After learning of coronavirus outbreaks tied to bars and nightclubs in Minneapolis, Mayor Jacob Frey on Wednesday ordered all establishments in the city to end their counter service to limit the spread of the infection.
Beginning Aug. 1, bars, restaurants, nightclubs, breweries, distilleries and more will have to close their indoor bar areas, according to Frey’s latest emergency regulation. These places are still allowed to serve alcohol, but customers will no longer be able to sit, order or mingle at the bar.
“We are not closing bars as a total building,” Frey said during a news conference Wednesday. “What we are closing is bar areas. That is service from the bar itself directly to patrons, who would otherwise come up to a bar in large numbers, pass their credit card over … and receive some form of drink.”
“We’ve seen time and time again that that proximity of people leads to some form of community spread,” he continued.
Open indoor spaces could be converted to add more seating, with customers able to order drinks only from their tables. About 640 bars, breweries, taprooms and other establishments will be affected by the latest order, according to the city.
“I know that the vast majority of Minneapolis bar owners are trying their best to keep people safe,” Frey said. “The bar culture that we’ve all become accustomed to, with clusters of friends waiting in a very crowded area for a busy bartender to take orders, presents safety challenges that cannot be entirely mitigated, not even by the most well-intended.”
Bars and dining spaces at restaurants were ordered to close this spring to mitigate the initial surge of the coronavirus pandemic. Gov. Tim Walz allowed them to restart outdoor service June 1 and indoor service June 10 at half their capacity.
Since then, at least 367 people who tested positive for the coronavirus have said they were exposed or potentially exposed others at a Minneapolis bar, said Minneapolis Commissioner of Health Gretchen Musicant. At least nine establishments in the city have had “patron outbreaks,” Frey said, meaning at least seven people were infected.
According to the city’s health department, they are: Cowboy Jack’s, the Kollege Klub, the Pourhouse Uptown, Sally’s Saloon, Seven Steakhouse Sushi & Rooftop, Stella’s Fish Cafe, the Loop, Union Rooftop and Uptown Tavern & Rooftop. Before the pandemic, these crowded bars were known for their lively nightlife and younger clientele.
According to Frey’s order, the median age for the people who tested positive at bar outbreaks is 24.
“Alcohol consumption slows brain activity, reduces inhibition and impairs judgment, factors which contribute to reducing compliance with recommended … personal protective measures, such as the mandatory use of face coverings and maintaining 6 feet of distance from people outside of your own household,” Musicant said.
At least three bars with “workplace outbreaks” had at least three employees testing positive for COVID-19, Frey added. City officials have not said where those occurred.
Minnesota health officials said last week there have been outbreaks traced to 14 bars and affecting 710 people in recent weeks, and have blamed the bars’ management for failing to take adequate measures to prevent infections, such as spacing tables and having staff wear masks. Totals updated Tuesday identify 19 bars and restaurants with outbreaks across Minnesota.
At a news conference Wednesday, Walz said he wasn’t considering a similar move with bars statewide, even though three of the state’s five “dial back” indicators are in the red. Walz is using those measures to determine whether to strengthen or loosen rules designed to control the spread of COVID-19. He said the state’s new mandate for wearing masks is a key variable.
“At this point in time, we’ve asked the businesses and I think they’ve stepped up — give us an opportunity with this mask mandate [and] we think this could give us a position where we don’t have to roll backward, and we can start thinking about the next step forward,” Walz said. “We’re not looking at a statewide rollback at this point in time, but we always watch as those numbers move.”
In a statement, Minneapolis Regional Chamber CEO Jonathan Weinhagen praised the new order.
“The raw numbers and share of traceable cases leading us back to bars, national trends, and expert advice have shown we need to take the threat of community spread seriously,” Weinhagen said. “I know that Mayor Frey created this tailored policy with the goal of keeping workers and patrons safe while heading off more sweeping measures like blanket closures.”
At least one bar said Frey’s latest order would lead them to close down entirely.
Tony Jaros River Garden, a bar in northeast Minneapolis known for its famous Greenie drink, comprises a lengthy bar with booths against the walls. The bar has only seen about half its regular clientele since reopening, owner Dan Jaros said.
Prohibiting counter service would lead him to close the entire bar, he said, adding that other dives in Northeast would face similar pressures.
“They can go 2 miles from here in Columbia Heights and they can drink on the bar, but they can’t in Minneapolis,” said Jaros, whose family has owned the bar since 1960. “I don’t think it’s fair.”
Others say they will work to make the new changes.
The Bulldog Uptown on Lyndale Avenue had already removed half of its chairs by the bar and hired a security person to make sure people were wearing masks when entering, said general manager Brandy Morga.
The bar and grill will now likely open up its entire front patio for seating, she said.
“We’re just kind of looking into shifting things slightly around and hoping that it won’t affect us too much,” she said.
In a statement addressing the city’s order, Tony Chesak, the executive director of the Minnesota Licensed Beverage Association, said “broad brushing the entire industry in Minneapolis is overreaching.”
“Most bars and restaurants are complying, which is what we’re hearing from the regulators,” Chesak said. “Punishing those who are complying is uncalled for.”
Frey did not say when they would roll back the restrictions on counter service. Right now, there is an average of 18 coronavirus cases per 100,000 residents in the city, Musicant said. The state has set a goal of reducing that ratio to 5 cases per 100,000 residents.
“If we reach those standards in Minneapolis, I think we’ll be ready to rethink whether or not we need to continue,” she said.
Staff writers Chris Snowbeck and Jeremy Olson contributed to this report.