'We need to stop congregating,' Walz says, calling for closure of Minnesota bars, restaurants

Gov. Tim Walz said health officials worried COVID-19 cases could spread among young people out for St. Patrick's Day.

Gov. Tim Walz on Monday, March 16, 2020, announced he would close restaurants and bars with the exception of take-out, pick-up and delivery options in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. Dana Ferguson / Forum News Service

ST. PAUL — Gov. Tim Walz on Monday, March 16, called for the closure of bars and restaurants for dine-in customers in the state in an effort to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

The announcement comes as the state reported 19 more positive tests for COVID-19, boosting Minnesota's total to 54 cases.

Walz signed an executive order also closing theaters, museums, gyms, community clubs and other areas where community transmission could occur. He said taking the action to close the gathering spaces between Tuesday, March 17 at 5 p.m. to March 27, could help limit new cases. Grocery stores and pharmacies were set to remain open.

“For us in Minnesota, I’m going to ask once again, we need folks’ cooperation,” Walz said. “We need to stop congregating, we’re going to close the bars, we’re going to close the restaurants, we’re going to close the places where we gather.”

Take-out, pickup and delivery food options could continue, Minnesota Department of Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said.


Also on Monday, the Centers for Disease Control recommended that there no longer be gatherings of more than 50 people in one space for the next eight weeks to mitigate the spread. And President Donald Trump urged Americans to avoid gatherings of 10 or more people.

Several other states have put in place similar measures in recent days. And businesses around the state began closing their doors ahead of the announcement out of concern that vulnerable individuals could contract COVID-19 while in their establishments. In response to the federal health guidance, several local governments in the region this week declared public emergencies, restricting public access to municipal buildings, restaurants and bars.

But not all were supportive of the governor's decision.

"Using executive authority to shut down private businesses is an overreach that will be devastating," state Sen. Roger Chamberlain, R-Lino Lakes, said in a news release. "I hope the governor will reconsider."

Many restaurant owners on Monday said they supported the decision but likely would need significant aid from the state and federal government to sustain the financial hit.

As the number of businesses impacted grew with the recommendation, state employment officials urged businesses to consider temporary paid family leave policy changes during this time as well as offering unpaid leave, limiting employee hours, providing early retirement options or temporary furloughs to dampen the financial impact.

And they encouraged workers to pursue unemployment benefits from the state to offset reduced hours or temporary unemployment. Walz also signed an executive order Monday ensuring those who can't work due to the outbreak can access unemployment insurance.

Department of Employment and Economic Development Commissioner Steve Grove said parents who need to stay home to care for children due to limits in child care options could also apply for employment insurance. Grove said federal disaster assistance loans could also come available for Minnesota businesses.


The Minnesota Grocers Association in a news release urged customers to remain calm and prioritize items of most pressing need rather than hoarding food or supplies. The group also asked that customers allow elderly shoppers and those with health issues to have the first hour of service at stores to provide distance between themselves and others.

Pandemic expected to rock state's economy

Walz and economic officials earlier in the day said the state is preparing to take action if needed because the firm that updates the state on macroeconomic matters provided an unexpected update Monday saying they expect the economy to enter a recession this spring.

“This announcement confirms what we have suspected: deteriorating economic conditions caused by COVID-19 will stress Minnesota’s economy,” Walz said. “Doing the right thing to protect ourselves and one another — social distancing — is hard on our economy in the short run, but it will ultimately be the right thing for all of us. In these times of uncertainty, my Administration is working tirelessly to ensure our state is in the best position possible to weather whatever may come our way.”

State Economist Dr. Laura Kalambokidis said the state's economy is diverse and that, along with efforts to limit the impact of COVID-19 in the state, could help businesses come through the downturn.

"Minnesota’s economy is not immune to a U.S. recession, but flattening the curve of COVID-19 infections will help us get back on our feet and back to work as soon as possible," Kalambokidis said.

Education officials on Sunday announced that Minnesota schools would close no later than Wednesday, March 18, with distance learning measures set to keep most of the state's 850,000 students in the K-12 education system out of school until March 27 at the earliest.

The Minnesota Legislature on Monday also prepared to enter a month-long hiatus with work set to go online at least until April 14. Prior to moving to an on-call status, lawmakers on Monday night were expected to take up a $100 million hospital funding measure to help health care providers weather the economic hit they'd experienced from COVID-19.

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Dana Ferguson is a Minnesota Capitol Correspondent for Forum News Service. Ferguson has covered state government and political stories since she joined the news service in 2018, reporting on the state's response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the divided Statehouse and the 2020 election.
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