Minnesota's top elected officials said Monday that "help is on the way" for families, struggling restaurants, businesses and individuals who have been out of work for much of the past year during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Against the backdrop of a community vaccination site at the Mall of America, Gov. Tim Walz and most of Minnesota's Democratic delegation in Washington lauded provisions in President Joe Biden's $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan to speed up distribution of vaccinations to all adults this spring, while also boosting tax credits for working families, funding to help schools stay open and grants to keep restaurants in business. Direct stimulus payments of up to $1,400 already started arriving in bank accounts over the weekend.
But the yearlong toll of the pandemic — which has killed more than 6,700 people in the state and eliminated more than 200,000 jobs — still hung over what lawmakers called a "good news day" for Minnesota. Monday marked the anniversary of Walz's decision to close down classrooms to slow the spread of the virus.
"In responding to that and making sure that folks who did the right thing to protect public health, to protect their neighbors, who had to close their businesses or lose their jobs, that there would be compensation to make sure they were made whole," said Walz. "This piece of legislation, while it does that, does so much more."
The package includes $2.6 billion in aid to the state and another $2.1 billion for cities, counties and other local governments. There are restrictions on how the money can be used, but the central focus of the legislation is pandemic response, including funding to boost the infrastructure around vaccinations.
"This vaccine isn't going to suddenly parachute into the middle of Hastings [Minn.]. It is not going to do that," said Minnesota U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar. "We have got to have the distribution system ramped up more and more each week. That is the heart of this bill."
More than 20% of the state's population and roughly 76% of people 65 and older have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. But the rate of vaccinations lagged other states at the start of the year, and there have been inequities in distribution between whites and people of color.
State Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said the funding will help officials boost infrastructure around state and local public health departments and set up more mobile and community vaccination sites, like the one inside the Mall of America, so it's not only hospitals and pharmacies administering shots.
No one will have to pay out-of-pocket costs to receive the vaccine under the plan, no matter what kind of insurance they have or if they are uninsured, said Minnesota U.S. Sen. Tina Smith. She also noted the bill's funding for child-care providers, early learning and Head Start programs.
"This is basic infrastructure of our economy," said Smith. "People are not going to be able to get back to work, in particular moms are not going to be able to get back to work, unless there's a child-care system that is there for them."
A handful of provisions didn't make it into the final package, including an increase in the federal minimum wage to $15, which was effectively killed by a parliamentarian ruling in the U.S. Senate. No Republicans in Congress supported the package, criticizing it as too expensive.
Klobuchar said the next step is a major infrastructure package that includes billions of dollars for broadband access across the country. And she still expects the federal minimum wage increase to get a vote in the 50-50 divided U.S. Senate, but there are ongoing negotiations over how much to raise it.
"That doesn't mean we can't have a minimum wage vote in the future or negotiations about what the minimum wage should be," she said. "It's been over a decade since we increased the federal minimum wage, and that helps everyone."
Briana Bierschbach • 651-925-5042