Opener is Saturday.

Minnesotans should fish close to home to help curb the coronavirus pandemic when the walleye season opens this weekend, avoiding overnight stays and driving no further than they can go on one tank of gas, Department of Natural Resources officials said Wednesday.


A surge in fishing license sales indicates that many Minnesotans are getting antsy under the state's stay-at-home order and really want to hit the lakes. DNR fisheries chief Brad Parsons said license sales are up 40% from this point last year, with roughly 362,000 sold so far.


On Wednesday, the Upper Midwest Law Center, a Minnesota-based public interest law firm, sued in federal court on behalf of Minnesota churches and small business owners wanting to strike down Gov. Tim Walz's stay-at-home emergency orders as unconstitutional.


Walz extended a statewide stay-at-home order until May 18 to reduce the spread of the coronavirus, but he has been slowly exempting more businesses. Among those suing are a mini-golf owner, a greeting card store owner and a salon owner who say they are shut own while other businesses are allowed to be open.


Walz spokesman Teddy Tschann told The Associated Press that the virus "has forced the state to take drastic action to keep Minnesotans safe, but it's action that is within the Governor's authority."


"All of the Governor's actions have been grounded in the need to protect the health and safety of Minnesotans, and he will continue to work to find ways to get Minnesotans back to work and to a place where they can safely gather in large groups," Tschann said in a statement Wednesday.


Fishing and other forms of outdoor recreation are exempt from the stay-at-home order, and live bait sales are permitted, but DNR Commissioner Sarah Strommen said social distancing remains critical.


"We really need for Minnesotans to fish close to home. This time of a pandemic is not the time to travel long distances to fish. We know that travel is one of the ways that the COVID-19 virus can spread," Strommen said during a briefing.


Minnesota's outdoor recreation guidelines advise against overnight stays, suggest anglers bring all needed supplies, and restrict driving to a single tank of gas for the journey there and back, the commissioner said. The restrictions aim to protect older people and Native Americans who live near popular fishing spots in rural Minnesota who could be vulnerable to the virus and depend on the same grocery stores and gas stations where anglers would shop. Cabin owners aren't barred from traveling to their lake places, but she discouraged them from doing so.


Social distancing while fishing means staying at least 6 feet away from people from other households, especially at boat launches and fishing piers, Strommen said. That's about the length of a typical fishing rod. In fishing close to home, she suggested, try a different time of day when a favorite fishing spot may be less crowded, find a new lake or river to try, consider fishing for species other than the prized walleye, and think about fishing from shore.


The DNR's enforcement chief, Rodmen Smith, said his conservation officers don't expect to ticket people for stay-at-home violations this weekend. He said they will continue to emphasize education instead.


The Minnesota Department of Health on Wednesday reported new one-day highs for the state in confirmed coronavirus cases at 728, and deaths at 30, which raised Minnesota's totals to 8,579 cases and 485 deaths. The new deaths included one in Nobles County, where an outbreak connected with the JBS pork processing plant in Worthington has resulted in 1,082 confirmed cases, and one other death.


Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm walked back figures her department released earlier in the day that appeared to show the state had, for the first time, exceeded its goal of conducting 5,000 coronavirus tests per day. She said the figures showing 5,223 tests completed Tuesday included about 2,000 tests conducted Monday that weren't reported right away.