Minnesota State Fair canceled, COVID-19 blamed; Churches to defy Walz order

Archbishop Bernard Hebda at the Cathedral of St. Paul in September 2019. Minnesota's Roman Catholic bishops say they will allow Masses to resume next week despite Gov. Tim Walz's continued restrictions on large religious gatherings.

Minnesota’s COVID-19 toll continued to escalate Friday as the Health Department reported 842 Minnesotans have died from the disease, 33 more than Thursday; 534 people are currently hospitalized. Of those, 233 are in intensive care, a new daily high in the pandemic.

Total positive tests for the disease during the outbreak rose above 19,000; about two-thirds of those confirmed with COVID-19 have recovered to the point they no longer need isolation.

State health officials are expected to brief reporters at 2 p.m. on the latest efforts to fight the spread of the disease.

State Fair canceled

The latest counts of cases and deaths came minutes after Minnesota State Fair officials announced the 2020 Great Minnesota Get-Together could not go on because of the potential public health risk from the disease.

"We all love the fair and that's exactly why we can't have a fair this year,” said Jerry Hammer, the fair’s general manager.

The event has been canceled before, most recently in 1946 because of a polio epidemic. This year, state health leaders have worried over the prospect of hundreds of thousands of Minnesotans packed in at the fair amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

State officials had expressed skepticism about holding the 12-day event, which more than 2 million people attended last year. In April, Gov. Tim Walz said he had a hard time seeing the fair operating this year. 

“I wouldn’t want to make a definitive call. But I also don’t want to give any false hope on this. I think it would be very difficult to see a State Fair operating,” he said. “I don’t know how you social distance in there. I mean one of the greatest parts of the State Fair is it’s super crowded.”

State Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm sounded equally pessimistic on Thursday. Her agency, she said, didn’t make a recommendation but did lay out the risks to fair officials.

Fair officials had been telling vendors and participants that they expected to make a final decision far in advance to allow food stands, attractions and exhibitors enough time to plan appropriately. 

On Friday, Hammer said the board had heard feedback from fair fans along the lines of, let the healthy people go. “That's not who we are and that's not what we do,” he said. “It's got to be accessible to everybody. And a significant number of folks have some sort of health risk, some sort of compromised health.”

Pushback on COVID-19 curbs

The State Fair decision comes as Minnesota health leaders face growing questions over the toll the state’s COVID-19 strategy is taking on religious services, graduation ceremonies and other important life rituals. 

With COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths continuing to rise toward a likely peak later in the summer, the state needs to continue to limit worship services and other gatherings, Malcolm told reporters Thursday.

“We’re hearing the frustration of people who feel as though our guidance is overly conservative,” she said. “We just keep reinforcing the degree of community spread … even when it isn’t completely visible.”

Gov. Tim Walz and Steve Grove, the state’s employment and economic development commissioner, said more restrictions on daily life would be loosened at later dates, including large indoor religious gatherings. But they wouldn’t say when that would happen.

Those comments led to pushback on several fronts. A key hospitality group called the bar and restaurant plan disastrous for an industry already reeling from the economic fallout of COVID-19. GOP leaders also attacked the decision.

The state’s Catholic Church leaders, as well as Lutheran leaders from Wisconsin and Missouri synods, said they would defy Walz’s order and resume services next week, believing they could do so safely.

The governor reiterated on Wednesday that he’s trying to balance the needs of the economy with public health as he works to keep the spread of the coronavirus from overwhelming the state’s hospital and care system.

“It is going to get worse here before it gets better. That is an absolute guarantee,” Walz said of the expected surge in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations now expected later this summer. Walz said he expects the state’s death toll to hit 1,000 by the end of the month and 1,500 by late June.

Large indoor worship services still on hold

Walz replaced his two-month stay-at-home order with a “stay safe” order that loosened restrictions on some retail operations and allowed group gatherings of 10 or fewer people, including at places of worship.

On Wednesday, he acknowledged the delay on large indoor religious services was “not a perfect answer” and that “there is a very strong sense of urgency to figure this next piece out."

Hours after Walz’s announcement, the bishops of Minnesota's Catholic churches sent the Walz administration a letter saying they will not follow state guidelines for reopening services.

In the four-page letter, they say the church has done extensive research on how to reopen safely, and will reopen under strict protocols, limiting seating to one third of the seating capacity at churches. The bishops say they will resume the celebration of Mass on May 26.

The clerics note that the dioceses voluntarily suspended public Masses before Walz issued his orders, and they've been urging him to allow larger religious gatherings in his latest executive order. The bishops say it "defies reason" to allow malls to reopen while continuing to prohibit more than 10 people from gathering in a cathedral that can seat thousands.

Malcolm on Thursday reiterated that it was important to see the bigger picture — cases were growing and hospitals were “getting full,” and the state still needed to work to check the community spread of the disease. “We appreciate that comes at a great cost, a great disappointment.”

Ehresmann said the concern at worship services — including where she worships — is for medically vulnerable people who might be infected. Those at-risk people would naturally want to attend services but “what may seem to be OK for a certain segment of the population could have devastating consequences for others.”

Bar and restaurant owners have become increasingly concerned they’ll go under if they can’t reopen soon to dine-in customers. 

Many had wanted restrictions further eased in time for the upcoming Memorial Day weekend. Walz, though, indicated that will not happen, noting the virus does not respect calendars.

Meatpacking hot spots remain

Many of the recent outbreaks outside the Twin Cities metro area are focused around meatpacking plants. Officials have intensified testing in those hot spots, uncovering more infections.

In southwestern Minnesota’s Nobles County, where an outbreak hit Worthington’s massive JBS pork plant, about 1 in 15 people have tested positive for COVID-19. In mid-April, there were just a handful of cases. By Friday, there were 1,432 confirmed cases, although the numbers are rising at a much slower rate than in previous weeks.

The JBS plant shut on April 20 but has since partially reopenedwith expanded hygiene and health monitoring measures.

Similar problems have been reported in Stearns County, where COVID-19 cases tied to two packing plants — Pilgrim’s Pride poultry plant in Cold Spring and Jennie-O Turkey in Melrose — have skyrocketed. An undisclosed number of workers at both plants have tested positive for the virus.

There were about 55 confirmed cases in Stearns County two weeks ago. By Friday, confirmed cases were at 1,881 with 12 deaths. 

Kandiyohi County in west-central Minnesota is also seeing cases continue to climb a month after officials with the Jennie-O turkey processing plant there said some employees had tested positive for the coronavirus. The county had confirmed three COVID-19 cases then.

On Friday, the Health Department reported 443 people have now tested positive.

While the counts in those counties are high relative to their population, officials say the growth in new cases in those areas appears to be stabilizing.

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