Minnesota disability service providers across the state have begun shutting down day activity centers in response to the widening coronavirus pandemic, potentially leaving thousands of people with physical and developmental disabilities in the lurch.

In response, top officials at the Minnesota Department of Human Services (DHS) and two large organizations that represent hundreds of disability service providers are seeking broad regulatory relief to prevent people from being cut off from vital services.

They are pushing for the speedy passage of legislation that would grant the DHS commissioner temporary authority to waive certain licensing and background study requirements in response to COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus.

The proposed changes would also enable disability service providers to move quickly to redeploy staff to other settings, such as individual homes or adult foster-care facilities, to reduce the possibility that they will be left without care or supervision, officials said.

"This is absolutely critical," Sen. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, chairman of the Senate Human Services Reform Finance and Policy Committee, said in an interview Tuesday. "If these regulatory barriers are not removed, someone will very likely die, and not because of COVID-19, but because of people not being served."

About 30,000 adult Minnesotans with disabilities attend centers during the day where they receive a wide range of services, including vocational training, physical and mental health therapy and daily life skills training. In many smaller towns, these centers are among the only options for community engagement and employment for adults with disabilities.

People with a range of disabilities — including Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, and autism spectrum disorder — attend these programs during the day. However, as of Tuesday afternoon, at least a dozen of these day activity centers have announced they were temporarily shutting their doors because of new federal guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommending no gatherings of 50 people or more over the next eight weeks to mitigate the spread of the virus.

The closures have already affected more than 3,500 adults with disabilities across the state, from Brooklyn Park to St. Cloud, say provider organizations.

Rise, a Spring Lake Park-based nonprofit that supports people with disabilities, announced that it will close its adult day programs in Fridley, Mounds View, Maplewood and Coon Rapids from Wednesday through April 1, a move that will disrupt the lives of about 700 of its adult clients. MSS, a large provider in St. Paul, also moved to close six day-activity centers over the same period in the Twin Cities metro area that together serve about 500 people, according to an announcement.

Both Rise and MSS said they would be working with families, case managers, group homes and guardians to develop plans that will enable their clients to be safe at home during the day.

"It is a dire emergency," said Julie Johnson, chief executive of MSS and president of the Minnesota Organization for Habilitation and Rehabilitation (MOHR), which represents just over 100 day service providers statewide. "Unless we choose to work outside our licensing rules, we don't really have an avenue to help keep people safe. … We needed to have these [regulatory relief measures] in place last week."

Disability service providers say state licensing rules limit their flexibility to respond to the pandemic. For instance, nonprofits that provide day and employment services would like to send staff to care for their clients in other settings, such as four-bedroom group homes. However, licensure is site specific: Any redeployed staff would have to undergo new background studies and training, which can take weeks, providers say.

Even before the coronavirus spread to Minnesota, adult foster-care facilities and home care agencies across the state were struggling with a shortage of support staff. Unless licensing rules are relaxed, group homes will face the challenge of having to hire extra staff for thousands of people who are now stuck at home during the day. Day activity centers are in the best position to provide those in-home services, say providers, because they already know the clients and their specific disabilities.

In legislation introduced Monday, DHS officials are seeking "temporary emergency authority" to waive or modify certain statutes to maintain access to services during the COVID-19 outbreak. For example, DHS is looking for modifications in state licensing law that would allow individuals who have completed background studies with one provider, such as a day activity center, to work at another provider for workplace flexibility. The agency also wants to expand the capacity of providers by waiving limits on the number of people who can live in foster care and other residential settings, under the DHS proposals.

Abeler said he expects legislation granting regulatory relief to disability service providers to be passed by the end of this week.

"The impact of this virus on the disabled in Minnesota could be immense," warned Sue Schettle, chief executive of the Association of Residential Resources in Minnesota (ARRM), a trade association representing 200 providers, in a letter Sunday to the heads of the state legislative committees that oversee disability services. "Imagine what would happen if a day training and habilitative program suddenly shuts down due to the virus and is no longer available to support hundreds of people with disabilities during the day," Schettle said.

Chris Serres • 612-673-4308

Twitter: @chrisserres