Governor Tim Walz is expected to decide early next week about ending or extending the partial state shutdown that is set to expire at 11:59 p.m. Dec. 18. Speaking Friday, the governor gave little in the way of forthcoming details, but he certainly was open about things that are going through his mind.
Asked if he can reveal anything about the piece of his executive order that bans all in-person social gatherings with people outside of a Minnesotan's immediate household, Walz said: '
"If we can create something where families could gather outdoors – again, this is Minnesota, pretty hearty bunch. People have put in fire pits, they've put in heaters – those are things we're trying to look at and those are things that Health is trying to help us understand," he said.
So perhaps outdoor social gatherings will again be permitted.
Asked about allowing bars and restaurants to reopen dine-in service at partial capacity, he was less transparent.
"There's a whole lot of things we're thinking about. I'm trying to figure that out," he said. "We are trying to consider everything and no decision has been made. I am not comfortable making that decision today because the data is still coming in from the pause."
Walz says he's listening to the frustrations of business owners who are closed and bleeding financially while also taking to heart the words of despair from exhausted healthcare and frontline workers. He said every time a business reopens without consent it "adds the potential for more people into the emergency room."
"I had National Guard, firefighters and police say 'make our jobs a little easier, support us, don't do these things,'" Walz said.
Walz did express hope that help will be on the way for beleaguered businesses from the Legislature, which meets Monday to discuss a financial aid package. He also excoriated the federal government and Congress for failing to pass its own support bill, forcing the state to make its own.
Another possible hint was when Walz said he wants to get kindergarten through fifth-grade students "back to school as fast as possible," though he didn't elaborate on that comment.
Minnesota is three weeks into Walz's four-week partial shutdown, which has bars, restaurants, fitness centers and other forms of indoor entertainment closed to indoor service. The decision to issue the order came amid Minnesota's biggest spike in cases during the pandemic, leading to a surge in hospitalizations that saw just over 550 people with COVID-19 admitted to Minnesota hospitals in late October to a high point of 1,848 on the last day of November.
Through Dec. 10, the number of COVID-19 patients in Minnesota hospitals has dipped back below 1,500. Despite the good news on the hospital front, there have been 699 coronavirus deaths reported by the state so far in December, putting the month on track to be the deadliest of the pandemic. November featured a state record 1,140 deaths from the virus.
The number of news cases daily and the test positivity rate have also been dropping, but while Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm says the past two weeks have been encouraging, case levels are still extremely high.
"We've all gotten used to these high numbers. We are very grateful that the increases have slowed and come down a bit. It boggles my mind, really, to think that 3,000 cases in a day feels like a good number," she said. "This is still an extremely high rate of virus in the communities."
Malcolm noted that the national standard signal for a virus that is out of control is 10 new cases per day for every 100,000 people. Minnesota is currently at 85 cases per day per 100,000 people, though that has dropped from a high point a couple of weeks ago of 120 cases per day per 100,000 residents.
"We're still in a very, very vulnerable place," said Malcolm.