Updated 3:33 p.m.
State health leaders on Thursday faced growing questions over Minnesota’s COVID-19 strategy and the toll it’s taken on religious services, graduation ceremonies and other important life rituals.
They acknowledged the cost, but cautioned that moving too quickly could worsen the pain.
With COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths continuing to rise toward a likely peak later in the summer, the state needed to continue to limit worship services and other gatherings, Jan Malcolm, the state’s health commissioner, told reporters.
“We’re hearing the frustration of people who feel as though our guidance is overly conservative,” she said. “We just keep reinforcing the degree of community spread … even when it isn’t completely visible.”
Kris Ehresmann, the state’s infectious disease director, implored Minnesotans to stay away from graduation ceremonies, saying that even graduations in outdoor stadiums are not safe from the virus, and so are not permitted.
She noted that even with proper safeguards, the disease could spread from students rushing to hug fellow classmates they haven’t seen in awhile and other “unpredictable social behavior.”
Health officials, she said, knew of a case in Minnesota involving a person who helped set up a diploma ceremony and later tested positive for COVID-19. That person had contact with two people directly involved in the ceremony, which happened despite the state’s ban. Ehresmann didn’t say where or if a larger spread had been documented, but said the risk was there.
“As much as we wish we could be doing graduation,” Ehresmann said, “that is not possible at this time.”
Ehresmann’s and Malcolm’s remarks came hours after the Health Department reported 809 people have died in the outbreak, up 32 from Wednesday. The agency said 566 people remain hospitalized while 229 are in intensive care, returning to its high from earlier in the week. Total cases in the pandemic topped 18,000.
The latest numbers come a day after Gov. Tim Walz unveiled plans to slow-walk the reopening of bars and restaurants, letting them serve sit-down customers beginning June 1, but only at outdoor tables.
Walz and Steve Grove, the state’s employment and economic development commissioner, said more restrictions on daily life would be loosened at later dates, including large indoor religious gatherings. But they wouldn’t say when that would happen.
Those comments led to pushback on several fronts. A key hospitality group called the bar and restaurant plan disastrous for an industry already reeling from the economic fallout of COVID-19. GOP leaders also attacked the decision.
The state’s Catholic Church leaders, as well as Lutheran leaders from Wisconsin and Missouri synods, said they would defy Walz’s order and resume services next week, believing they could do so safely.
The governor reiterated on Wednesday that he’s trying to balance the needs of the economy with public health as he works to keep the spread of the coronavirus from overwhelming the state’s hospital and care system.
“It is going to get worse here before it gets better. That is an absolute guarantee,” Walz said of the expected surge in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations now expected later this summer. Walz said he expects the state’s death toll to hit 1,000 by the end of the month and 1,500 by late June.
Large indoor worship services still on hold
Walz replaced his two-month stay-at-home order with a “stay safe” order that loosened restrictions on some retail operations and allowed group gatherings of 10 or fewer people, including at places of worship.
On Wednesday, he acknowledged the delay on large indoor religious services was “not a perfect answer” and that “there is a very strong sense of urgency to figure this next piece out.”
Hours after Walz’s announcement, the bishops of Minnesota’s Catholic churches sent the Walz administration a letter saying they will not follow state guidelines for reopening services.
In the four-page letter, they say the church has done extensive research on how to reopen safely, and will reopen under strict protocols, limiting seating to one third of the seating capacity at churches. The bishops say they will resume the celebration of Mass on May 26.
The clerics note that the dioceses voluntarily suspended public Masses before Walz issued his orders, and they’ve been urging him to allow larger religious gatherings in his latest executive order. The bishops say it “defies reason” to allow malls to reopen while continuing to prohibit more than 10 people from gathering in a cathedral that can seat thousands.
“His most recent order does not address both the vital importance that faith plays in the lives of Americans, especially in this time of pandemic, and the fundamental religious freedom,” Archbishop Bernard Hebda, bishops and other leaders said in the letter. “We can safely resume public Masses in accordance with both our religious duties and with accepted public health and safety standards.”
Malcolm on Thursday reiterated that it was important to see the bigger picture — cases were growing and hospitals were “getting full,” and the state still needed to work to check the community spread of the disease. “We appreciate that comes at a great cost, a great disappointment.”
Ehresmann said the concern at worship services — including where she worships — is for medically vulnerable people who might be infected. Those at-risk people would naturally want to attend services but “what may seem to be OK for a certain sement of the populatoin could have devastating consequences for others.”
Bar and restaurant owners have become increasingly concerned they’ll go under if they can’t reopen soon to dine-in customers.
While Walz’s stay-at-home order pushed back the disease’s peak in Minnesota and bought officials time to prep the health care system for a surge, it delivered a huge economic blow to Minnesota’s restaurant and hospitality industry.
Many had wanted restrictions further eased in time for the upcoming Memorial Day weekend. Walz, though, indicated that will not happen, noting the virus does not respect calendars.
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.
On Tuesday, Malcolm said health leaders were focused on eight counties outside the Twin Cities metro area where outbreaks were centered around packing plants.
In southwestern Minnesota’s Nobles County, where an outbreak hit Worthington’s massive JBS pork plant, about 1 in 15 people have tested positive for COVID-19. In mid-April, there were just a handful of cases. By Thursday, there were 1,414 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 Thursday, confirmed cases were at 1,853 with 11 deaths.
Kandiyohi County in west-central Minnesota is also seeing cases continue to climb a month 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 then.
On Thursday, the Health Department reported 428 people have now tested positive.
While the counts in those counties are high relative to their population, officials say the growth in new cases in those areas appears to be stabilizing.
