ST. PAUL — As several dozen bars and restaurants in Minnesota plan to reopen in protest of state pandemic restrictions, health experts here warned Tuesday, Dec. 15, that dining in person still poses health risks given the current state of the coronavirus pandemic.
The expert's comments come as dozens of businesses throughout the state are purportedly planning to reopen ahead of schedule to protest business restrictions imposed by Gov. Tim Walz in the name of public health.
Behind the plan to reopen is an informal group made up of bars, restaurants, gyms and other public-facing businesses called the ReOpen Minnesota Coalition. These business take issue with a curfew and ban on indoor dining that went into effect last month amid a statewide increase in COVID-19 diagnoses.
Walz has yet to say whether he will renew the ban and curfew, which are set to expire at the end of the week, but did on Monday, Dec. 14, extend the peacetime emergency declaration that first took effect in March.
According to Twin Cities-area engineer Darius Teichroew, who helped to organize the group, approximately 160 businesses in Greater Minnesota have pledged to reopen Wednesday, Dec. 16, in defiance of the governor's orders. The group has asked businesses in the metro area to reopen Friday, Dec. 18.
The group, which has some 16,500 followers on Facebook, where it shares memes critical of Minnesota political figures, says that the data on COVID-19 cases confirmed to have originated from businesses do not support those restrictions.
The Minnesota Attorney General's Office has not said whether it will pursue legal actions against the group similar to those it took against other restaurants that recently flouted business restrictions.
On a media call Tuesday, Minnesota Department of Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm reiterated that while COVID-19 exposures linked directly to bars and restaurants make up only a fraction of the state's total case count, they likely resulted in the transmission of the illness caused by the novel coronavirus to more people than can immediately be accounted for.
"We’ve said many a time that it’s not only these specific, individual, primary cases that we can trace back to exposure in a bar or restaurant setting or any other setting for that matter, it’s the spread from those primary cases over several generations of transmission that lead to very large numbers," Malcolm said.
State officials have expressed sympathy for restaurant and bar owners, who have borne the brunt of the pandemic recession, and on Monday hailed the Minnesota Legislature's passage of a $242 million small business relief package as a step toward making them whole. Bars, restaurants, convention centers, movie theaters and other types of businesses qualify for direct aid payments under the bill.
"Our small businesses have made enormous sacrifices to their own bottom lines for the good of our state. This is a critical lifeline for those businesses, and for the Minnesotans whose livelihoods depend on them," Walz said in a statement sent shortly after the bill passed.
Malcolm said Tuesday that she understood the frustrations of bar and restaurant owners, too, but that "there’s a better way to solve that than to open when it’s not safe to do so."
"What we urge is for people to support these businesses by using them for pick-up and takeout and delivery, if they’re offering those services," Malcolm said.
Minnesotans can also buy gift cards, she suggested, whether for themselves or for others.
Even though many proprietors are taking the right precautions, Malcolm said, COVID-19 can still spread in bars and restaurants simply because eating or drinking in them practically requires one to sit with others for an extended period of time without a mask.
Minnesota Medical Association President Dr. Marilyn Peitso said state restrictions on restaurants, bars, gyms and other spaces helped reduce the spread of COVID-19 and lowered the demand on hospitals and intensive care units around the state. And she urged business owners not to open their doors early and patrons to bypass the option.
"We still have got really high rates of transmission, we have high rates of infection, our hospitals are still full. And this is not the time for people to be going back into bars and restaurants, to be gathering together at indoor spaces," Peitso said in an interview. "The best holiday gift that we can give our loved ones is to continue to social distance and keep each other safe so that next year we can all gather in person and be hugging and laughing and enjoying each other's company."
A list of businesses taking part in the protest was published on the group's Facebook page Tuesday evening. Teichroew has been interviewed by regional media and CBS News; Wednesday morning, he is scheduled to appear on Fox News.