MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — State health officials are defending their decision to restrict indoor dining in Minnesota.

Last week, Gov. Tim Walz extended the pause at restaurants and bars through at least Jan. 10. Eating outdoors is allowed in open areas at half capacity.

Grocery stores and malls are especially busy this time of year. WCCO gets questions from viewers asking why can they be open, but restaurants can’t be for indoor dining?

Jean Hunn, owner of Keys Cafe & Bakery, says she understood the restaurant closures in the beginning of the pandemic, when experts were still trying to understand the new virus. But says now it feels unfair. She thinks the contract tracing data would be skewed when restaurants keep names and numbers of guests coming in, whereas big box stores do not.

“So when the only places … where you’re following people is restaurant industries, it makes perfect sense that that’s … what’s going to show up,” Hunn said.

Data released from the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) showed that over 4,100 coronavirus cases have been linked to outbreaks at restaurants and bars since June. Dan Huff, MDH’s assistant commissioner, says it typically takes about 15 minutes to inhale enough virus to become infected.

“We always look at, ‘Well, how is the disease spread?’” Huff said. “I am sitting, and I’m sitting with people often from a different household, and we’re probably closer than 6 feet, so we’re in close proximity, and we’re there for a period longer than 15 minutes.”

At a store, you’re moving, masked at all times, and typically not socializing with other households. Huff says even a busy checkout line at a department store would usually be less risky than dining inside with friends.

“Whenever I talk or laugh, I expel more forcefully air, which means that the virus is gonna travel longer … and farther than if I was just breathing normally,” Huff said.

He says the state uses interviews to figure out where those infected with COVID-19 had close contacts. About one-third of all cases have spread in the community from an unknown source.

Kate Raddatz