By Jeff Wagner

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — With each round of COVID-19 restrictions comes many people questioning Minnesota’s strategy to stop the spread.

Gov. Tim Walz laid out his four-week plan on Wednesday evening, which includes the closing of gyms and fitness centers; stoppage of youth and adult sports; a pause on wedding and funeral receptions; and the closing dine-in service at restaurants and bars. However, takeout and delivery can continue. These restrictions take effect Saturday.

“What even has become the new normal is no longer sustainable,” Walz said.

With COVID-19 cases reaching record daily highs and hospitalizations, some have raised the question: Why is the virus spreading when we have a mask mandate? WCCO spoke with Dr. Beth Thielen, a pediatrician and infectious disease physician at the University of Minnesota who also researches respiratory viruses.

“How you deploy the mask is really, really critical,” Thielen said.

Some people might not wear the mask properly, such as not covering their nose, while others simply aren’t wearing one in certain settings, like wedding receptions or small gatherings.

Recently, Walz said mask compliance in the state is at 70%.

“We’re in the comfort of our friends and family and people that we feel comfortable with, we let our guard down, and some of that means, you know, not wearing a mask,” Thielen said.

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Walz says instead of one, large super-spreader event, mask non-compliance has led to “thousands of micro-spreader events.”

Another question some have asked: Why restrict bars, gyms and youth sports when young people often don’t get sick?

“Our society is not structured in a way that keeps these age groups separate,” Thielen said.

By participating in school, sports, work and social settings, Dr. Thielen said these young age groups will inevitably interact with the older population.

“We really need to be attentive to the fact that young people have the potential to spread this infection to other people, even if they aren’t very symptomatic,” she said.

A majority of those who die from COVID-19 live in long-term care or assisted living. That’s why some wonder instead of targeting businesses and gatherings: Shouldn’t we focus more on nursing homes?

“The people that live there, they are being assisted by people who are young and healthy, and potentially going out to bars and restaurants and socializing and doing these thing and potentially getting infected by the people who are, you know, caring for them,” Thielen said. “[Nursing homes and long-term care facilities] are not environments that are shut off from the outside world, nor do we want them to be, and that just poses a risk of infection coming in to infect those people.”

Some sectors have avoided new restrictions, such as retail, salons and grocery stores. That has led to some questioning why stores get to remain open when they’re sometimes filled with large crowds.

Dr. Thielen and Gov. Walz said the data shows those sectors have had limited outbreaks, especially when compared to weddings, sports, gyms and restaurants.

“People are programmed to wear their mask at the grocery store, it’s a quick trip. Typically, people are in, they’re walking around, moving around. They’re not having sustained contact with people in the grocery store. It’s easier to maintain distance and then people are out,” Thielen said.

The ability for people to keep to themselves and wear masks is a big difference from restaurants and bars, where people have to remove their masks to eat and drink. It’s not about the restaurant spreading the virus, but that people who might be infected meet there for sustained amounts of time without a mask on.

“So this is a time when you’re going to be exposed in terms of your ability to cough and speak and spread virus around, so that’s just a risky behavior where you can’t, the situation is set up to not take precautions,” she said. “It’s just a perfect storm of a situation that is more prone to transmitting this infection.”

Jeff Wagner

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