State Fair decision expected Friday
The Minnesota State Fair on Friday could announce whether this year’s Great Minnesota Get-Together will go ahead.
The fair’s governing board has a regularly scheduled meeting Friday morning, and fair officials have been telling vendors and participants that they expect to make a final decision soon. This is to allow food stands, attractions and exhibitors to have enough time to plan appropriately.
The fair has been canceled before, most recently in 1946, because of a polio epidemic. State health leaders this year have been particularly concerned about the prospect of hundreds of thousands of Minnesotans packed in at the fair amid a pandemic.
In late April, Walz did not sound optimistic when a reporter asked about the prospects for the fair.
“I wouldn’t want to make a definitive call. But I also don’t want to give any false hope on this. I think it would be very difficult to see a State Fair operating,” he said. “I don’t know how you social distance in there. I mean one of the greatest parts of the State Fair is it’s super crowded.”
On Thursday, Malcolm sounded pessimistic. Her agency, she said, didn’t make a recommendation but did lay out the risks to fair officials.
“By late August, early September, unfortunately everything we know, everything we see, even if we’re past the peak, which we expect to be, there still will be a great great deal of community spread and a great risk of transmission,” she said.
Developments from around the state
Joblessness in MN jumps to 8 percent last month
Minnesota’s unemployment rate more than doubled in April to about 8 percent.
The unemployment rate is based on federal survey of about 900 Minnesota households and the results can be pretty dated by the time they’re released. The latest survey indicated about 250,000 Minnesota were unemployed through early April. But as of this week, about 700,000 Minnesotans have filed for unemployment insurance. The unemployment rate will certainly rise.
A survey of employers found Minnesota lost an estimated 360,000 private sector jobs in April, compared with the same month a year ago.
“Almost half of those jobs were lost in leisure and hospitality and other services, which includes personal services, all of the hair dressers and barbershops that were shut down,” said Oriane Casale, interim director of the DEED’s Labor Market Information Office.
— Martin Moylan | MPR News
Essentia lays off 900 employees
Duluth-based Essentia Health is laying off 900 workers — about 6 percent of its workforce — as it deals with continued economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Essentia’s East Market president Jon Pryor said the company has lost nearly $100 million since March because of a 40 percent drop in patient volumes.
“Even with the recent ability to restart elective surgery, though that helped, we were still losing tens of millions of dollars a month. And so that was just not sustainable.” Pryor said. “We need to survive so that we can take care of people during the surge and take care of our community post-COVID[-19].”
Pryor said most of the job cuts are not involved in direct patient care. Essentia has furloughed an additional 850 employees, and intends to call them back to work as needed. Physicians and management have also taken pay cuts.
Pryor said that’s not enough to make up for such a steep loss of revenue, however.
“We are not thinking of any additional layoffs at this point. However, it’s definitely possible. And the reason is, is that this still doesn’t close the gap,” Pryor said.
The health system is the largest employer in Duluth, with more than 14,000 workers across Minnesota, Wisconsin and North Dakota.
— Dan Kraker | MPR News
Officials cancel huge summer youth soccer tourney
The massive youth soccer tournament that’s drawn thousands to Blaine every summer for decades won’t happen in 2020.
The National Sports Center says the COVID-19 pandemic has forced it to cancel the Target USA Cup for this year, after 35 years of play.
The tournament last year welcomed 1,152 teams from 22 states and 20 countries, as the biggest youth soccer tournament in the country.
— Tim Nelson | MPR News
Duluth’s Spirit Mountain won’t reopen until next winter
Duluth’s Spirit Mountain recreation area is planning to remain closed until next winter as it deals with a financial fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Spirit Mountain usually hosts weddings, mountain biking and other activities in the summer. But the ski area was forced to close in March, and laid off nearly all its staff.
The Duluth City Council plans to take up the ski area’s proposed $4 million budget next week, including over $1 million in city support.
Duluth Parks Director Jim Filby Williams said the city would be on the hook for twice that amount if Spirit Mountain was forced to close altogether.
“It’s really not about choosing to open or close Spirit, as much as it is to choose how to proceed in a way that will be most cost effective and beneficial for the community of Duluth,” he said.
The city plans to convene a task force in July to try to devise a way to make the ski area more sustainable.
— Dan Kraker | MPR News
Mpls. to reopen basketball and tennis courts, play areas
Minneapolis parks officials say they’re ready to start reopening basketball and tennis courts and other amenities closed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Minneapolis park board said that it will gradually reopen about 100 basketball courts and more than 120 tennis courts across the park system, as well as six skate parks and nearly 120 play areas.
Bike and boat rentals in some locations have already reopened. Food stands are opening for takeout only.
Parks officials say that social distancing rules still apply, and group activities like basketball or volleyball should be limited to people from a single household. They also say that shared equipment like playground fixtures and picnic tables will not be sanitized and should be avoided.
Parks officials also say groups should be limited to 10 people or fewer and recreation centers will remain closed. The park board still intends to keep beaches and pools closed for the summer.
— Tim Nelson | MPR News
Minnesota’s Catholic bishops say they’ll defy Walz’ limits on church attendance: Twin Cities Archbishop Bernard Hebda and the state’s five other diocesan leaders say they’re giving parishes permission to resume public Masses on May 26, just ahead of Pentecost on May 31.
What is — and isn’t — allowed when camping in MN this Memorial Day weekend: Aside from the Boundary Waters and Voyageurs National Park, the only option for a night under the stars is dispersed camping in state forests. Here’s what that is and why it’s best for experienced campers.
COVID-19 in Minnesota
Data in these graphs are based off Minnesota Department of Health cumulative totals released at 11 a.m. daily. You can find more detailed statistics on COVID-19 at the Health Department website.
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.