Latest on COVID-19 in MN: 748 deaths; plan coming Wednesday for bars, eateries – Minnesota Public Radio News

Updated 12 p.m.

COVID-19 deaths, case counts and hospitalizations continued to climb Tuesday. The state Health Department reported 748 Minnesotans have now died from the disease, up 17 from Monday.

Current hospitalizations jumped to 545, while the count of those needing intensive care held steady at 229. Total cases in the state since the pandemic began reached 17,029.

The newest numbers come as officials prepare to unveil a phase-in plan that would allow people back into bars, restaurants and other public gathering places. That plan is set to be released Wednesday.

Even as they inch the state back toward normalcy — the state’s two-month stay-at-home order came to an end Monday — officials continue to implore Minnesotans to wear masks outdoors and keep their distance from others.

“Lower risk does not equal no risk,” Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm told reporters Monday. “We’re really going to have to keep up these behaviors for a long time to come.“

Plan for restaurants, bars due Wednesday

Monday marked the first day retailers could reopen with limited capacity and group gatherings of 10 or fewer people, including at places of worship, were permitted once again.

Most retail businesses have been permitted to welcome customers back into stores with some capacity limits. But those that serve food and drinks have been restricted to takeout-only and haven’t been able to resume sit-down service.

Gov. Tim Walz has previously said June 1 is his goal to reopen those establishments as well as salons and barbershops, bowling alleys, theaters and other places of public accommodation.

On Tuesday morning Steve Grove, commissioner of the Department of Employment and Economic Development, said the state on Wednesday would outline a phased reopening plan. He didn’t provide details, but in other states, that’s meant keeping restaurants from filling all their normal tables at the outset.

Bars and restaurant owners have become increasingly concerned that they’ll go under if they can’t reopen soon to dine-in customers.

On Monday, a central Minnesota bar owner vowed to defy the state and reopen immediately, but backed down when a judge approved Attorney General Keith Ellison’s restraining order.

Right direction?

Walz has said he won’t hesitate to pull back on business reopenings if coronavirus cases shoot up and hospitals come under strain. But there are signs emerging that the disease may not overwhelm the health system, which has been one of the governor’s biggest fears.

On Monday, the latest coronavirus statistics showed some encouraging trends, including that cases are doubling about every 12 days now, a longer time period than the state’s seen in recent weeks. Malcolm called it a “positive sign” of the disease’s relatively stable growth.

Health officials say they’re watching several key metrics to gauge if the disease is accelerating as restrictions are lowered. Among them: the number of days it takes for cases to double, the amount of daily testing, the proportion of positive tests and the level of community spread that can’t be traced to specific contacts — an indication the disease might be more widespread.

Officials also said they were continuing to add investigators to contact those infected and work to reach others who might have had contact with them and might also be potentially infected.

More than 80 percent of those who’ve died from the disease in Minnesota were living in long-term care, nearly all had underlying health problems.

A graph showing the number of COVID-19 positive cases to date.
A graph showing the percentage of cases tested and their current status.

Meatpacking hot spots remain

Many of the recent outbreaks outside the Twin Cities metro area are focused around meatpacking plants. Officials have intensified testing in those hot spots, uncovering more infections.

In southwestern Minnesota’s Nobles County, where an outbreak hit Worthington’s massive JBS pork plant, about 1 in 16 people have tested positive for COVID-19. In mid-April, there were just a handful of cases. By Tuesday, there were 1,394 confirmed cases, although the numbers are rising at a much slower rate than in previous weeks.

The JBS plant shut on April 20 but has since partially reopened with expanded hygiene and health monitoring measures.

Similar problems have been reported in Stearns County, where COVID-19 cases tied to two packing plants — Pilgrim’s Pride poultry plant in Cold Spring and Jennie-O Turkey in Melrose — have skyrocketed. An undisclosed number of workers at both plants have tested positive for the virus.

There were about 55 confirmed cases in Stearns County two weeks ago. By Monday, confirmed cases were at 1,782 with 10 deaths.

