The Department of Health’s own data does not support Gov. Walz’ continued attacks on Minnesota’s bars and restaurants

Gov. Walz kicks the hospitality industry while its down

Today, Gov. Walz announced that his shutdown – euphemistically styled a ‘pause’ – of Minnesota’s bars and restaurants would continue beyond this Friday. Indeed, as MPR News reports:

The restrictions will stay in place through Jan. 10, short-circuiting celebrations at bars and restaurants on New Year’s Eve, traditionally a huge night for those businesses.

The concessions offered came across as a macabre joke at these establishment’s expense:

The new order allows outdoor tables at 50 percent capacity, or 100 people, with four patrons per table. But they can’t be fully enclosed in shelters, making dining or drinking somewhat impractical in Minnesota winter temperatures.

Indeed. The industry’s response was understandably furious:

News that the bar and restaurant restrictions will continue is likely to come as a blow to the thousands of bar and restaurant owners and workers across the state.

Those businesses have been forced to do takeout-only or delivery the past few weeks as health officials worked to slow the spread of COVID-19.

Liz Rammer, CEO of the trade group Hospitality Minnesota, said Wednesday morning she was “gravely disappointed” at news of the plan and pleaded with the governor to reconsider.

“Hospitality is a force for good in our communities, and the Governor and his administration would be wise to leverage that force, rather than watch it flicker out,” she said in a statement.

Harsher words came from Tony Chesak, executive director of the Minnesota Licensed Beverage Association. “Today’s news is not only devastating, it’s shameful and unjust,” he said in a statement, adding that less than 2 percent of COVID-19 cases have been tracked back to bars and restaurants.

The Department of Health’s own data doesn’t support these measures

That 2% figure that Tony Chesak gives is correct. Indeed, it is the Department of Health’s own number.

When the latest shutdown went into effect a month ago, it was reported that “4,100 coronavirus cases have been linked to outbreaks at restaurants and bars since June 10”. But there had, in that time, been 211,470 new cases diagnosed overall, according to Department of Health data. In other words, using the numbers given by Gov. Walz’ own Department of Health, “restaurants and bars had been linked with just 1.7% of Covid-19 cases diagnosed since June 10th”.

In its Weekly Covid-19 Reports, the Department of Health includes bars and restaurants in the category ‘Community (outbreak)’ for its figures on ‘Likely Exposure’. As I wrote yesterday:

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 December 10th – the most recent – we can see where the new cases in this second surge have been traced to, as Figure 2 shows. Over this period, the share of Minnesota’s Covid-19 cases traced to ‘Community (outbreak)’ is down to just 2.9%. And this is with the contact tracer’s leading questions.

Figure 2: Share of new Covid-19 cases by likely exposure, September 17th to December 10th

Source: Department of Health

Objections and replies

There are those who argue that this number is an undercount. Back in November:

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.

But, as I wrote at the time:

…that is, of course, just as true for cases traced to other categories such as ‘Travel (outside MN)’ and ‘Community (no known contact)’.

There are other objections, all more or less spurious.

Some have said that the real figure for bars and restaurants is “7.4% of Covid transmissions with known exposures from Sep 17 – Nov 12 [which] were community (outbreak)”. But why on earth would we want to exclude more than half of all Covid-19 cases from our analysis?

To account for this, others have said that “If 10-15% of cases with a known origin are linked to restaurants/bars, it’s reasonable to infer that a similar percentage of untraced cases can be linked to restaurants/bars.” But how is that inference reasonable? It might be if the cases whose origins have been traced were a truly random sample of all those infected, but we have no idea if that is the case or not. And all this, don’t forget, is based on those diagnosed being asked questions which were designed to pump up the number of cases traced to bars and restaurants.

It has, too, been said that “complete safety [is] not possible with reopened restaurants”. But “complete safety” is not possible anywhere. It is an absurdly high bar that has no place whatsoever being used in a serious discussion of policy.

I have also been pointed to a study from South Korea showing how Covid-19 can spread in a restaurant. No doubt it can happen. Indeed, it has happened in Minnesota in 4,100 cases between June 10th and November 18th, for example. But that is not the same as saying it is likely to happen. Our state’s bars and restaurants have worked hard to ensure that it isn’t. One example is the outdoor igloos outside the Lock and Dam eatery in Hastings, to which no cases of Covid-19 have been traced. Indeed, the relatively small number of cases traced back to bars and restaurants shows how successful these measure have been. Nevertheless, their investment in these safety features has turned out to be a total waste owing to Gov. Walz’ random, Magic 8 Ball approach to Covid-19 policy.

Image may contain: night and outdoor
Outdoor igloos installed at some expense at the Lock and Dam Eatery in Hastings. Gov. Walz has, now, specifically banned their use until January

In short, none of these critiques stack up. They are ex post justifications for a policy which the Department of Health’s own data shows will have little impact on the spread of Covid-19, but a devastating impact on Minnesota’s bars and restaurants.

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