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COVID Restrictions: Walz Announces Relaxed Regulations For Indoor Dining, 50% Capacity For Bars And Restaurants

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) -- Gov. Tim Walz announced Wednesday that he's relaxing COVID-19 restrictions for Minnesota bars and restaurants, which have been closed to indoor dining for the last six weeks. Loosened restrictions were also announced for movie theaters, gyms, places of worship, and small gatherings.

On Wednesday morning ahead of the official press conference, the governor said he is adjusting the dials on state COVID restrictions, allowing bars and restaurants to reopen indoor dining at 50% capacity, or up to 150 people. Restaurant tables will be able to seat up to six people, and bars will be able to seat groups of two. Under the new rules, reservations will be required, and establishments must close by 10 p.m.

The new rules are slated to take effect Monday, when the governor's current executive order banning indoor dining is set to expire.

Before announcing the easing of restrictions, Walz said he had spoken to Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, with whom he has frequently clashed over the issue of COVID restrictions as mobs were storming the U.S. Capitol as the legislative branch were counting the Electoral College results.

"The two of us are in absolute alignment that the sacredness of our democracy the ability to disagree agreeably is fundamental," Gazelka said.

Walz had planned to have a nurse who received one of the state's first vaccines speak at this briefing, as well as having some restaurant owners speak too, but for security concerns surrounding the situation he postponed those events as well as a Q&A session with reporters.

Gazelka issued a statement strongly condemning the violence in Washington, saying a "peaceful transition of power" is paramount to democracy.

Walz says he is not happy with the slow rollout of the vaccine here and across the country, but he says the fact that we are vaccinating is encouraging.

"There are reasons to be optimistic around this issue. Thousands of Minnesotans -- almost 100,000 as we speak -- today have been vaccinated. They are our frontline nurses, they are our long-term care, they are our most vulnerable," Walz said.

For nearly two months, bars and restaurants in Minnesota have had to survive via takeout and delivery during a period that, in a regular year, can make-or-break a business. In December, outdoor dining was allowed at 50% capacity, but that doesn't help many businesses, as patrons don't flock to patios when daytime temperatures are below freezing.

"The situation in Minnesota is undeniably better than it was last month," Walz said in the statement. "We have reasons to be optimistic, and Minnesotans' sacrifice and commitment to their communities helped change the pandemic's trajectory and saved lives. But we need to protect the progress we've made."

There's been strong pushback to the executive order, with several bars and restaurants brazenly reopening in recent weeks, facing lawsuits from the state and, in some cases, even the loss of their liquor licenses.

The executive order banning indoor dining was issued in mid-November at a time when Minnesota experienced a record surge in COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths. Health officials said that several outbreaks were linked to bars and restaurants, with the virus spreading primarily among young adults. The order also restricted social gatherings ahead of the holidays, halted youth sports, and forced gyms to close for weeks.

In his statement, Walz announced relaxed restrictions for gyms, churches, and indoor entertainment facilities, such as theaters, museums and bowling alleys. Starting Monday, gyms will be able to hold up to 150 people, although capacity will remain capped at 25%. Up to 25 people will be allowed in gym classes, given that there can be 9 feet between people/machines. Masks will be required.

Movie theaters, museums and bowling alleys will be able to reopen at 25% capacity, with no more than 150 people in the venue area. Masks will be required, and there'll be no food service after 10 p.m.

RELATED: Health Officials Stand By Indoor Dining Ban

Earlier this week, youth sports practices resumed, and the first games with spectators will be allowed next week. Capacity limits will differ by sport in terms of venue and whether or not is it played outdoors. Inter-region and out-of-state play are discouraged.

As for small gatherings, such as wedding receptions and private parties, those will be allowed to resume with limits. If food and drinks are served, the gatherings will be limited to 10 people from two households indoors or 15 people from three households outdoors. If no food or drinks are served, the gatherings will be restricted by venue guidelines. Any ceremonies -- such as weddings or funerals -- will fall under guidelines for places of worship, which will be allowed to operate at 50% capacity but with no maximum number limit.

The relaxed restrictions come as Minnesota has seen weeks of declining COVID cases and hospitalizations. Additionally, frontline health care workers and those in long-term care facilities have begun to be inoculated against the virus. Although the vaccine rollout has been slower than expected, some health care workers this week began receiving their second and final doses.

While mindful of these improvements, the governor is still urging Minnesotans to remain vigilant against the virus, noting in the press release that other states are currently experiencing surges and there are concerns about a new, more contagious strain of the coronavirus spreading across the globe.

"If we let our guard down, COVID-19 finds a way to surge back in terrifying ways," said Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm, in the governor's release. "That means it's still very important to wear a mask and stay 6 feet from others when you are out in the community. As we look for vaccines to become more widely available for all of us, these basic protections can serve as a bridge to better days ahead."

RELATED: Restaurants Hoping Gov. Walz Allows Indoor Dining At 50% Capacity

Ahead of Wednesday, many bar and restaurant owners were hoping that the governor would allow them to reopen at 50% capacity. At that level, owners could hope to break even, according to the organization Hospitality Minnesota. Anything less than that wouldn't make economic sense, the group said.

Last month, the governor signed a $216 million COVID relief bill providing grants up to $45,000 to restaurants and bars that have seen their business drop by 30% or more. The bill also extends unemployment benefits by 13 weeks to help those who've been laid off.

Bars and restaurants in Minnesota have struggled and adjusted throughout the pandemic. At the beginning of the outbreak, they had to endure a weeks-long shutdown, only offering takeout and laying off workers. Many restaurants changed their businesses entirely, and many went out of business. Some of the most notable establishments to shut their doors include Surly's destination beer hall, St. Paul's In Bloom, and the Butcher and the Boar in downtown Minneapolis.

The governor's use of emergency powers during the pandemic has been a point of contention for Republican lawmakers, as Walz has been able to unilaterally place limits on businesses and schools. But now that the full 2021 legislative session has started, Republicans will have a bigger voice moving forward on pandemic-related issues. Currently, most GOP lawmakers want to rid Walz of his emergency powers. Yet, leaders from both parties said Tuesday they were open to modifications on the use of emergency executive orders.

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