Legislative leaders in St. Paul are readying for Wednesday’s expected extension of peacetime emergency powers that have enabled Gov. Tim Walz to temporarily close schools, shutter businesses and order residents to stay home unless necessary.
Walz administration officials remained tight-lipped Tuesday about the announcement as the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases and fatalities in Minnesota continued to rise. But leaders in both parties in the Capitol said they fully expect the governor to extend the emergency powers he has wielded since the pandemic began to ramp up in March.
A 30-day extension to June 12 would allow Walz to maintain or modify his current stay-at-home order and business closings, which otherwise would expire on Monday. The DFL governor has gradually dialed back his restrictions on businesses deemed essential, and further changes could be announced later this week.
Walz’s first stay-at-home order in March exempted 78% of jobs deemed essential. By last week, when he lifted restrictions on elective surgeries, roughly 91% of workers could remain on their jobs, he said. Some workers, including health care workers, might be furloughed from critical industries, however, because of the economic downturn.
Facing a Wednesday expiration date for his current state of emergency, Walz has felt increasing pressure from Republicans in the Legislature to end his unilateral powers and allow more businesses to reopen so long as they follow state and federal safety and social distancing guidelines.
Last week, Walz hinted that the peacetime emergency would probably be extended.
“I think it more than likely that we will at this time,” Walz said on May 5.
Minnesota Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm declined to comment Tuesday on the timing of announcements about the peacetime emergency or the stay-at-home order.
But she echoed what Walz has said previously when asked about a widespread opening of businesses and activities.
“As we start to see more interactions in the community and more contacts among people it is quite natural to expect … that we will see increased cases,” Malcolm said. “Our whole goal is to see that happen in a way that is measured and in a way that the health care system is prepared to respond to.”
State officials said a new public health model developed by researchers at the University of Minnesota will be one factor in helping them evaluate the potential impact of changes in policy and that they hope to get the results within the next few days.
“The university folks are making sure that that new run is available to the governor,” Malcolm said.
Powers would extend session
Walz’s decision comes as public health experts warn against relaxing stay-at-home orders too quickly, even as President Donald Trump urges governors to open up and kick-start a sputtering economy.
Among the most prominent voices is Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, who warned Congress on Tuesday of “really serious” consequences of death and economic damage if authorities lift their coronavirus measures prematurely.
Fauci expressed sympathy for the plight of Jomari de Jesus, an uninsured worker at a turkey processing plant in Willmar, Minn., who has tested positive for COVID-19. In response to a question from Minnesota Sen. Tina Smith seeking guidance, Fauci said companies have a “moral responsibility” to protect workers like de Jesus, who works for a contractor that cleans a Jennie-O processing plant and was profiled Sunday in the Star Tribune.
“It would seem if you want to keep … plants open you’ve really got to provide the optimum degree of protection for the workers involved, the ability to allow them to go to work safely, and if and when individuals get infected to immediately be able to get them out and give them the proper care,” Fauci said.
In St. Paul, the GOP-led Senate passed legislation Monday to reopen businesses in the state, and Republicans in the House have warned that they have enough votes to block a massive public works bonding bill unless Walz ends the peacetime emergency.
The deadline comes five days ahead of the Legislature’s scheduled adjournment date on Monday. According to the law, after lawmakers go home for the year, they are automatically called back into session if the governor extends a state of peacetime emergency for another 30 days. When they come back, they can reject the extension, but they don’t have to cast a ballot to approve it.
The expectation of a special session in June has thrown open the bonding bill and several other deals lawmakers had been expected to conclude in the waning days of the Legislature. Other pieces of unfinished business include raises for state government workers, pandemic aid, and an economic relief package to help the state recover from the coronavirus emergency.
“I’m hopeful we’ll get it done, but with the June 12 date, if the governor wants to extend his emergency powers we’re automatically back into a special session,” Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, said in an interview last week. “That makes this year more different than any year. Normally in a special session a leader signs off on what it includes, under this scenario that would be different, so it’s going to be a unique year.”
Cases still climbing
House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, said she expects the governor will extend the state of peacetime emergency. Models done around the country showing the coronavirus’s progression make it clear the state hasn’t reached the peak of its surge yet, she said, and the number of cases in Minnesota is increasing. There are also significant emergencies the governor needs to deal with in long-term care and the meatpacking industry, Hortman added.
Democrats also argue for the flexibility Walz needs as the virus continues its spread in Minnesota.
“The governor and his administration are doing a phenomenal job managing this emergency,” Hortman said. “And since he has had those peacetime emergency powers activated, since March 13, he has done a number of things at a level of speed that the Legislature doesn’t have.”
But House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said the need for a peacetime emergency is over.
“While it certainly was appropriate at the time he did it, the time for needing that swift emergency action is passed,” he said. “Now we’re at the point we can be a little more thoughtful and deliberative and inclusive in the decisionmaking process.”
Daudt said while he wants to see a bonding bill come together, his caucus is holding firm on its position to withhold votes on that package until after the peacetime emergency is over. He pointed to previously released epidemiological models showing similar results between the current strategy and a more targeted approach that focuses on isolating only the elderly and high risk.
“I want us to follow data,” Daudt said. “I think at some point it appears the governor made a switch from making sure we controlled the spread so it spread more slowly and protected our high-risk and older people, [to] a strategy to prevent all Minnesotans from getting COVID.”
With 695 new confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 23 additional deaths reported Tuesday, the state has seen 12,494 infections and 614 deaths, including 501 among residents of nursing homes and assisted living facilities.
Staff writers Jessie Van Berkel and Glenn Howatt contributed to this report.