Kandiyohi County in west-central Minnesota is also seeing cases continue to climb four weeks after officials with the Jennie-O turkey processing plant there said some employees had tested positive for the coronavirus. The county had confirmed three COVID-19 cases back then.

On Tuesday, the Health Department reported 420 people have now tested positive.

Developments from around the state

Deadline nears to run in Minnesota 2020 elections

Tuesday marked the start of a two-week candidate filing period for Minnesota’s 2020 elections. 

All 201 seats in the Legislature, a U.S. Senate race and eight congressional contests are among the offices at stake in November. That’s in addition to the presidential contest and a range of municipal offices. Some state races could feature August primaries to determine party nominees.

Candidate filing opens under changed conditions to account for the coronavirus pandemic. Major party candidates are permitted to file in person, by mail or electronically.

Candidates who show up to file at the secretary of state’s office are being advised about social distancing and encouraged to wear face coverings. Minor party hopefuls will be allowed to collect electronic signatures for ballot petitions. That’s new under a temporary law change.

“The purpose of this language was to allow for the collection of petition signatures in a manner that was as close to the existing process as possible while also avoiding face-to-face contact,” the secretary of state’s website advises.

— Brian Bakst | MPR News

Rochester schools OK drive-up graduation ceremonies

Rochester Public Schools announced Monday that graduating seniors can partake in their rites of passage through drive-up ceremonies.

Earlier this month, the district unveiled a plan to host graduations allowing 30 seniors at a time. But the next day, state education officials released their own guidelines forbidding large, in-person commencement gatherings.

Under the new plan, students would be able to receive their diplomas from the principal — who will be wearing gloves and a face mask — or pick up the diploma from a stand without having to make any contact with another person.

The announcement follows a failed push Sunday to let schools bypass the state’s graduation restrictions.

— MPR News Staff

Driver’s license exams, road tests to resume

Minnesotans soon will be able to take driver’s license exams and road tests again.

The Minnesota Department of Public Safety said it’s implementing a plan to reopen 14 exam sites with safety measures in place. Those select stations will be open for exams as well as motorcycle and commercial driving road tests starting Tuesday. Standard road tests will begin next week.

But to start, people who had appointments canceled during stay-at-home orders will be given priority.

Staff plan to screen visitors for COVID-19 symptoms, and ask whether they’ve been exposed to others who have tested positive for the virus. Those with symptoms or exposure will not be allowed into the exam sites.

— Riham Feshir | MPR News

Top headlines

In a pandemic, technology helps tribe reconnect with Dakota language: Members of the Prairie Island Indian Community say there’s a silver lining for their heritage in this chaotic time. By moving Dakota language classes online, they are attracting more tribe members than ever.

A teacher stays connected in a virtual classroom: Minnesota schools will end the year with students and teachers separated. No last day field trips or end-of-the-year pizza parties in the classroom. For many teachers, losing physical contact with students is the hardest part of distance learning. Moorhead kindergarten teacher Karla Brewster talked about maintaining relationships with students in a time of distance learning.

Retail stores in Minnesota cautiously open: As of Monday, nonessential retailers in Minnesota with a coronavirus safety plan were allowed to reopen at 50 percent capacity.

Central Minnesota bar owner keeps doors closed despite threat to reopen: Kris Schiffler vowed Sunday he would defy the state order. But on Monday, after a Stearns County judge blocked the reopening, Schiffler complied, even as a long line of noontime customers stood at his door.

COVID-19 in Minnesota

Health officials for weeks have been increasingly raising the alarm over the spread of the novel coronavirus in the United States. The disease is transmitted through respiratory droplets, coughs and sneezes, similar to the way the flu can spread.

Government and medical leaders are urging people to wash their hands frequently and well, refrain from touching their faces, cover their coughs, disinfect surfaces and avoid large crowds, all in an effort to curb the virus’ rapid spread.

The state of Minnesota has temporarily closed schools, while administrators work to determine next steps, and is requiring a temporary closure of all in-person dining at restaurants, bars and coffee shops, as well as theaters, gyms, yoga studios and other spaces in which people congregate in close proximity.

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