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Minnesota shuts more businesses as COVID-19 spread soars

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz on Wednesday imposed four weeks worth of new COVID-19 restrictions as the spread spiked to an all-time high, shutting down bars, restaurants and fitness centers, while pausing social gatherings and organized amateur sports.

The announcement came on a day when Minnesota recorded a record 67 new COVID-19-related deaths, pushing the state’s toll to 3,010. The Minnesota Department of Health also reported 5,102 confirmed new cases, rising the state’s total to 242,053. State officials said they expected to top 300,000 cases sometime next week.

“We are at a breaking point,” Walz said in a statement ahead of a televised address. “As hospitals near the crisis of turning away new patients, continuing as things are is simply not sustainable. The actions announced today will help prevent more families from losing a loved one and ensure our hospitals can treat those who fall ill. While these actions mean incredible hardship for many, they are the fastest way to recover our economy, keep our kids in school, and get back to the activities we love.”

Beginning Friday at 11:59 p.m. through Friday, Dec. 18, in-person social gatherings with individuals outside one’s own household, including wedding receptions, are prohibited. Bars and restaurants are limited to takeout and delivery service only. Fitness clubs, entertainment and event venues must close. Adult and youth sports are paused, though college and pro sports are exempt.

But retail businesses, child care centers, salons, and places of worship can stay open with proper precautions. Schools will continue to operate with a mix of in-person, distance and hybrid learning.

The governor’s office also issued statements from Minnesota health care leaders who said the tighter restrictions are necessary as hospitals fill up while staffing them becomes harder.

“The current explosive level of community transmission of COVID-19 in Minnesota means that our health care heroes – including nurses, physicians, therapists, pharmacists, support services, housekeeping, technicians, advanced practice providers and many more – are contracting COVID-19 as they go about their daily lives,” Dr. Rahul Korrane, president and CEO of the Minnesota Medical Association.”

Business groups were quick to point out that little state or federal aid is available for them this time around, unlike earlier in the year when the

Democratic governor first ordered shutdowns. The governor did announce $10 million in small business relief grants last week, and on Wednesday asked the state’s congressional delegation for help in securing more federal aid.

“Today’s action will push many small restaurants, food service and other hospitality businesses over the cliff,” Liz Rammer, president and CEO of the trade group Hospitality Minnesota, said in a statement. She called for “immediate financial assistance from the state or these businesses will not be here in four weeks.”

Tony Chesak, executive director of the Minnesota Licensed Beverage Association, which represents bars and restaurants that serve liquor, predicted a “devastating” further permanent loss of places to eat and drink.

“The state and federal government both need to take steps to aid employees and the hospitality industry with relaxed regulations, direct financial support, unemployment assistance, and loans to get through this dark winter,” Chesak said in a statement.

Bahram Akradi, CEO of the Chanhassen-based Life Time chain of fitness clubs, said in an interview that he will have to furlough 4,000 workers in Minnesota who were brought back when the clubs reopened earlier this year, while 120,000 members will lose a “safe haven” for maintaining their health. He said his clubs have put extensive safeguards in place, and that it’s unfair gyms have been singled out while retailers have not.

“There is no industry, there is no company that is doing what we have done,” Arkadi said.

Let Them Play MN, a group of parents, coaches and kids who want youth sports to be allowed during the pandemic, urged Walz to reconsider, calling youth sports “an important bright spot” in a difficult year. Affected sports will include prep football and volleyball.

“Coaches and schools have adopted protocols that help prevent the spread of COVID more than the things teens will do without sports,” Rocori High School head football coach James Herberg said in the group’s statement. “Cancelling sports may sound helpful on paper, but with no protocols or supervision, the spread will be worse.”