See more of the story

Bars and restaurants in Minnesota can open June 1 for outdoor service under a revised COVID-19 response strategy announced by Gov. Tim Walz on Wednesday that also allows for limited reopening of hair salons and campgrounds.

While COVID-19 remains a growing concern — causing 777 deaths and 17,670 lab-confirmed infections so far in Minnesota — Walz said beloved summertime activities can take place amid the pandemic, with precautions.

“While the virus won’t yet allow for business as usual, let’s do what we do best after winter in Minnesota and head outside. Whether it’s a Jucy Lucy, a plate of tamales, or a walleye dinner, Minnesotans can support their local restaurant by enjoying a socially distanced meal outdoors,” Walz said.

Outdoor patios and serving areas will be limited to 50 patrons at a time who are encouraged to wear masks and must make reservations — which among other things will make it easier for state investigators to identify their close contacts if they end up infected later on. Employees must wear masks.

Similarly, salons will only be allowed to operate at 25% capacity, and stylists and customers will need to don masks.

Minnesota had been under a statewide stay-at-home order that ended after 51 days on Monday, allowing retailers to reopen with social distancing practices in place, and limiting groups to no more than 10 people.

The latest move kept Minnesota at a higher level of restrictions in its pandemic response than Iowa, the Dakotas, and Wisconsin, which had similar measures overturned by a court order last week.

The announcement, however, drew a rare alliance of disappointment from nurses, bartenders and priests.

The Minnesota Catholic Conference announced it would allow its member churches starting next Tuesday to go beyond state gathering restrictions and hold indoor services that fill up to one-third of their seats — while still offering online and outdoor alternatives.

“The bishops of Minnesota are united in our conviction that we can safely resume public Masses in accordance with both our religious duties and with accepted public health and safety,” conference leaders wrote Wednesday night.

The Minnesota Nurses Association on the other hand expressed “reservations” about being too hasty in scaling back restrictions, which protect nurses by reducing COVID-19 cases that could otherwise overwhelm hospitals and their stockpiles of protective gowns and masks.

“We don’t have enough PPE to have it be used the proper way,” said Mary Turner, president of the union, which held a protest march to the Capitol Wednesday night due to supply shortages that are requiring nurses to reuse disposable masks and gowns.

Meanwhile, Hospitality Minnesota called the news “disappointing” for campgrounds that can’t open for the pivotal Memorial Day Weekend and for restaurants that had begun hiring back staff for June 1 but don’t have outdoor capacity or the money to create new outdoor seating.

“This is another disastrous setback for them,” the trade group said.

Republican lawmakers balked at the lack of accommodation for places of worship, which cannot have outdoor services of more than 10 people even though restaurants can now serve 50 outdoors.

“I see no reason why churches are any more dangerous a place for coronavirus transmission than Walmart or a mall,” said Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake. “I am dumbfounded why the governor would treat churches this way and hope the federal courts will intervene.”

The loosened restrictions come even as the pandemic is still peaking in Minnesota. The 29 deaths reported in the state due to COVID-19 on Wednesday was the second-highest single-day tally so far. The number of patients hospitalized with COVID-19 has increased as well — reaching 550 on Wednesday, with 212 patients in intensive care.

The state has an immediate capacity of 1,261 ICU beds, but 1,034 were filled as of Wednesday by patients with COVID-19 or unrelated health problems. Another 1,124 ICU beds could be readied for patients within 72 hours, though.

“It is going to get worse here, this virus, before it gets better. That is an absolute guarantee,” said Walz, predicting 1,000 deaths in Minnesota by the end of the month.

Virus transmission can be easier to prevent when the movements of workers and customers are short and predictable, so that can explain some of the variations in restrictions for different businesses and organizations, said Jan Malcolm, state health commissioner. The length of interaction between customers and employees matters as well.

“It might be that a haircut’s a good idea and a hair coloring is not a good idea,” she said, “just from a length-of-the-encounter perspective.”

Gyms would remain closed but could reopen in the next phase of the state’s plan, though the date for that next phase is not set. Restaurants and bars could serve patrons indoors again at 50% capacity in the next phase, and salons could increase to 50% capacity as well. Gatherings of 20 people could also take place.

Youth day camps are now allowed to proceed along with youth sports practices of less than 10 participants, but games are not yet permitted, said Steve Grove, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development.

Businesses and organizations were preparing for the new requirements. The Church of St. Joseph in West St. Paul had announced before the decision by the Catholic Conference that it was set to start 10-person masses on Thursday.

Grandma’s Restaurant Co. expects curbside delivery will be popular at its Duluth restaurants this summer, but even before the governor’s announcement, managers were preparing to expand outdoor dining, including looking at buying heaters and allowing for ordering from tables by phone.

“Outdoor dining is going to feel more comfortable and safe to our customers,” said company President Brian Daugherty, who was nonetheless disappointed by the governor’s decision and had been planning for indoor service as well.

Grove said he hopes city governments will help other restaurants with flexibility in zoning laws so they can expand outdoor capacity. “We are eager to see municipalities get a little creative here,” he said.

The concern for state public health leaders is that the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 spreads more rapidly than was initially known, particularly in indoor areas with limited airflow.

State contact tracers initially assumed people could only spread COVID-19 once their first symptoms, such as dry coughing, emerged. Now, they ask infected cases to identify people they had been in contact with 48 hours before symptom onset due to their potential exposure risks.

A report Tuesday from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention underscored the risk, examining the ease with which COVID-19 spread through an Arkansas church. Testing of 45 of the 92 people who attended the church March 6-11 found 35 cases, including one person who had only attended a small-group Bible study.

Roughly 80% of coronavirus infections cause mild or no symptoms, meaning that people can spread the virus without knowing they are sick.

Most people recover. So far, 12,227 Minnesotans with lab-confirmed COVID-19 have recovered to the point that they are no longer required to isolate themselves to prevent spreading the virus.

Diagnostic testing supplies have improved, too, and Minnesota now has capacity for 10,000 per day, Walz said.

However, he said he remains concerned about reopening too much of the state when some supplies of masks and other hospital needs remain overdue or on back order. Walz also said he spent time Wednesday calling federal leaders and executives at Hologic to find out why high-throughput screening systems the state had ordered had apparently been diverted to the federal government.

Once the state has enough testing to spot COVID-19 “hot spots” in Minnesota, and enough PPE to protect caregivers, Walz said he will feel more comfortable removing all restrictions. He stressed that Minnesotans hold the biggest key to the course of the pandemic, and that their hand-washing and mask-wearing could be the difference.

“The thing that drives this,” he said, “is what the virus is doing and we’re doing.”

Staff writers Glenn Howatt, Pam Louwagie and Torey Van Oot contributed to this report.