Every couple of weeks, Gov. Tim Walz gets on a call to strategize about COVID-19 and even vent a little with six other people who can commiserate over the trials of leading a state though a global pandemic.
As the coronavirus has ravaged the nation, a bipartisan group of Midwest governors has provided a sounding board for one another's policies and has shared how regulations, testing or vaccination strategies are playing out. Leaders in the midst of a case spike offer insights to others bracing for the next wave. They even created a video, asking people to wear masks and social distance this winter.
"We are all facing the same enemy," Republican Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine said, and sharing experiences about what works — or doesn't — has been critical. "We all have basically the same levers to pull, the same things we can do."
That bipartisan effort only extends so far.
Walz, a Democrat, has regular calls with a group that includes the Democratic governors of Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan and Kentucky and the Republican governors of Ohio and Indiana. The partnership stops short of Minnesota's western and southern borders.
While Minnesota has shut down bars, restaurants and other venues when case numbers climbed, Republican leaders in the Dakotas and Iowa have taken a lighter approach to health restrictions. Walz has repeatedly expressed frustration with their clashing tactics and said his relationship has become "somewhat hostile" with South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, who refused to issue a mask mandate as her state's case numbers spiked.
However, Walz and a spokesman for North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum noted their two states have worked together in some areas. North Dakota made testing available for Minnesotans early on, and officials have shared tactics for preventing and mitigating COVID-19 in long-term care facilities, spokesman Mike Nowatzki said.
"While the governors' responses to the pandemic may have differed in areas, Gov. Burgum and this administration have always approached our border cities in the spirit of collaboration and being good neighbors," he said in a statement. He said Burgum frequently joins calls with governors across the nation about the pandemic — although he's not part of the usual Midwest governors call.
That group of governors is one of several regional partnerships. Governors in the Northeast, mid-Atlantic and West Coast have also joined forces. The coalitions work together to procure ventilators and personal protective equipment or synchronize restrictions, reopenings or vaccine distributions.
"We've seen exceptional levels of cooperation among governors of both parties, across state lines, as they share best practices and advocate for their residents during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic," National Governors Association spokesman James Nash said.
The Midwest governors started talking frequently last spring, when they made a pact to coordinate regionally as they reopened after the initial stay-at-home orders. When Walz announced he would loosen restrictions on bars, restaurants and other venues starting Monday, he let the other governors know first.
He described their discussions as a "download dump" of best practices. Topics range from sharing testing capacity to communication tips. He heard from others that it's important to have local leaders, like mayors, talk about the mask mandate, instead of just having the governor sound the message.
The week before Thanksgiving, some in the group held a joint virtual news conference to urge people not to travel. While Kentucky is not generally considered part of the Midwest, Gov. Andy Beshear has been a part of the partnership and said their health and economies are intertwined.
"The virus doesn't care about a county line or a state line, and this communication has helped us fight together," he said.
Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker noted during the Zoom call that he has talked to Walz about how Minnesota was expanding testing and working with Mayo Clinic. He and Beshear discussed how to keep Chicagoans safe during protests around the grand jury decision in the Breonna Taylor case. And he conferred with Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer about pandemic school guidance.
"Each of us has shared ideas with each other," Pritzker said.
They have also lobbied the federal government together.
Walz, Whitmer and Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers sent a letter to congressional leaders and President Donald Trump in October urging them to act immediately on a second round of stimulus funding, which was ultimately signed into law a couple of days after Christmas.
Those three, Pritzker and a few other governors from across the country sent a letter to the Trump administration Thursday asking officials to release vaccines they are holding back. "Our states are ready to work around the clock to ramp up distribution, get more shots in arms, and save more American lives," they urged.
States have been forced to play an outsized role in responding to the pandemic, from getting personal protective equipment to testing to the vaccine rollout, Walz said.
"Governors are hungry for that consistency across state lines that has not been there with the lack of a national strategy," he said. When he heard the federal government and President-elect Joe Biden could pass additional stimulus packages to support families, small businesses, state and local governments, and vaccine distribution, "I could almost cry," Walz said.
Beyond sharing ideas, Walz said the governors' calls are "good for the soul." He said he is always consulting with experts, but it's helpful to hear other leaders are making the same decisions.
"What's really strange about it is, it's like each state seems to think they are an island and this isn't happening anywhere else," Walz said. When he talked to DeWine about Minnesotans' frustrations with his regulations, he said the Republican governor replied, " 'Oh, I get the same thing here. They think we're the only state in the nation that's not allowing full tailgating at the Buckeyes games.' "
There's no good answer for many decisions governors must make during this pandemic, DeWine said, "It's A or B. And A's bad, or B's worse." He said governors have historically shared ideas across state lines, but the coronavirus has intensified that need and their relationships.
"One of the long-term effects of this pandemic," DeWine said, "is it has brought governors closer together."