Walz Tightens Covid-19 Restrictions
Gov. Walz visiting a Bemidji water plant in late October. Gov. Tim Walz on Facebook

Walz Tightens Covid-19 Restrictions

The governor called for a four-week pause to indoor dining at bars and restaurants, along with the closure of fitness centers.

After emphasizing a more “surgical” approach to business restrictions last week, Gov. Tim Walz rolled out stricter limitations on Wednesday.

In an address late Wednesday, the governor required all bars and restaurants to close for indoor dining for at least four weeks. The latest round of restrictions, which are slated to take effect Friday, also close fitness clubs entirely and put a pause in youth sports.

“We know this has been difficult and it’s been challenging, and much has been asked of you,” Walz said. “I need to ask a little more. We’re at a point in this pandemic that the decisions that we make now will have huge repercussions on the health and well-being of our neighbors, of our health care providers, of our daycare providers, of our teachers and so many of our neighbors.”

In a tweet, KSTP reporter Tom Hauser said the governor’s office confirmed that the new restrictions won’t impact hair salons or other retailers. The Walz administration isn’t calling for another halt to elective procedures, either.

In his Wednesday address, Walz said that the state is at “dangerous point” in the pandemic. The number of Covid-19 cases has been skyrocketing in Minnesota and throughout the Upper Midwest. On Wednesday, the Minnesota Department of Health reported 5,102 new cases of the virus and a record 67 deaths. That brings the total number of deaths in the state above 3,000. Walz said the quick uptick in cases drove the decision to tighten restrictions.

The new restrictions come as Congress remains deadlocked over another round of Covid-19 relief funding. The top two Democrats in each chamber apparently haven’t broached the topic with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell since the election, CNBC reported Tuesday. But there will soon be some relief locally, at least: The Hennepin County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday allocated $8 million for relief funding for bars and restaurants. Grants will be limited to $15,000 per business, and money will only be given to businesses that have fewer than 100 employees.

“Hennepin County is offering this support as Covid-19 infections continue to rise and public health measures are likely to further impact bars and restaurants,” the board said in a statement.

The boost from the county may buoy some businesses, but a larger aid package will almost certainly be needed, hospitality industry leaders say.

“We know that receiving immediate financial relief is paramount to survival,” said Hospitality Minnesota, a trade group representing the state’s hospitality sector. “In our response to the governor and our conversations with state lawmakers and the media, we will be pushing for state aid for your businesses right now. Federal aid will not come soon enough to be of use for those facing the greatest hardships.”

And there doesn’t seem to be any relief in sight for the fitness industry. The Walz administration has had conversations with a coalition of fitness brands throughout the pandemic, though, at times, some industry leaders have said they’ve been left in the dark about upcoming restrictions.

Chuck Runyon, CEO of Woodbury-based Self Esteem Brands, parent company of Anytime Fitness, said his gyms will comply with any upcoming restrictions, though he’s “frustrated, to say the least.”

“For months, we have worked in good faith with this administration to ensure safe gym and fitness safety and sanitation protocols, and to more broadly make the case that fitness is and should be considered an essential health service for Minnesotans,” Runyon said in an email.

Chanhassen-based Lift Brands, parent company of Snap Fitness, also has been in close contact with the Walz administration as the number of Covid-19 cases started to trend back up, CEO Ty Menzies said in an email. “They have been good about proactively communicating any changes to restrictions prior to announcements made by the governor,” he said of the Walz administration. But he, too, expressed some misgivings.

“It’s disheartening to see health clubs and gyms continue to be grouped with industries like restaurants and bars. Even within the fitness category, Snap Fitness clubs are typically smaller – about 3,000-5,000 square feet – which makes them much easier to sanitize from top to bottom than other big box gyms,” Menzies said.

Smaller fitness chains are feeling the squeeze, too. Jason Burgoon, owner of Bodies by Burgoon and Torque Cycling, said the effects on businesses are “significant … both financially and engagement wise.” His business has been offering in-home virtual sessions throughout the pandemic, which has helped keep revenue flowing. But he has some lingering concerns about the upcoming restrictions.

“While we are very disappointed this is happening, we understand it; and we need everyone to be and stay healthy,” Burgoon said in an email. “This second closure will be very hard in the business, because many clients don’t like training at home, it’s hard for them to motivate themselves at home, but we are doing our best to keep them healthy and strong, no matter where they are.”

Fitness leaders, meanwhile, maintain that gyms are safe spaces to be during the pandemic. Chanhassen-based Life Time has logged more 19.4 million visits at its gyms since mid-May, and has reported 962 cases of Covid-19. The Chicago Medical Society, a trade group of doctors in the Chicago area, has asked legislators in Illinois to keep gyms open.

“If gyms are shut down yet again, we will comply, but we will be greatly disappointed with the logic, and are seriously concerned about these small business owners,” Self Esteem’s Runyon said. “We strongly advocate stimulus relief and we expect this administration to support that.”

After the governor’s address on Wednesday, the Minnesota Business Partnership, a group representing chief executives at dozens of the state’s biggest employers, released a statement expressing support for “limited, targeted measures intended to mitigate the strain on our health care system.”

“We also recognize the negative impact that additional/targeted measures will have on businesses and their employees, particularly small businesses, and understand how devastating further restrictions may be,” the group said. “We all have a vested interest in the dual objectives of protecting the health of Minnesotans and the health of our economy and communities.”