The state and federal Capitols are effectively closed to the public. Town halls are off the table. Public hearings and in-person meetings with lawmakers are significantly curtailed. With coronavirus restrictions sweeping the nation, some Minnesotans may wonder how to stay in touch with elected officials working to address the crisis.
The good news is lawmakers say offices remain open — at least virtually — to all Minnesotans. Many are also turning to conference calls, video streams and social media to share updates and answer questions about a rapidly changing situation. Here's a look at options Minnesotans have for communicating with state and federal officials during this time of social distancing.
Pick up the phone (or laptop)
Lawmakers and their staff may not be at their desks, but they are still processing and responding to constituent concerns, especially when it comes to coronavirus. U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar's office says it has seen an uptick in calls already, leading staff to help Minnesotans "navigate healthcare, unemployment, and any housing needs that may arise." The office is also working with Minnesotans trying to come home from overseas.
Other members of the congressional delegation, including GOP Rep. Tom Emmer and DFL Rep. Dean Phillips, are also encouraging Minnesotans to reach out by phone or e-mail.
"It's important we all find creative ways to adapt during this critical time," Phillips said in a statement announcing that staff will respond to voice mails within 24 hours.
State lawmakers are taking a similar approach. Staff for both chambers continue to check and respond to constituent concerns from home. And top legislators say they will remain available remotely.
"Thankfully technology makes me available to the public without putting anyone at risk," said Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake. "Our phones are still available, voice mails will be answered. You can send us e-mail, you can text me. I'll be on Facebook and I'll be on Twitter and I think that's what you'll find from all the legislators."
Watch for tele-town halls.
Tele-town halls, which allow thousands of people to listen in via a conference line, were already a popular tool for lawmakers looking to communicate with constituents when they were stuck in Washington. Now, some lawmakers are using the technology to share information about the pandemic.
Phillips, who represents the western Twin Cities suburbs, partnered with U.S. Sen. Tina Smith to host a coronavirus briefing call with Minnesotans last week. More than 8,000 people tuned in via phone or online audio stream to hear lawmakers and public health experts answer worried questions about the virus. Topics ranged from handling packages (wash your hands after you open mail, an epidemiologist urged) to potential congressional action to boost the cratering economy. DFL Rep. Angie Craig, whose district covers all or part of six south metro counties, held a call of her own, circulating a Google form to collect constituent questions and concerns ahead of the call.
Some offices are also hosting conference calls targeting specific groups hit by the crisis. On Tuesday, Republican Rep. Pete Stauber held a call with veteran service officers from across his sprawling northern Minnesota district. Rep. Jim Hagedorn is taking a similar approach in his Southern Minnesota district, attending virtual meetings with farmers, small business owners and other impacted residents.
Get social (media)
Virtually all lawmakers are using social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, to provide fast updates to the public.
Rep. Ilhan Omar, a prolific social media user, has been hosting live video updates on Instagram and tweeting in Somali to reach a range of residents of her diverse Minneapolis district. "We're trying to use every tool in the toolbox to communicate with people," a spokesman said.
Stauber joined local officials in Duluth for a Monday briefing that was streamed live on Facebook. On the state level, DFL Sen. Matt Little answered questions during a Facebook livestream, posting links to resources such as signing up for unemployment benefits in the comments field. The Lakeville Democrat tweeted that his Twitter direct messages are open for constituents as well.
Sign up for e-mail updates
Many elected officials send occasional e-mail newsletter to constituents, providing status updates on key legislation, recaps of meetings with groups from the district and notices of upcoming events. Given the seriousness of the crisis, those messages are now largely focused on the coronavirus. "As our nation continues to combat the spread of COVID-19, I am committed to ensuring you have the information you need to keep you and your family safe," Emmer wrote in one recent update that included links with information on unemployment insurance and educational resources for children home from school.
By last week, all members of the state House Republican Caucus had sent at least one coronavirus update providing information on state action such as school closures and expanded unemployment benefits. Check your representative's website to sign up for their newsletter.
Watch the mailbox and more
Even with the technology, it can prove difficult to reach high risk groups such as elderly Minnesotans less likely to use online platforms. Phillips' office said he reached out to thousands of seniors over the weekend with a recorded message informing them about the Monday evening phone briefing. Republican Rep. Tom Emmer is sending print mail and running radio ads across his district, in addition to sending e-mails and social posts.
Rural areas also present unique challenges. DFL Rep. Collin Peterson, who represents a massive swath of western Minnesota, is having conversations with staff about the best strategies for reaching constituents with updates.
"It's a huge district, we've been working with that all along. Trying to keep up is one thing, but there's just a new barrage of stuff every day," said Sue Dieter, a spokeswoman for Peterson. "We're trying to assess what's already being done. It's changing so fast."