COVID-19 briefing: Compliance checks at Minnesota bars, restaurants; plans to address virus on campuses

Wednesday, state health, public safety and labor officials addressed ongoing compliance checks at bars and restaurants throughout the state as well as the status of the COVID-19 virus as students return to college campuses.

Here’s what was discussed:

Situation in Minnesota

Wednesday, the Minnesota Department of Health reported seven new deaths from COVID-19. So far, 1,869 people have died of the virus in Minnesota, including 1,364 in long-term care and assisted living facilities.

The department also reported 32 more hospitalizations Wednesday. To date, 6,792 patients have been hospitalized in Minnesota due to COVID-19.

According to MDH, there were 282 newly reported positive COVID-19 tests in Minnesota on Wednesday, bringing the state’s total to 81,868 since pandemic record-keeping began.

COVID-19 in Minnesota: 7 new deaths, 32 hospitalizations reported

MDH Director of Infectious Disease and Epidemiology Kris Ehresmann said the state’s COVID-19 positivity rate is currently at 5.5%, based on testing over the past seven days.

She reminded Minnesotans that the indoor mask requirement applies to even small workplaces, and, in general, all small indoor spaces. She added research indicates close, crowded situations make COVID-19 more transmissible.

Ehresmann said good airflow makes a difference in reducing the likelihood of transmission and that being outdoors is a positive solution.

The state’s dashboard shows community spread is currently at a ‘caution’ level, meaning more than 30% of people who have tested positive for COVID-19 do not know where or from whom they contracted the virus.

When asked if the state plans to ‘dial back’ which phase of the Stay Safe plan we are in, Huff said, "We have to look at managing this pandemic through many lenses. As opposed to a broad dial-back, we’re using a ‘scaffold.’ We’re looking at where are the actual issues as opposed to placing an entire industry or an entire sector with a large mitigation measure turn of the dial."

Compliance checks

MDH Assistant Commissioner Dan Huff said the department is working to ensure bars and restaurants are continuing safety measures during the pandemic. To do so, MDH has partnered with the departments of public safety and labor to conduct compliance checks.

In terms of MDH strategy on how it conducts compliance checks, Huff said a geographic area is selected and MDH looks at the case counts in that area. If there are increasing cases, compliance checks will be conducted.

During the past two weekends, Huff said officials conducted compliance checks with 150 bars and restaurants in Blue Earth, Brown, Carver, Le Sueur, Nicollet, Rice, Scott and Waseca counties. Huff stated compliance checks are not solely about punitive actions, but rather, about education.

MDH: Latest compliance checks show most Minnesota businesses following COVID guidelines

Huff said most establishments throughout the state are taking precautions seriously and are working to comply with the state’s executive orders.

Huff said 79 bars checked were not following all safety guidelines and of that total, 31 were referred to the Department of Public Safety for follow-up inspections for issues such as workers not wearing masks, social distancing not being maintained and a lack of COVID-19 preparedness plans or worker training.

Meanwhile, Huff said MDH has received, and followed up on, over 800 complaints since July 13 and has referred over 400 additional complaints to other departments.

Speaking on the topic of compliance checks, DPS Assistant Commissioner Booker Hodges said his department’s strategy has shifted from education to enforcement at this point. Hodges said DPS has confirmed there have been 68 case clusters from 66 different bars, which has resulted in over 1,200 COVID-19 cases.

Hodges said DPS is now working on targeted enforcement for bars and restaurants not complying with the state’s executive orders.

Department of Labor and Industry Assistant Commissioner Nicole Blissenbach added the compliance checks are not just about keeping customers safe, but also about keeping workers safe.

Additionally, Blissenbach said inspectors observed, in some situations, the establishment was following executive orders but customers were not. Blissenbach asked everyone to do their part, saying an outbreak in one bar can lead to an entire community outbreak.

COVID-19 and campuses

When asked how colleges and universities are enforcing quarantines and whether there is a concern about students traveling to and from campus, potentially bringing the virus with them, Ehresmann said state health leaders are having conversations with education leaders on the topic.

Ehresmann said it’s a natural response to close a campus down and send people home upon learning of the virus’ existence on campus, however, health officials said there is also a concern that although transmission may be reduced then in that environment, transmission could increase in other locations after those students leave campus.

Some colleges and universities are considering small-scale shelter-in-place options, rather than closing the entire campus down and sending people home, Ehresmann said.

There is also discussion about limiting activities on campus, Ehresmann said and state health officials are paying attention to where cases and transmission are occurring at various institutions.

Listen to the full news conference via the player below: