the announcement. “All employers should continue to accommodate employees who wish to work from home,” Walz’s statement reads.
Republican lawmakers, many of whom have been critical of Walz’s restrictions, applauded the news.
“Let’s take our wins everyone. This is a good day,” said state Rep. Dave Baker, R-Willmar, at a news conference following the release of details. Still, Baker and others are pushing for Walz to set a clearer roadmap for what the continued emergence from restrictions will look like by creating mileposts, based on data, at 30-day intervals.
MAY AND BEYOND?
Friday morning’s announcement from the governor’s office didn’t mention the later spring or summer.
However, on Thursday, he indicated that he expects more restrictions will likely fall.
“I think that proms that happen into May and certainly graduations in June or wherever they’re looking at, I certainly envision that those will look pretty close to normal,” he said. “We’ll probably have folks gather, there may be a little distancing and masks, but there will certainly be larger crowds than we’ve seen … unless we see the variants come roaring back.”
MANAGING MORE RISK
Walz’s remarks carried an optimism unprecedented during the pandemic. “We’re winning, and this thing is coming to an end,” he said.
Nonetheless, the easing comes as cases, hospitalizations and deaths fall in Minnesota, but they also come as several variants of the SARS-CoV-2 virus are spreading, creating what many epidemiologists have terms a race between infections and injections of vaccines.
Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm acknowledged that the looser restrictions will inherently carry more risk of infection, most pointedly for those who have not been vaccinated or previously infected — a group that makes up the majority of Minnesotans.
“The only reason we’re able to make this forward progress today is because we know how to manage the risk,” Malcolm said, referring not only to hospital care but to the bedrock of dealing with the virus: keeping our distance from each other and wearing masks when indoors or close together with strangers or the unvaccinated.
Malcolm and Walz emphasized the need to continue distancing and mask wearing and said that the next three to four weeks would be telling as some 40,000 Minnesotans are vaccinated each day while the variants circulate.
Using a football analogy, Malcolm said the state was on the 20-yard line, driving toward the end zone.
"Let’s not fumble the ball now,” she said.