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Walz to relax restrictions Wednesday on indoor dining

MINNEAPOLIS — Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz plans to announce loosened restrictions this week on indoor dining and in other settings, a spokesman said, as restaurant and bar owners increasingly push back on coronavirus measures that have pushed some to the edge of survival.

Walz spokesman Teddy Tschann said the governor will make the move Wednesday as the state’s coronavirus numbers have improved in recent weeks “following the pause on activities around the holidays.”

Walz has gradually relaxed virus restrictions, moving first to get elementary students back into school, reopen fitness centers and restart youth sports. But he had kept bars and restaurants closed for indoor service, arguing it was necessary to bridge a gap to when vaccinations were widely available.

Some bars and restaurants have rebelled, publicly announcing openings despite the threat of fines and liquor license revocations. On Monday, 27 hospitality businesses filed a state lawsuit challenging the shutdown order. Republicans have also hammered Walz on the issue.

Meanwhile, state officials are seeking to speed up vaccination efforts that have moved more slowly than expected.

The Department of Health reported on Monday that providers across the state have administered 78,402 doses of their nearly 300,000 doses of Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, which does not include doses allocated and administered at federal sites, such as the Minneapolis Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

Kris Ehresmann, the state’s infectious disease director, said Minnesota is “on track,” citing the state’s ranking of 16th among all states by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for doses administered per 100,000 people. Ehresmann said the state’s pace is consistent with other similarly-sized states. She said the fact that more than 82,000 shots have been given — including shots administered at federal sites — when the vaccines were approved only recently is “really significant.”

“It’s a tribute to the work of our partners in getting vaccines into arms, and I think it’s time we celebrate how far we’ve come in a very short amount of time,” she said during a media briefing Monday.

Ehresmann said 85,200 of the state’s allocated Moderna doses have gone to pharmacies involved in the federal partnership program to vaccinate residents and staff of skilled nursing facilities. The three pharmacy chains — Walgreens, CVS Health and Thrifty White — have partnered with 285 of the state’s 369 skilled nursing facilities and expect to finish administering first shots in three to four weeks.

Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said the state has received and distributed enough doses of the vaccine to providers to administer first shots to top-priority Minnesota health care workers. Last week, state officials directed nearly $40 million from the state’s COVID-19 fund to the health department to support vaccination strategy and response efforts statewide.

Health officials on Monday reported 13 more Minnesotans have died due to the coronavirus, and 3,148 new infections, bringing the state’s totals to 5,443 deaths and 423,688 cases since the start of the pandemic. Malcolm said 650 of the new cases are from a backlog in tests, and testing rates over the holidays make it difficult to draw conclusions from the data.

Hospitalizations continue to decline. Just over 800 patients were hospitalized with complications due to COVID-19 as of Sunday, including 156 in intensive care, compared with nearly 1,800 at the start of December.

Malcolm said that while case growth and hospitalizations have been trending downward since the end of November, health officials expect gatherings over the holidays to result in an upswing in the coming weeks. Malcolm urged Minnesotans to continue to follow public health guidelines even as numbers improve.

“Unfortunately, a year now into this global pandemic, we know that improvement is tenuous — we’ve seen it from our own experience and that from other states and even nations,” Malcolm said. “If we let our guard down, COVID-19 finds a way to surge back in terrifying ways.”