ST. PAUL — Gov. Tim Walz and state health officials on Monday, June 29, offered a stern warning to Minnesota bar owners and patrons: start following the rules or you'll have to close again.
The comments come as the state has reported hundreds of cases of the coronavirus among Minnesotans in their 20s who'd reported attending bars in the Mankato area and in Minneapolis and St. Paul.
While the young adults might not face significant threats from COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus, they could spread it to older adults or those more at risk of developing complications. And that could test the state's hospital capacity and throw off the declining trend in COVID-19 cases and deaths.
"At some point in time, the carrot turns to the stick to stop this thing," Walz told reporters at the University of Minnesota's Twin Cities campus. "The bars right now just are not safe, they are not safe when they act that way."
Walz compared customer responses to a salmonella outbreak and said Minnesotans might be more willing to accept regulations on bar or restaurant use if they knew they could be sickened at an establishment if bar owners and others failed to take appropriate precautions.
"If this were a salmonella poisoning situation, no one would be mad that we stopped in and stopped it from happening," Walz said. "Some of these bar owners are trying really really hard and it's just not working. We have to figure out how to make it work."
The comments come ahead of the July 4th holiday weekend, as the hospitality industry prepares to roll out the metaphorical red carpet for customers they've been waiting months to serve. A coalition of Minnesota chambers of commerce and industry groups have said the weekend will be vital to the success of restaurants, bars, resorts and other businesses around the state.
And they have urged Walz to lift restraints on their capacity so they can make up for revenue lost due to state-imposed shutdowns. The governor on Monday said the state has taken strict measures to limit the spread of COVID-19, and now as cases mount following some of those reopenings, he might have to again set restrictions on bars.
Minnesota Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said so far bars out of compliance with state health guidelines have been warned about the expectations by law enforcement or other authorities. Customers are supposed to be seated at reserved tables, not standing or gathering groups as social media photos at bars in Minneapolis and Mankato have recently depicted.
And industry groups have called on bar owners and customers to be mindful of requirements set by the state.
Last week, Minnesota Licensed Beverage Association Executive Director Tony Chesak pointed to state decisions in Texas and Florida to close or limit bars as COVID-19 cases surged in those states. Chesak said bar employees are required to wear masks, social distancing among staff and customers is mandatory and reservations are required.
"We all want to get to that brass ring of 100% opening. With hiccups like what is happening in Texas, Florida and even here in Mankato, we have to do better," Chesak said. "The old adage of one bad apple can spoil the whole basket may in fact ring true for us if we do not all do our part."
Malcolm said the state continues to track cases stemming from bars and other businesses. And if she and other state officials don't see a drop in cases, she and Walz could call for tighter restrictions there.
“Seeing numbers like this, that educational approach doesn’t seem to be having all of the impact we want it to," Malcolm said. "If we continue to see these kinds of clusters, that will absolutely call for stronger mitigation measures."