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Some businesses ignore health advice

Minnesota health officials Monday urged businesses to comply with existing COVID-19 protections to avoid the resurgence of infections that have caused other states to close down bars, churches and other destinations.

Outbreaks involving 14 bars and 710 people over the past month show that some businesses aren't taking required precautions, such as keeping customers separated by at least 6 feet, to reduce transmission of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, state Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said.

"The bottom line is we need businesses to follow these guidelines and patrons to respect that there are guidelines that businesses are trying to follow," she said.

The appeal for compliance comes as Gov. Tim Walz and other state health officials are already considering a mandate requiring people to wear protective masks in public places.

The Minnesota Department of Health this spring steered as many workers as possible into contact tracing — which involves identifying close contacts of infected people to alert them to their risk — but is pulling some back into environmental health roles so they can inspect and educate businesses on requirements for reducing the threat of COVID-19.

Minnesota at the moment is in a better stage of the pandemic than most states. The two COVID-19 deaths reported Monday brought the state's death toll to 1,504 and was the lowest daily count since April 13. The state also reported that 247 people were hospitalized for COVID-19 on Monday and that 114 of those people needed intensive care. Both of those numbers are well below the state's peak totals in May.

Health officials are concerned, however, about a recent uptick in cases involving young adults and teenagers. The state reported another 499 lab-confirmed cases of COVID-19 on Monday, bringing the state's total in the pandemic to 42,772.

That total represents a 70% increase from the case count on June 1, but the number of cases involving people 29 and younger has increased 118% in that same time frame.

States such as Arizona, Florida and Texas that initially saw these upticks in cases among healthy young adults last month are now seeing increases in hospitalizations among older and sicker adults.

Young people are at lower risk of severe COVID-19 — with only two of Minnesota's deaths involving people younger than 30 — but can unwittingly spread the virus to people who are older or have underlying health conditions that put them at greater risk, Malcolm said.

"That's what we're frankly expecting to see as well in the coming weeks is that second- and third-generation transmission from these more recent cases," she said.

Minnesota is reporting a rate of 8 new lab-confirmed cases of COVID-19 per day per 100,000 people — above its own target goal of 5 cases per 100,000 people.

States have responded to second waves of cases with new restrictions, including bar closures in Arizona and Texas.

California on Monday closed indoor restaurants, bars and entertainment venues statewide — and churches, fitness centers and other businesses in 30 counties with high levels of virus transmission.

Chicago has set a midnight closing time for bars and also has required people traveling to the city to quarantine themselves for 14 days if they are coming from states with new case rates of 15 per 100,000 people or higher.

Walz is expected to decide this week whether to join more than 20 other states in requiring that people wear face masks to reduce the spread of the virus via droplets that people emit when coughing, talking and breathing.

Key decisions beyond the mandate itself include whether to impose it in indoor locations only or on any public spaces in which people can't maintain safe social distancing.

Malcolm said state officials hadn't yet considered any quarantine mandate on travelers from COVID-19 hot spots. She added that Minnesota isn't resigned to following other states with surges in severe COVID-19 cases, but that businesses need to take their responsibilities seriously now that they are reopened.

"We've wanted to give them a chance to try to get that as right as possible," she said.

Bars and restaurants, for example, were permitted to reopen their indoor spaces at 50% of their fire-code capacities on June 10 as long as they required workers to wear masks and spaced tables so that groups would be at least 6 feet apart.

State health officials have publicly named 11 of the 14 bars tied to outbreaks, but have not named three with seven or fewer cases of COVID-19 traced to their customers. Recent additions to the list include Dooley's Pub in Rochester, the Loop in Minneapolis and the City Club Bar in New Prague.

Fitness clubs, entertainment venues and churches have also been allowed to reopen at limited capacities and with other restrictions to prevent the spread of the virus, and more recently youth sports organizations were allowed to resume team activities.

Former Medicare Administrator Andy Slavitt has been an influential health care policy voice during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Edina resident talked with Malcolm and Walz on Sunday and advised them to close the indoor sections of bars entirely because their reopenings in other states have been closely tied with COVID-19 case growth.

"Bars unfortunately have all of the ingredients that you don't want to have," including people yelling above music and packing close together, he said.

Waiting until the state's numbers look bad to close them is too late, he added, because of the lag time between virus transmission and the emergence of more respiratory illnesses a week or two later.

Backlogs in COVID-19 diagnostic testing supplies will only further reduce the state's real-time "visibility" of case growth, he added.

"We won't know for another two weeks," he said, "what's happening today."

Jeremy Olson • 612-673-7744