Gov. Tim Walz sits with a mask on at a press conference at the Department of Public Safety in St. Paul, Minn., on Saturday, May 23. Walz will announce a statewide order later Wednesday requiring Minnesotans to wear masks in restaurants, stores and other public indoor gathering spaces. Credit: Evan Frost | MPR News

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Gov. Tim Walz on Wednesday announced a statewide order requiring Minnesotans to wear masks in restaurants, stores and other public indoor gathering spaces as a way to stem the spread of COVID-19 and put the state on a path back to normalcy.

“This is the quickest way to ending the COVID pandemic,” he told reporters. “It is the surest way to getting us to the therapeutics and vaccines” while continuing to reopen the economy.

If 90 to 95 percent of Minnesotans complied, businesses could stay open, kids could return safely to school buildings, and we “get back that life that we all miss so much,” he said.

Under the order, businesses will have to post notice of the new regulations and ensure patrons comply. Children age 5 and younger are exempt. Cities with tougher ordinances can go beyond the state indoor-only rules.

It takes effect Saturday.

Walz has been signaling for days that such an order was coming. On Tuesday, he noted that businesses support such a uniform move as do care providers and the state’s health leaders.

Cities and towns representing nearly 30 percent of Minnesota’s population have approved similar local mask requirements. More than half of states now require the use of masks or face coverings in public settings. Republican governors in Indiana and Ohio also posted statewide mask wearing orders Wednesday.

Walz said he decided to move now on a statewide order after watching the percentage of positive tests climb the past few weeks in Minnesota from under 4 percent to about 5 percent.

The governor compared the inconvenience of wearing a mask to wearing seat belts in cars and preventing smoking in indoor spaces, changes in behavior required by government that ultimately saved lives.

“This is a small sacrifice for a potential big gain,” he said.

Republicans, including Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, have said a statewide mandate would be a mistake.

Last week, Walz told MPR News that he was hoping to get legislative Republicans to buy in. On Wednesday, however, Gazelka slammed Walz’s coming order.

“Once again, I find myself asking why one-size-fits-all is the only option for a mask mandate,” he said in a statement. “Businesses and individuals are already requiring and wearing masks in most situations, so the mandate feels like a heavy-handed, broad approach that won’t work well for every situation.

No ‘mask police’

The state is working now with local chambers of commerce around the state to make masks available to businesses to give to customers who don’t have one.

Officials don’t want businesses to be in a position of being “mask police,” said Steve Grove, commissioner of the Department of Employment and Economic Development.

If a patron says she can’t wear a mask for medical reasons, store owners can allow it without delving into deeper explanations, he said. Bar and restaurant patrons don’t have to keep masks on as they eat and drink at a table with their party.

The order does allow for a petty misdemeanor with possible fine up to $100. Businesses could face steeper fines for noncompliance.

Walz, though, said he wants authorities “handing out masks, not tickets” and that businesses should not escalate confrontations, adding: “We don’t want someone to accidentally get famous on the internet because they’re throwing a tantrum in Trader Joe’s.”

Key business leaders didn’t object to the Walz order.

Minnesota Chamber of Commerce president Doug Loon said his members shared Walz’s push for broader mask use as a way to propel the economy forward in a safe way. The chamber, representing some 2,300 Minnesota businesses, has been working with the Walz administration on way to carry out the order.

“What we don’t want to see happen is businesses, their employees finding themselves in an unnecessary confrontation with a customer,” Loon said. “Nobody wants that.”

Exemptions to the order include:

  • People with health conditions that make it difficult to tolerate wearing a face covering
  • Any person who has trouble breathing or unable to remove the face covering without help
  • People who at work with jobs where wearing a face covering would create a safety hazard as determined by local, state, or federal regulators or workplace safety guidelines

Officials emphasized that children age 2 and younger should never wear a mask.

School decisions approaching

The governor is expected to announce a plan by next Monday on bringing kids back into school buildings. The state Education Department has told school leaders to pretty much prepare for anything, including some combination of in-school and online instruction.

“Nobody wants kids in school more than me,” and state officials have been working for months on how to do that safely, Walz, a former high school teacher, said Tuesday.

“We’re doing everything possible to get those kids back in those classrooms … to keep them there but also have some nimbleness” to move back to an online or hybrid model if cases start to climb, he said, adding: “This is gonna be a challenge.”

On Wednesday, the governor hinted that the state will lay out standards for schools on operating in the pandemic and then give them flexibility to work within those standards.

“It won’t necessarily look the same everywhere,” he said, “but the outcomes need to be the same — kids and staff safe in that learning environment.”

Hospitalizations start to climb

News of the statewide masking order came as the Health Department on Wednesday posted new numbers showing the recent jump in COVID-19 cases is beginning to surface in hospitals.

The agency reported total current hospitalizations (273) and the number of people needing intensive care (119) rising. Officials had been anticipating this kind of shift given the rise in new cases surfacing in recent weeks.

