The data show that restaurants and bars have been linked with just 1.7% of Minnesota’s Covid-19 cases since June 10th

Last night, Governor Tim Walz announced a raft of new restrictions with the stated aim of slowing the spread of Covid-19 in Minnesota. Kare 11 reported:

The new restrictions halt all in-person dining — both indoor and outdoor — gyms, wedding receptions/private parties, organized sports — youth and adult — indoor entertainment, public pools/recreation centers and any social gathering with individuals outside of your household.

WCCO reported:

Health department figures show that over 4,100 coronavirus cases have been linked to outbreaks at restaurants and bars since June 10, while at least 950 cases have been linked with weddings, 780 with sports and nearly 750 with gyms. Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said those statistics are an undercount because they don’t reflect spread beyond the primary cases. Those cases have taken a sharp upturn in recent weeks, she said.

This is the reasoning for targeting restaurants and bars and private get togethers.

But the numbers don’t support that. For example, while it might be true that “4,100 coronavirus cases have been linked to outbreaks at restaurants and bars since June 10”, there have, in that time, been 211,470 new cases diagnosed overall, according to Department of Health data (Tuesday’s total cumulative cases: 242,035 – June 10th’s total of cumulative cases: 30,565). That means that restaurants and bars have been linked with just 1.7% of Covid-19 cases diagnosed since June 10th.

Minnesota’s second surge in cases began in mid-September. Looking at the Department of Health’s Weekly Covid-19 Reports for September 17th and November 12th – the most recent – we can see where the new cases in this second surge have been traced to. Figure 1 shows the percentage of new cases which have been traced to various sources. The category ‘Community (outbreak)’ is defined as:

Case was exposed to a known outbreak setting in Minnesota that is not also a congregate living setting (e.g., long-term care, corrections, shelter) or health care setting. This includes
restaurant/bars, sports, worksites that are not living settings, etc.

In other words, exactly the kinds of enterprises and activities which Gov. Walz has just clamped down on.

And what share of cases in this second surge have been traced to such settings? Just 3.4%. Health Commissioner Malcolm argues that these numbers are an undercount because they don’t reflect spread beyond the primary cases, but that is, of course, just as true for cases traced to other categories such as ‘Travel (outside MN)’ and ‘Community (no known contact)’.

Figure 1: Share of new Covid-19 cases by likely exposure, September 17th to November 12th

 Source: Department of Health

Two things jump out from these numbers.

First, the biggest share of cases are ‘Unk./missing’. In other words, Minnesota’s system for tracing Covid-19 contacts has failed to trace more than half the new cases in this second surge. This is not an attack on the tracers, it is simply that they have an impossible job. Back in May I wrote that:

…state officials suggest that something like 513,600 Minnesotans have been or are infected with Covid-19. Even if it is half that, 256,800, can we identify all of them? If we do, can we trace all their contacts? If we can, can we quarantine them all? To ask the question is to answer it. Quite simply, if the state officials are right about a case-to-infections ratio of 1%, Gov. Walz is not going to be able to test, trace, and isolate.

Test, trace, and isolate might have been a very sensible strategy when infections were few in number, but if state officials are correct that horse has bolted. 

Second, a greater share of Minnesota’s second surge cases have come in ‘Congregate Care’, which the Department of Health defines as:

Residents, and staff who are not part of a non-congregate care setting outbreak and did not have an exposure to a positive household member. Congregate care settings include longterm care facilities (LTCF), assisted living facilities, group homes, or residential behavioral health (RBH) facilities.

And yet, last night, Gov. Walz said not a single solitary word about this. As I wrote on Monday:

…since Gov. Walz launched his Five-Point Plan to protect Minnesota’s Long-Term Care residents and workers from Covid-19 [on May 7th], care home residents have accounted for 69% of all the state’s Covid-19 deaths.

Despite this ongoing carnage, the state government continues to do nothing, and state media, by and large, continues to let them get away with doing nothing.

On Monday I concluded by saying that “State policy should focus on where the problems are most acute.” If Gov. Walz was truly following the data, care homes are where he would be focusing. Instead, he is dishing out another undeserved beating to Minnesota’s ailing hospitality industry.

John Phelan is an economist at the Center of the American Experiment.