Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz warned Monday that social distancing practices brought on by the growing COVID-19 epidemic are likely to disrupt business in the state for a year or more no matter when his administration lifts its contested stay-at-home orders.
Speaking after meetings with state business leaders — as well as a conciliatory phone call with President Donald Trump — Walz said stores, restaurants and other public places will long have to adapt to public concerns about the coronavirus, likely until there's an effective vaccine.
"I think most of these retailers and businesses understand they're going to have to change the way business is being done for about the next 18 months," Walz said. "They're going to have to do that regardless of what a stay-at-home order looks like because people are naturally understanding that we're going to have to social distance because their shopping and their retail buying experience is going to change dramatically."
Walz has previously indicated that he plans to reopen business in stages as safety measures dictate.
Walz's remarks followed a tweet from Trump signaling an apparent truce with the DFL governor over his current stay-at-home order, which runs until May 4.
"Received a very nice call from @GovTimWalz of Minnesota," Trump tweeted Monday. "We are working closely on getting him all he needs, and fast. Good things happening!"
The president's overture represented a turnaround from Friday, when he tweeted "LIBERATE MINNESOTA," adopting the slogan of hundreds of protesters who gathered at Walz's St. Paul home to oppose an order to stay home unless absolutely necessary. After the tweet Friday, Walz said he called the president and vice president to ask what they thought he should be doing differently to safely open the state back up.
Trump returned that call Saturday night, Walz said, and they talked for 10 minutes about the state's stay-at-home order, challenges with testing capacity and struggles to get enough personal protective equipment. He said he left that conversation feeling that the state and federal response to the virus were aligned.
"I'm not interested in adjudicating why we don't have these things now, I'm just interested in how we get them. That's what I expressed to the president," Walz said. "He echoed that and expressed great desire to work with us."
While Walz said he saw no "percentage" in battling the president, their call came amid deepening political fissures over on how — and how fast — Minnesota should ease state-ordered business closures meant to slow the spread of the virus.
Partisan tensions flared again at the State Capitol Monday as Republicans raised new doubts about the modeling guiding the governor's decision and legislators feuded over how to handle the final four weeks of the session.
After a month of a reduced floor schedule due to coronavirus, Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, announced last week that the upper chamber would return to a "new normal" of meeting in person every three days. The move was criticized by Senate Minority Leader Susan Kent, DFL-Woodbury, who released a letter to Gazelka raising "serious concerns" about plans for more frequent floor sessions.
We "trust that your highest priority is the health and safety [of] both legislators and staff and our role in spreading the disease among our communities," Kent wrote. "Consequently, Senate floor sessions should only be called when the work being conducted is of the highest priority and relevant."
Gazelka said that he too acknowledges that COVID-19 is not likely to go away for at least a year but that the long timeline for a full containment of the virus is even more reason to be "willing to move forward sooner than later" on reopening more business.
"It's not going to be easy until either there's a vaccine or there's herd immunity where enough people have gotten the virus and overcome it," he said. "That's why I talk about being willing to face this."
He said he worries about the lasting impact a prolonged stay-at-home order could have on small businesses, including resorts and retail shops. "They need to be open to survive and I think the consequences right now are dire," he said. "If we don't move and open them up pretty soon, they're not going to open."
Republican Sen. Michelle Benson, who chairs a key Senate Health Committee, noted that an alternative scenario mapped by state and University of Minnesota epidemiologists projects a similar number of deaths and ICU cases under a more tailored stay-at-home approach.
"There's an argument to be made we could have businesses start opening the spigot on economic activity, start opening things up slowly and thoughtfully, provide shelter in place for those most vulnerable and have the same outcomes for ICU capacity and mortality as the [option] the governor has chosen, which keeps us sheltered in place much longer," she said.
Benson said Monday she believes it is also time for the state to allow some elective medical procedures to resume. She said the current ban has resulted in plummeting revenue for providers and discomfort for patients. "This needs to be done step by step so we don't get ahead of ourselves, form a big wave and then re-shut down things that are open," she said.
Walz, meanwhile, sought to defuse partisan tensions over the business closures, which he acknowledged have been painful in terms of lost jobs and income. He talked earlier in the day with members of the Minnesota Business Partnership and Best Buy chief executive Corie Barry, whose company has announced plans to furlough some 51,000 hourly workers.
As part of his daily press briefing, Walz was joined by Ecolab chief executive Doug Baker to discuss ways the business community can help the state procure personal protective equipment and strengthen the response to COVID-19.
"Clearly these are difficult decisions," Baker said. "We empathize and we also really appreciate all the hard work that's been going into this."
Walz spent about 15 minutes speaking with 95 Minnesota CEOs led by Charlie Weaver, president of the Minnesota Business Partnership.
"We may never get back," Weaver said of any "new normal." "I believe that we're never going to get back to the way it was before. That's not necessarily a bad thing. Every company is changing and learning as a result of this in terms of how they're going to operate."
Weaver said the group doesn't dispute the governor's assessment of how long it might take to recover.
"I think he recognizes that this is a disaster from an economic standpoint and we've got to try to get people back," Weaver said. "When they do get back, I think 18 months is a good timeline for how long it's going to take to acquaint businesses and small businesses to the new normal."
Weaver said Monday's call covered plans to devise protocols for easing restrictions on businesses. Walz told the CEOs that his administration planned to "move as quickly as we can and as safely as we can," Weaver said.
Testing also factored heavily into the call, Weaver said, as most CEOs want to be able to test workers or, in the case of restaurants, potential diners. Weaver described the governor as "guardedly optimistic."