By Tim Krohn and MPR News
MANKATO — New clusters of COVID-19 cases centered around bars in Mankato and Minneapolis have officials increasingly worried that younger adults aren’t doing enough to prevent the virus’ spread as they move back into public spaces.
More than 100 cases of COVID-19 have been reported among Minnesotans in their 20s in the Mankato area who said they went to bars on June 12 and 13 — the first weekend bars and restaurants were allowed to serve indoors.
Two downtown Mankato bars — Rounders and The 507 — were the focal points of that young adult outbreak, Kris Ehresmann, the state’s public infectious disease director, told reporters Friday.
Steve Wegman, owner of 507, was struggling to come to terms with the announcement made Friday. He was only contacted by a state health official Friday afternoon and told his bar was one that had been tied to an outbreak.
“I did everything I could to keep people safe. We’re following the guidelines established by the state of Minnesota,” he said.
Wegman said all employees wear masks and gloves and sanitize tables and counters between customers. They put stickers on tables after they are cleaned saying they’ve been sanitized. They practice social distancing and have tables on the outdoor patio 6 feet apart.
He did close the bar for a time recently because an employee had a positive test for COVID-19. “The state doesn’t require you to close, but we did.” He contacted all employees and told them to get tested and had the bar spray-sanitized before reopening on Wednesday of this week.
After reopening, he started having bouncers at the door check all patrons’ temperatures before allowing them in.
Wegman said he’s frustrated that even after following all guidelines his business is now in statewide news stories as a place where an outbreak was identified.
“Some people would say we should just close. But do you lose everything you worked for? We’re doing everything we can to stop the spread. It’s a double-edged sword. I struggle with it.”
Wegman said he also wonders what will happen when Minnesota State University is back in session in a few weeks.
“Is it only going to get worse when school gets back in session? We’re only six weeks away from them starting up again.”
The outbreak associated with the Mankato bars resulted in infections that included workers at child care facilities that now must make changes that will disrupt families and children, Ehresmann said.
“It’s a sad example of how COVID works,” said Ehresmann, noting the major concern is that these young adults will spread COVID-19 to others at higher risk of severe disease.
She said officials were also following up on a cluster of 30 cases at two Minneapolis bars — Cowboy Jack’s and Kollege Klub near the University of Minnesota campus.
“It’s not that you can’t socialize. It’s not that you can’t have fun,” she said. “But you need to do it in a manner that’s safe for you and the people around you.”
Jessica Beyer, president of Greater Mankato Growth, said that like a lot of business associations, GMG has been offering local businesses advice and education on how to keep their employees and customers protected, such as encouraging mask-wearing and keeping tables 6 feet apart.
While recent overall trends in deaths and hospitalizations from the disease are encouraging, health leaders now worry that the reopening of bars and restaurants during the past two weeks is putting people in close quarters who are now giving the disease a chance to rekindle.
Minnesota’s early sacrifices to limit COVID-19’s spread “will be undermined if we don’t get cooperation from all Minnesotans, especially younger Minnesotans who are most active and social,” Ehresmann said.
“We desperately need younger Minnesotans to take it seriously,” she said.
Friday’s health department data showed that Minnesotans in their 20s make up the largest age group of confirmed cases in Minnesota — 7,045 people infected, with two deaths.
While those young people may be less likely to suffer complications from COVID-19, officials say the concern is that they may be inadvertently spreading the disease to grandparents or other potentially vulnerable populations.