One way Gov. Tim Walz hopes to personally take advantage of the looser COVID restrictions he announced Thursday is to host a barbecue soon with state legislative leaders as they struggle to finish the business of this year's session.
"Maybe I should have let the first lady know that," Walz told reporters after his speech to Minnesotans.
Even as he eases back on the politically controversial pandemic protocols, the Democratic governor is deep in delicate negotiations with a divided Legislature on the next state budget, policing laws and other issues.
But Walz's plans to lift indoor and outdoor gathering restrictions in their entirety by May 28 seemed to earn him no points with the Republican legislative leaders who have been harshly critical of his use of executive powers to implement and enforce the restrictions.
"Frankly, not one thing that I recommended was adopted," Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, said Thursday on the Senate floor.
Walz said he'd lift Minnesota's mask mandate on July 1 if the state reaches a vaccination rate of 70%, from the current 59%. Gazelka said he told Walz that anyone who's been vaccinated should no longer be required to wear a mask; he also said lifting certain limits before May 28 would allow some high school students a fuller prom experience.
"I think that robs some of our youth of the things they want," Gazelka said. Still, he said, "we are moving in the right direction."
Size limits for indoor and outdoor gatherings will increase on Friday, Walz said, but won't be fully lifted until the 28th, ahead of Memorial Day weekend.
Walz said he would soon seek another extension of his emergency powers, which Republicans have not been able to curtail because of the narrow DFL majority in the House. He'll soon withdraw most specific orders, he said, but wants to keep the executive powers for the time being to continue to accommodate mass vaccinations and because the state could lose some federal dollars in the absence of some of the regulations he's implemented.
"The governor insists on holding onto powers he doesn't need," House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said in a statement from his office. "It's time to open up and end the emergency powers."
Some on the Legislature's left thought Walz should have been more aggressive on some aspects of managing the pandemic. State Sen. Erin Murphy, DFL-St. Paul, said the mask mandate should have come faster last year, and she thinks some aspects of the vaccine rollout could have been smoother.
But Murphy, who lost the DFL primary for governor to Walz in 2018, praised her former rival for the steps he took Thursday.
"As more and more people get vaccinated, we can begin now to lift the restrictions," she said. "This is the right path."
Sen. David Tomassoni, a Chisholm independent, nevertheless praised Walz's pandemic leadership and said a cautious reopening is the right approach. "We're so close now — let's not screw this up. Let's get this thing eradicated," Tomassoni said.
In describing his hopes for a backyard gathering with legislative leaders between now and the May 17 adjournment deadline, Walz said he's found the session's political dynamics even more challenging than normal. Most of the principals have rarely seen one another in person, and both this year's and last year's sessions have largely been conducted remotely.
"I think over the next week and a half we're doing this, it'll be good for us to talk, to socialize a little bit, to get the humanity back," Walz said. "It'll be a golden opportunity."
Staff writer Jessie Van Berkel contributed to this report.
Patrick Condon • 612-673-4413