For weeks, Gov. Tim Walz heard from people on all sides with ideas about how to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic.
Health officials advised that the safest course was to maintain stay-at-home restrictions as hospitals increased their capacity to handle the most serious virus cases. Businesses hoped for a quick, safe return to something more like normality.
There was intense criticism from GOP leaders demanding that he give up his peacetime emergency powers and leave it to Minnesotans to decide for themselves how best to safely open their businesses and return to work.
In lifting some of the rules this week and allowing more businesses to reopen, Walz acknowledged the fine line he has had to walk.
“This is either going to work or not work,” he told reporters after announcing his decision. “People are either going to stay out of the hospital or get in it, depending on how much people think about why these things make a difference, how they slow the spread of the disease.”
Walz maintained that his decision was guided not by political pressure but by the data on the virus’ spread and the state’s ability to withstand the growing number of COVID-19 infections and deaths. Those who know him say no deals were made.
In an interview on WCCO radio Thursday morning, the DFL governor said it was only “over the last week or so” that his administration had enough data to make the decision to allow stores to reopen and let Minnesotans leave their house more.
“Once we got those things in place, over the last 50 days, it’s over the last week or so we’re relatively confident. … It became apparent that you’re trying to weigh whether staying in and building up a little more is worth it compared to the damage it does economically, psychologically, and other health issues.”
In the end, he credited the majority of Minnesotans who adhered to social distancing guidelines.
“For the most part, Minnesotans did this,” Walz said. “I’ll be candid, I get it that we started to drop off a little bit on our social distancing. It’s summer. People started getting out their frustrations. ... Folks are going to go back to places that are safe.”
It is still not the full reopening of the state that many Republican legislators have pushed for.
A separate order closing bars, restaurants, hair salons, indoor stadiums and movie theaters remains in place until at least June 1, and social interactions are limited to groups of 10 people or fewer.
But observers say it’s a significant step in the governor’s response to the coronavirus pandemic and goes further than some Democratic governors in other states, who have extended stay-at-home orders to at least the end of May.
“It’s a risk-reward kind of equation that they’re working with,” said former Republican Gov. Arne Carlson. “There is no surefire strategy that is 100% perfect, so you’re weighing odds.”
Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, praised the move to ease restrictions while saying stepped-up pressure from businesses and Republicans “led the way.”
On the Senate floor Thursday, Gazelka added that movement toward opening more businesses built good will with legislators, who are racing toward a Monday deadline to complete work in the regular 2020 legislative session. “I do think the governor lifting the stay-at-home order, that was a step that brought us all closer together,” he said.
At the same time, it remains to be seen if House Republicans will hold to their vow to block a major transportation infrastructure bonding bill until Walz ends his peacetime emergency powers, which he extended until June 12.
Adding to the pressure, lawsuits filed from businesses and some churches challenge the legality of his stay-at-home order.
On Wednesday, hours before his announcement, the Wisconsin Supreme Court knocked down Gov. Tony Evers’ similar “safer-at-home” order.
Walz and his DFL allies dismissed the idea that he was pressured by Republicans and businesses that were ready to flout a possible extension of his order. From the beginning, the stay-at-home order was designed to slow the peak number of coronavirus infections and build up hospital capacity and critical supplies such as ventilators and personal protective equipment, he said.
Those restrictions would eventually be lifted; it was just a matter of when the state felt prepared for an increase in cases winding up in the hospital.
Walz said they’ve reached that point of readiness. Other data also showed Minnesotans were getting restless. Based on cellphone tracking data, Minnesotans had recently dropped from an A grade in social distancing to a D, and new modeling from state health officials and the University of Minnesota released this week showed social distancing had not limited interactions between people as much as they’d hoped.
Charlie Weaver, executive director of the Minnesota Business Partnership, said Walz’s new order gave some people hope that they’d hadn’t felt in awhile, including nodding to the possibility of reopening bars and restaurants soon.
“He walked the tightrope over the Grand Canyon pretty skillfully,” Weaver said. “Memorial Day is such a psychological guidepost for the summer. Being a Minnesotan, he recognized that. If he hadn’t given hope that we could get things somewhat back to normal around Memorial weekend, that would have been a challenge.”
But the move still has its detractors, including from those who worry it’s too soon to start lifting restrictions.
Shortly after the more relaxed “Stay Safe MN” order was announced, Minnesota Young DFL President Jason Chavez-Cruz tweeted, “And just like that your approval rating TANKED.” The Minnesota Nurses Association expressed concerns that increasing movement out into the world will increase cases in the hospitals at a time when they are still “dangerously rationing” personal protective equipment for health care workers.
“I think the governor has a very hard job balancing the harms. It’s not just money vs. lives. There’s much more to livelihoods and people staying at home,” said House DFL Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, noting that questions of domestic abuse and access to health care services are all factors. “It is a no-win, no-good-option scenario.”
For now, Walz said he’s putting his trust in Minnesotans to practice social distancing as they go back out into the world: Wear a mask, stay 6 feet away from others, gather in small groups and stay home if you’re at risk of severe illness or feeling sick.
Staff reporters Torey Van Oot and Jessie Van Berkel contributed to this report.