Walz raises capacity limits at private parties, restaurants amid decreasing COVID-19 rates

Gov. Tim Walz is loosening restrictions on capacity limits for Minnesota restaurants and indoor venues as coronavirus infections tumble, though he was criticized Friday for not outlining his plans earlier.

The loosened restrictions will allow some restaurants to increase their capacity, bars can stay open an hour later until 11 p.m., and wedding receptions can have more guests. The relaxed rules take effect at noon Saturday, slightly more than 24 hours from when the governor's office announced them in a news release.

Hospitality industry sources said some of the changes would have only minor effects on many businesses, and others would require time to implement before seeing benefits. 

"It's good news," Walz told reporters during an event at a Roseville school. "I just want to acknowledge, to those businesses that say it's something but it's not enough, no kidding. I totally agree with you."

Among the changes: 

  • Restaurants and bars: "Not to exceed" capacity increased to 250 people; maximum capacity remains at 50%; establishments can stay open until 11 p.m. 
  • Indoor entertainment venues: "Not to exceed" capacity increased to 250; maximum capacity remains at 25%
  • Private events and celebrations (weddings, funerals, family reunions, etc.): "Not to exceed" capacity increased to 50; maximum capacity remains at 25%
  • Gyms, fitness centers, pools: "Not to exceed" capacity increased to 250, maximum capacity remains at 25%; distancing requirement reduced to 6 feet apart

Before, the "not to exceed" maximum had been set at 150 people for most indoor venues.

Walz's announcement Friday morning marked a reversal from earlier this week, when he declined to set a date for relaxing business restrictions or outline the metrics he was using to make decisions.

On Tuesday, when reporters asked three times for specifics, Walz said, "I don't think you can ever set the date on this, but I feel their sense of urgency."

On Friday, Walz acknowledged that his administration had been planning the changes over the past week.

"We’re constantly working on it," Walz said, when asked about his Tuesday comments. "What changed is, I’ve got to get to a 14-day lag period that gives me consistency that it stayed there. We started talking about this and thinking about where it would go a week ago. It's not as if we're keeping things from folks." 

But two representatives of bar and restaurant owners, Hospitality Minnesota and the Minnesota Licensed Beverage Association, said earlier this week that they had not heard that any changes were being discussed within the Walz administration.

Mikael Asp, who owns several restaurants across the Metro, criticized the way Walz handled this week's announcement.

"When you make decisions that fast and turn things over that quickly -- that seems like a flip from what was said just a few days ago -- it seems to me there's almost a lack of a plan," Asp said in an interview after Walz announced the changes.

Asp said he did not expect his restaurants to see much impact from the relaxed rules. Only restaurants with dining rooms with 300-person capacities will benefit from the increased capacity caps, he said.

Asp said he wanted the state to raise the capacity limit to 75 percent of a restaurant's capacity, up from the current 50 percent.

Walz cited Minnesota's plummeting coronavirus infection rate as the reason he's making the change. The state's seven-day rolling average positivity rate is 3.9 percent, below the 5 percent threshold that public health officials consider a significant concern. The rate was briefly 15 percent during the November surge.

State Rep. Barb Haley, R-Red Wing, is supporting a legislative proposal that would fully reopen businesses by at least May 1. She said Walz's Friday announcement showed a transparency problem.

"(Business owners) are very frustrated because they don't feel heard and they don't feel any of their suggestions are being taken seriously," Haley said in an interview.

Walz shut down thousands of businesses in March and again in November as virus cases spiked. The state's hospital capacity was strained at the end of 2020, and dozens of people died each day from the virus.

The first-term Democratic governor allowed businesses to reopen in January, though he kept capacity limits in place. He said Friday he would continue moving back toward a "normal state" in a "concerted manner." 

Walz also extended his peacetime emergency by 30 days Friday, meaning it will be in place for more than a year since he first called the state of emergency on March 13, 2020. His orders were scheduled to expire this weekend without action.

Minnesota has now given at least one dose of coronavirus vaccine to 617,896 people, or 14.4 percent of the state's adult population. The state ranks 21st in the U.S. in people who have received a vaccine per capita.