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More than 300 adult day centers that provide services for Minnesotans with disabilities and mental illnesses will be allowed to reopen fully on Monday, filling a major gap in the state's social safety net.

The Minnesota Department of Human Services (DHS), the state agency that oversees disability services, issued new guidance allowing thousands of adults who live in group homes and other residential care facilities to attend day centers across the state. They had been locked out of the centers since late March under restrictions meant to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the deadly respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus.

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Human Services Commissioner Jodi Harpstead said the decision was driven by encouraging signs that infection-control protocols are working in group homes and that significantly fewer residents with disabilities have caught the virus since early May. The reopening is also a response to growing concerns over the harm caused by months of grinding isolation and loneliness among Minnesota's most vulnerable residents. Since the pandemic began, many adults with disabilities have been spending their days confined to their homes and cut off from a place to go during the day for social interaction.

On Friday, the state Department of Health cited "the unintended consequences of prolonged physical separation and isolation" as a reason for easing the lockdown on nursing homes and other senior care facilities under new guidelines. For the first time since mid-March, designated family members and outside caregivers can make scheduled visits inside senior homes to monitor their loved ones' care and help alleviate their isolation. Many residents of senior homes have gone months without seeing or touching anyone outside their facilities.

"This felt like exactly the right moment," Harpstead said in an interview Sunday, soon after notifying disability service providers of the reopening.

Across the state, adult day center programs serve about 6,000 Minnesotans with a wide range of disabilities, including autism spectrum disorder, cerebral palsy and traumatic brain injuries. In many small towns and rural areas, they are hubs of activity: They shuttle people to and from work and activities in the community and provide a destination during the day for those with severe disabilities who might otherwise be isolated at home. The state partly reopened the centers on May 30 for people who live in their own homes or with family members; however, as a safety precaution, people who live in four-bedroom group homes or other congregate-care settings were not allowed to return.

The restrictions have put more strain on family members and taken a huge financial toll on nonprofit disability service providers across the state, which have endured staggering losses since the pandemic began. Dozens of centers have been forced to close because of mounting debts, and thousands of employees at these centers have been laid off or furloughed. Lawmakers are expected to consider a $30 million rescue package for disability service providers when the state Legislature reconvenes this week for a special session.

Melissa Winger of Bloomington said she has become alarmed by changes in her son Devin, who has autism spectrum disorder, since his day program suspended its operations in mid-March. Before the pandemic, it was rare for her 24-year-old son to be found sitting still: Devin would dress up like his favorite characters on television shows and dance along to music. But apart from short walks around his group home, and a single medical appointment, her son has been stuck inside his group home for 116 consecutive days, Winger said. When Winger calls her son on FaceTime, Devin spends most of his time staring blankly out the window of his group home bedroom, she said.

The day activity center, she said, provided her son with a sense of purpose and an outlet for his creativity. "It will bring some normalcy back to his life," said Winger, who hopes that he will be allowed to return to his day center this week.

To mitigate the spread of the virus, disability service providers will be required to have a plan in place to protect clients and staff and follow other state licensing requirements related to hours, capacity and screening protocols, DHS said. In addition, individuals will be prohibited from attending a day service facility if they live with any person with an active case of COVID-19 or have had COVID-19 exposure in the past 14 days.

Chris Serres • 612-673-4308 • @chrisserres