Citing improvements in case counts and hospitalizations, Gov. Tim Walz eased some COVID-19 restrictions on public gatherings Friday.

Effective Saturday at noon, Walz ordered:

Restaurants can increase the number of diners in their eastablishments to 250, as long as that doesn’t exceed 50 percent of the building’s capacity.

Indoor entertainment venues can host up to 250 people, while leaving the maximum limit of 25 percent of the venue’s capacity.

Attendance at private events and celebrations such as wedding receptions can increase to 50 people, as long as the maximum capacity of the space stays at 25 percent.

Gym and pool capacity can rise to to 250, with a maximum capacity at 25 percent, and a distancing requirement of 6 feet.

And restaurants can stay open until 11 p.m.

“Our small businesses have made enormous sacrifices for the health of their employees and communities,” Walz said. “Today, we can make these cautious, common sense adjustments to support them because of the progress we have made controlling the spread of COVID-19 and getting the most at-risk Minnesotans vaccinated.” 

Some legislative Republicans criticized Walz for not giving them advanced notice of the changes and for not allowing businesses to fully reopen. 

"Today's news once again highlights the total disconnect between the Legislature and the governor,” said Rep. John Poston, R-Lake Shore. “Legislators have been pushing for weeks on this issue sending emails and letters to the Walz administration, pushing votes on the House floor, and raising the issue in the media. And we hear nothing. We get no feedback, no dialogue, no benchmarks. We're blindsided by news reports in the media instead of hearing directly from the governor or his agencies.”

Minnesota businesses that depend on weddings and other big gatherings have been hit hard by the state's coronavirus restrictions. In January Walz allowed gatherings to resume, but with strict limits on how many people could attend.

Event venues, florists, bands and photographers have all been feeling the pinch from the limits, said caterer Maari Cedar James, who co-chairs the Minnesota Events Coalition.

“I know people are leaving the state, and that is the reason why we need to make a change and make some sort of a plan,” Cedar James said, adding that the higher guest limit will keep some people from moving their celebrations out of state. “It allows these significant life events to happen and for people to kind of move on with their plans at this point especially when they’ve planned and rescheduled things two to three to four times.”

But for some, it’s too late.

“I am a COVID bride trying to get married,” said Meghan Everett. 

She and her fiancé will marry in Wisconsin before a couple of hundred people this summer.  They initially planned a wedding reception at a Minneapolis country club last September, then for this May at a country club in Eden Prairie. With the uncertainty about guest numbers in Minnesota, they decided to take their celebration elsewhere.

"So, we’ve been through the experience of rescheduling a wedding twice now, three different venues and just fingers crossed that we will be able to have our event in July,” Everett said.

Her mother, Mary Everett, who’s been deeply involved in Meghan’s wedding, said she's lost thousands of dollars in nonrefundable deposits and will spend thousands more transporting vendors to Wisconsin this summer.

Mary Everett said she thinks the Walz administration has given weddings a bad rap as COVID-19 superspreaders.

"As far as I'm concerned, he's being completely unfair to one industry when you have all [of] these other venues," she said.

State health officials defend their crackdown. They insist attending a wedding reception is far more likely to spread COVID-19 than eating or drinking at a bar or restaurant.

“When you attend a wedding often times it’s many people that you know,” said Kris Ehresmann, state infectious disease director.

“There’s more hugging,” Ehresmann added. “You don’t walk into a restaurant and give hugs to other patrons. In addition to the fact that the wedding ceremony is at a time that everyone attends, you all move together to a reception, so there are lots of things like that.”

Cedar James, from the Minnesota Events Coalition, contends that allowing professionally managed events would actually improve public health.

“I know that there are people who are having events under the radar because of this 10 [person] cap,” Cedar James said. “If you open up that gap to a greater guest count, you have more likelihood of involving vendors who can help keep the events more safe.”

Still, Cedar James readily acknowledged the challenges of allowing large private gatherings, and said the Walz administration has done a good job of regulating private gatherings.

"They are getting a bad rap, and there is a lot of pressure on them,” Cedar James said. “From my perspective, they've done a fantastic job of communicating what their reasoning is behind keeping wedding restrictions so tight while opening up restaurants."

Meghan Everett said because she and her fiancé live in Chicago, the Wisconsin location is something of a halfway point between their friends in Chicago and those in the Twin Cities, so ultimately it will work well for her celebration.

“So that’s the silver lining for me,” she said. “It might not have been my plan A, but it’s a strong plan B.”

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