ROCHESTER, Minn. — State health officials on Wednesday, Sept. 9, said surprise COVID-19 compliance checks on restaurants and bars had identified almost 80 establishments out of compliance.

Acting on tips from the public and employees, inspection teams paid surprise visits to 167 establishments, visiting outstate businesses in Mankato, St. Peter, Waseca, Faribault and New Ulm on the weekend of Aug. 28 and 29, and in suburban Carver and Scott counties on the weekend of Sept. 4 and 5.

"Our initial strategy at the Department of Public Safety was focused on education," said Booker Hodges, Assistant Commissioner overseeing alcohol enforcement, during a Wednesday afternoon call with the media. "But after three months of education ... our strategy has shifted more toward enforcement, unfortunately."

The Minnesota Department of Health has received more than 800 complaints of Executive Order violations at restaurants and bars since the mask order went into effect July 13, and has referred more than 400 to delegated agencies.

Out of the 167 establishments visited over the past two weekends, 88 establishments were observed following the safety and health requirements, 79 were out of compliance, and 31 were being referred for follow-up inspections.

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The agency identified 68 case clusters of patrons who had visited 66 bars and restaurants. Of these, 38 clusters met the definition of an outbreak, leading to 1,210 people infected with COVID-19. Another 58 suspected outbreaks which involved just employees have been identified as well.

"The goal has been to offer guidance in situations where we're not seeing compliance," said director of infectious disease Kris Ehresmann, "in hopes of bringing people in, rather than having to take further action."

"We're at 1,592 unique cases. That's a small portion of total cases, but those cases have seeded a number of additional situations. Some of these individuals work in child care, some work in long-term care and some work in health care."

"Our goal isn't to hammer people," she added. "It's to educate ... and to ensure a level playing field where all businesses can find success in keeping people safe."

Health officials said the problem often was due to customers moving tables together (restrictions limit large parties to 6), eschewing masks and clustering against 6-foot distancing restrictions.

"These customers are not only putting the health of themselves and others at risk," said state department of labor and industry assistant commissioner Nicole Blissenbach. "They jeopardize the operations of these businesses. Compliance checks aren't just about keeping customers safe," she added. "They are about keeping workers safe."

Blissenbach said the state receives calls daily "from workers concerned about their safety at work. "

Restaurants are something of the perfect COVID-19 transmission center, according to health officials. People take off masks when eating, talk loudly for long periods of time, and a single employee must interact with dozens of customers and fellow employees during a shift.

"A high percentage of bars and restaurant employees are people of color," Blissenbach said, "adding to the inequitable impact of this virus we are seeing in the state."

Sturgis study

Two counties in Minnesota were among the highest-inflow counties in the nation for Sturgis Motorcycle Rally attendees, according to a widely cited research paper published Tuesday, Sept. 8, that tracked the location of rally-goers via anonymized cellphone data.

According to the study, north-metro Anoka and metro Hennepin counties joined a handful of counties intensely populated by the bikers returning from South Dakota, counties with an average of 10.7% elevation in case numbers following the event.

The other counties which welcomed home high numbers of Sturgis attendees included Jefferson, Weld, Adams, Denver, El Paso and Larimer counties in Colorado; Mohave and Maricopa counties in Arizona; Los Angeles and San Diego counties in California; Clark County, Nevada; Pottawattamie and Woodbury counties in Iowa, as well as counties in Missouri, Wyoming, Washington and Nebraska.

By the numbers

The state of Minnesota Wednesday reported 282 cases of COVID-19 and seven deaths from the illness. Four of the seven deaths were among residents of congregate living facilities.

The new laboratory confirmed case total is 81,868 with a median age is 35. The new death total in the state is 1,869.

Single deaths were reported among residents of Stearns and LeSeur counties, as well as two deaths in Dakota County and three deaths in Hennepin County.

The state reported 5,373 tests for the day, with a 5.5% test positivity, up from 5.3% last week.

There are 263 persons hospitalized with COVID-19 in the state, 137 in ICU settings.

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  • Minnesota Department of Health COVID-19 hotline: 651-201-3920.
  • COVID-19 discrimination hotline: 833-454-0148
  • Minnesota Department of Health COVID-19 website: Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) website.