Gov. Tim Walz launched a discrimination helpline on Monday following reports of bias against Asian-Americans during the COVID-19 pandemic. And, responding to a rise in hate crimes, fraud and other opportunistic criminal behavior, Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison announced he has joined with state and federal prosecutors to streamline investigations and prosecutions against criminals looking to exploit the pandemic.
"Minnesotans are resilient people who support their neighbors when the going gets tough," Walz said in a statement. "As Asian-Americans in Minnesota report heightened cases of discrimination amid COVID-19, my message is clear: Viruses don't discriminate, and neither do we."
Minnesotans can call the toll-free helpline, at 1-833-454-0148, to report bias and discrimination that they've seen or experienced to the state Department of Human Rights. The helpline is staffed Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
Since the pandemic hit Minnesota, Ellison's office has received 800 complaints of price gouging, said John Stiles, spokesman for the Attorney General's Office. In about 100 secret-shopper trips, staff has seen 36-packs of toilet paper selling for $90, the doubling of prices on cleaning products, and markups of 40% to 100% on staples likes eggs, meat and rice. They've also received 14 complaints of scams claiming "miracle" treatments for the virus or fake calls or phishing scams purporting to sell N95 masks that can prevent the passage of the virus.
The Attorney General's Office has reached two settlements and issued 14 written resolutions and 27 warning letters, Stiles said.
Some Asian-Americans have reported being blamed for COVID-19 when they're in public, or being treated as if they're carriers of the virus. Over the weekend, a woman on a New York City bus had to get stitches after teenagers allegedly attacked her and accused her of causing the pandemic.
"There's a distinct pattern in our nation's history of increased discrimination during uncertain and trying times, of needing someone to blame," Lt. Governor Peggy Flanagan said in a statement. "This is unacceptable and, as Minnesotans, we must work to break this cycle."
Bo Thao-Urabe, executive and network director of the Coalition of Asian-American Leaders, said in a statement that a broad base of Asian Minnesotan organizations agree the hotline is needed.
"By collecting stories from victims and bystanders, and by working together with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights to understand that information, we are letting people know that what is happening to them is not OK, and we are serious about strengthening communities to ensure everyone's safety," she said.
Ellison, Minnesota U.S. Attorney Erica MacDonald and the state's County Attorneys Association announced Monday the formation of the "Minnesota COVID-19 Action Team," a partnership designed to "protect the citizens of Minnesota from any wrongdoing related to the COVID-19 pandemic." That ranges from price gouging to scams targeting Minnesotans' stimulus checks.
"Together, we are living through an extremely challenging and unprecedented time," MacDonald said in a statement. "Unfortunately, there are bad actors who seek to exploit these challenges by preying on vulnerable individuals for a quick financial profit, launching a myriad of insidious cyber scams, or carrying out bias-motivated acts of violence. This type of criminal activity is reprehensible and will not go unpunished."
The team will serve as a clearinghouse for pandemic-related complaints, uniting the criminal and civil investigative and enforcement power of federal, state, local and tribal law-enforcement agencies, according to a news release from MacDonald's office.
"Let us be clear: Minnesota law enforcement remains on-duty and committed to meeting the critical mission of protecting individuals, families and communities," MacDonald said. "Ignorant, hateful attacks have no place in Minnesota and will not be tolerated. And to those who seek to make a quick buck by exploiting the fears and vulnerabilities of individuals, your illegal behavior will not be tolerated."