Latest on COVID-19 in MN: Controversy boils over slow reopening – Minnesota Public Radio News

Minnesota health leaders face growing questions over how the state’s COVID-19 strategy is taking a toll 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, Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm 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.”

Gov. Tim 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.

Here are the latest coronavirus statistics:

  • 18,200 confirmed cases via 173,556 tests

  • 809 deaths

  • 2,380 cases requiring hospitalization

  • 566 people remain hospitalized; 229 in intensive care

  • 12,488 patients no longer needing isolation

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.

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 segment of the population 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.

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.

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.

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 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.

Developments from around the state

Minneapolis to require face masks in indoor public places

Starting next week, people in indoor public places in Minneapolis will be required to wear a face covering.

Mayor Jacob Frey announced the measure on Thursday as the latest in a series of emergency regulations designed to halt the spread of COVID-19. The regulation will take effect next Tuesday.

Frey said business owners will be able to refuse entry to anyone who’s not wearing a face covering. The rule would apply to indoor public places in Minneapolis, not outdoor venues.

People can call 311 to report noncompliance, the mayor said. Violations could be punished by fines up to $1,000.

“We are not criminalizing forgetfulness. We are not penalizing people for a lack of awareness. We are approaching the implementation of the policy with grace and patience,” said Frey. “We are prioritizing outreach and education.”

The city will be launching a mask drive this weekend to help secure coverings for people who don’t have them.

— Brandt Williams | MPR News

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

Top headlines

It was hailed as the ‘Minnesota moonshot’ — but why hasn’t antibody testing taken off? One reason state health officials say they have been reticent to suggest widespread testing is reliability. In addition to the Mayo and U of M tests, private companies have also developed their own antibody testing. State officials say there are tests on the market that don’t produce reliable results.

More Minnesotans flocking to food shelves: As more Minnesotans lose their jobs because of COVID-19, local food shelves are seeing a surge in first-time visitors needing emergency food services — and the demand doesn’t look like it’ll let up anytime soon. About 1 in 3 Minnesotans say they’re worried about affording groceries and healthy food.

Meet the Minnesota scientists trying to track COVID-19 spread — through sewage: Two University of Minnesota researchers are looking for the virus in wastewater — even before test results reveal its presence in a community.

Restaurant, bar owners frustrated and resigned over slow pace of full reopening: Some in the restaurant industry say they were shocked by the governor’s announcement Wednesday that they could serve customers outside only beginning June 1. They were in the middle of other plans.

Want to see friends and family, now that COVID-19 restrictions are loosening? Here’s what to consider: Now that Minnesota’s stay at home order has turned into a “stay safe” order, a lot of people are antsy for some social interaction. Here’s what experts say you should take into consideration when making plans.

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.

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