The Dinkytown bar hummed with customers as the Minnesota Gophers football game played on TV. A gaggle of women pushed drinks on a friend, who donned a pink sash for her 21st birthday. Maskless patrons played darts. A young couple leaned in to kiss.
An ordinary nightlife scene came to an early close at the Blarney Pub & Grill in Minneapolis on Friday in compliance with Gov. Tim Walz’s COVID-19 safety order, forcing bar patrons to guzzle their beers by 10 p.m. and leave.
Ten minutes before closing, yellow-shirted security staff began ushering folks out into the night cold. One man slung his arm around a friend’s shoulder, demanding to know: “Where’s the after-party?”
For one night and one bar, at least, the new, earlier closing time to prevent late-night viral transmission played out without incident. But as the pandemic wears on, the lingering question is whether weary business owners and customers across Minnesota will continue to wear masks and maintain social distancing without increased enforcement and penalties for violations.
While some states are toughening their rhetoric and enforcement in response to a pandemic surge, Minnesota leaders said they are optimistic that a heavy-handed approach won’t be necessary.
“Much like a speed limit, the goal here is to give Minnesotans the information they need to stay safe,” said Teddy Tschann, the governor’s spokesman. “People know it’s dangerous to go 20 over in a 30, regardless of whether or not they see a police officer.”
Since bars and restaurants reopened June 10, the Minnesota Department of Health has conducted compliance checks in all parts of the state but for 30 communities where local authorities take on that role.
While the Health Department issued 1,212 violation notices — mostly for workers failing to wear masks — only six resulted in cease-and-desist orders under which the establishments had to correct deficiencies and shut down for as long as 72 hours.
Minneapolis’ 311 line has been flooded with complaints about social distancing and mask-wearing violations. But of the city’s more than 1,700 dining and entertainment venues, only 70 received violation notices and most have been nudged into compliance. Thirteen received citations with $200 fines that can double with repeat violations. More than half have been resolved.
“No one wants to see a business fail,” said Linda Roberts, the city’s assistant manager of business licensing. “We’re trying our best to be a resource and to reserve tickets to only a few who don’t respond to education.”
Large outbreaks at social gatherings — including at bars and restaurants — have helped vault Minnesota into the Top 10 list of states with the highest new infection rates and raised concerns across the country.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo last week called a crowded wedding that led to 30 COVID-19 cases "obnoxious and irresponsible — not to mention illegal” and warned that such disregard for the rules would cost establishments their liquor licenses.
New Mexico expedited the process by which restaurants and bars receive closure orders for COVID-19 safety violations. Boston hauled all establishments with liquor licenses into a Zoom retraining meeting last month after receiving reports of lax COVID-19 protections.
Dr. Philip Imholte, a northern Minnesota physician, is worried about rising COVID-19 deaths and hospital beds in Itasca County filling up, but he said an enforcement crackdown won’t motivate change.
“You’re not going to reach some people with heavy-handed government,” he said.
Added incentive for bar and restaurant owners to police themselves is the threat of negative publicity — the state Health Department so far has named 117 restaurants and bars at which outbreaks involved seven or more infections.
“Education followed by enforcement when needed has shown to be an effective way to gain compliance,” said Daniel Huff, assistant state health commissioner. “It is not in the self-interest of businesses to make their patrons sick.”
One concern is that businesses had economic support to weather the pandemic’s first wave in the spring but won’t be eager to reduce tables and hours when additional unemployment and federal economic impact payments aren’t available. Health officials also are worried about pandemic fatigue that results in less mask-wearing and caution by customers.
The 57 reportable bar and restaurant outbreaks in October was a one-month record. Only seven were reported in June, though they were larger flare-ups. The Pickled Loon in St. Cloud was linked to 117 infections in a June outbreak while Rounders in Mankato was linked to 118.
The burst in October spread beyond college towns and urban centers by comparison, but none were linked to more than 23 infections. Seven were in Applebee’s restaurants in different cities.
Analysis by state health officials found that people visited restaurants and bars throughout the day before testing positive for COVID-19, making the establishments possible sources of their infections. However, those who visited bars and restaurants after 9 p.m. were twice as likely to be involved in clustered outbreaks of multiple patrons. Such flare-ups offer more evidence that people were infected at those establishments and serve as spreader events for the virus to circulate in communities.
Walz cited the analysis last week in his decision to order bars and restaurants to close everything but takeout service by 10 p.m.
That has been a common cutoff for other states. Last week, New York set bar and restaurant closure times at 10 p.m., while Utah allowed restaurants to remain open but to stop selling liquor by then.
Minnesota also capped bars and restaurants at 150 people, or 50% of fire code capacity, whichever number is lower.
Compliance won’t be too challenging at Boathouse Brothers Brewing in Prior Lake, given that the taproom is spacious and closed at 11 p.m. on weekends anyway, said co-owner Kevin Lethert. He was skeptical whether the earlier closing time would make a difference, though he agreed that people opposed to mask-wearing grew less compliant later in the evening.
“If this is what has to be done to get this over quickly, I am all for it,” he said. “I just don’t want to have to close down again.”
The state Health Department usually has a three-strikes approach to issuing cease-and-desist orders or civil fines. Approval to issue orders is sought if second inspections show that businesses haven’t corrected problems. Orders go out if problems remain after third inspections.
Other state departments have been involved in enforcement as well. Public Safety personnel have visited more than 1,300 establishments since June 25 and found 224 with one violation of COVID-19 requirements on capacity, mask-wearing and social distancing, and 149 with multiple violations. Eighteen resulted in warning letters threatening more severe action. No fines or sanctions have been issued, though.
Labor and Industry has closed 15 of 32 inspections related to COVID-19 safety compliance at bars and restaurants. Seven resulted in citations, mostly for a lack of social distancing.
Some restaurant owners say they feel targeted because large outbreaks have occurred in other settings.
Wedding and funeral outbreaks in Minnesota have been linked to more than 1,000 primary infections — with untold secondary infections resulting when people at these events spread the virus to others. Social gatherings such as parties and barbecues have been tied to 599 cases.
“If there truly is someone who is intentionally violating the rules, enforcement is appropriate,” said Liz Rammer, president and CEO of Hospitality Minnesota. “What we don’t want to have happen is playing ‘gotcha’ on minor discrepancies on small operators that are doing their level best to follow the rules and stay afloat.”
Walz said risks at informal events need to be addressed, which is why his latest order capped social gatherings to 10 people from three households. But he acknowledged that enforcement is more likely in public establishments than in private homes.
“If you’re going to choose to hold a big Thanksgiving dinner and just throw it in the face of this, yeah, there’s a pretty good chance that you’re probably not going to have a fine,” Walz said. “In a public place setting, in a bar or restaurant or whatever, there is a responsibility to make sure that we’re trying to follow the rules the best we can.”