The state reported four new deaths, continuing a three-week trend of mostly single-digit daily death counts; 1,552 people in Minnesota have died from the disease since the pandemic began.

Case counts, however, continued to climb, with 507 new cases reported Wednesday, part of a concerning July upswing, although the size of the increases in recent days appear to have flattened.

Of the 47,961 cases confirmed in Minnesota since the pandemic began, about 88 percent of people infected have recovered to the point they no longer need to be isolated.

Cases growing in many age brackets

State health officials continue to worry about the recent spike of coronavirus cases in younger Minnesotans, including that those infected will inadvertently spread the virus to grandparents and other more vulnerable populations.

Minnesotans in their 20s now make up the age group with the most confirmed cases in the pandemic, with more than 11,000. The median age of Minnesotans infected has been trending down in recent weeks and is now 37 years old.

Health investigators are also starting to see more cases in many age brackets, including ages 30 through 59, as more people get together for family gatherings and summer fun without social distancing, Kris Ehresmann, the state’s infectious disease director, said Monday.

It’s not like the situation the past few weeks where 20-somethings meeting in bars drove the increases. Now, analysts are seeing an evolution in the “larger, gradual increase in social activities,” she added.

New cases are also rising in northern Minnesota. Cases in Beltrami County, home to Bemidji, have more than doubled in the past week and a half, from 53 to 115 on Wednesday. Ehresmann this week said the case increase is tied to spread from athletic events and other public gatherings.

No ‘gotcha’

State officials continue to work to get their arms around clusters of problems centered around bars and restaurants.

The Health Department last week received some 120 complaints recently from concerned residents reporting violations of the current orders around gathering in indoor social spaces, particularly bars and restaurants.

Complaints include staff not wearing masks, not enough social distancing and too many people at a site.

Officials acknowledged 14 letters have been sent to establishments flagged for violations. The state Public Safety Department has the ability to issue fines and revoke liquor licenses, which would effectively close them.

Most bar and restaurant owners who’ve been flagged have responded positively, Minnesota Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said Friday, adding that the state wants to avoid “wholesale closure” of these places.

Meatpacking hot spots remain

Many of the outbreaks outside the Twin Cities metro area are focused around meatpacking plants. Officials have intensified testing in those hot spots, uncovering more infections.

That includes Mower County in southeastern Minnesota, where there were 1,019 confirmed cases as of Wednesday. Mower County is home to Hormel Foods and Quality Pork Processors. Both have been partnering with Mayo Clinic to ramp up employee testing.

While some of Mower County’s positive cases are associated with people who work in the facilities and with the people they live with, county officials say they are also seeing transmission among people who live in the county but work in other counties where coronavirus is present.

Nobles, in southwestern Minnesota, reported 1,713 confirmed cases as of Wednesday, with six deaths. About 1 in 13 people now have tested positive for COVID-19 in the county since the pandemic began, although the count of new cases has slowed considerably in recent weeks.

Worthington’s massive JBS pork processing plant was the epicenter of the Nobles outbreak. The JBS plant shut on April 20 but has since 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 — skyrocketed in May. An undisclosed number of workers at both plants have tested positive for the virus.

There were about 55 confirmed cases in Stearns County in early May. By Wednesday, confirmed cases were at 2,666 with 19 deaths.

Kandiyohi County in west-central Minnesota is also dealing with a significant caseload more than two months after officials with the Jennie-O turkey processing plant there said some employees had tested positive for the coronavirus.

As of Wednesday, the Health Department reported 627 people have now tested positive. The county had confirmed three COVID-19 cases in late April.

Cases have also climbed noticeably in Lyon County (385 cases) around a turkey processor in Marshall.

Drop in long-term care deaths

The “battle plan” to safeguard Minnesotans living in long-term care facilities from COVID-19 is paying off, with dramatic drops in the number of deaths and new cases the past two months, Walz and other officials say.

Deaths at those facilities drove much of the toll from the disease early on in the pandemic and still represent the majority of deaths to date. Among the 1,551 deaths recorded in the pandemic as of Wednesday, about 77 percent had been living in long-term care facilities, nearly all had underlying health problems.

Still, officials said their interventions since mid-May led to a significant drop in daily deaths and outbreaks among the state’s most vulnerable populations.

Long-term, congregate care operations have concerned officials since the pandemic began, given the medical vulnerability of people living there. As deaths rose in late April and early May, officials scrambled to respond.

The plan unveiled in early May included expanded testing, more personal protective gear for health workers and ensuring “adequate” staffing levels when workers fall ill. Officials pleaded for patience as the program ramped up.

Those collective efforts worked, Walz said Tuesday. For instance, in early May, there were 23 facilities reporting new cases each day; now it’s about six per day. “The numbers are curving in the right direction,” he added.

Brian Bakst is a politics reporter for MPR News.