Minnesota will start what could be called a soft reopening of its economy at the stroke of midnight Monday. For the first time in months, a majority of businesses in the state will be open for more than curbside service.
The exceptions for now include high-touch businesses such as hair salons, bars and restaurants. Their reopening starts June 1, though it will come with occupancy and other restraints to stem the spread of COVID-19.
If all this lacks the high drama of states that have “flipped the switch” and declared a sudden reopening, it’s by design. Minnesota’s phased strategy reflects caution, careful planning and watchful observation of how each step has gone and will go. It is thoughtful, data-driven and, unlike some states, remarkably bipartisan.
That last part is important. When Democratic Gov. Tim Walz announced the easing, it was quickly followed by Republican Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka’s praise of the plan as “moving in the right direction.” The two have conferred daily, along with other leaders, to produce a fairly unified front that is in stark contrast to states where governors are being sued by their legislatures, or Wisconsin, where extreme partisanship ended with the courts voiding restrictions and creating a free-for-all.
The months ahead will not be easy. Even with all the earlier restrictions, Minnesota slowed — but was unable to stop — the spread. But those months bought the state time to build hospital capacity. That ensures that if you fall ill, there is a hospital bed and all the resources needed to help you recover.
The battle now is to maintain that margin. “These have been hard decisions,” Walz told an editorial writer late last week. “We know that as we have more social interaction, more people will get sick.” Every action the state is taking, he said, is guided by what will slow the pace.
In facing the spike that is likely to come, bear in mind that most cases are mild and most deaths have been among the elderly. But this also is a disease that can ravage even previously healthy individuals, and can inflict lasting damage, particularly among those with underlying conditions, which includes 6 in 10 Americans.
“This is a serious virus,” Gazelka told an editorial writer. “There has never been a sense from the governor or me that we would completely stop this. The governor and I am joining together to ask people to work together on managing this.”
In other words, whether the state can maintain this new phase depends in part on each of us, on our collective efforts to avoid a dangerous backsliding.
Much depends on personal responsibility and ethical business practices. Not just individual physical health, but the state’s economic health. Responding to the virus has exhausted Minnesota’s once-healthy budget reserve and raced through its unemployment funds.
There is more to come. Walz, in his editorial interview, said he is strongly looking at an approach similar to Pennsylvania’s, which tailors additional steps in the reopening process to the metrics of individual counties.
“We know there is lower density in parts of the state and that works in their favor,” Walz said. “We also know they don’t have as much hospital capacity.” While he has not formally adopted the Pennsylvania approach, Minnesota already has a “dial-back dashboard” that could be used to achieve similar flexibility here. Gazelka said he’s also interested in the Pennsylvania plan.
Even with that approach, Minnesota will be increasingly depending on individuals, as they become more active in their communities, to practice social distancing and wear face coverings. The businesses that are being given more flexibility should follow the state’s guidelines and develop strategies for keeping their employees and customers safe.
The elderly and those with underlying conditions need to take special precautions, and the state must continue to focus on adequate testing and strategies to mitigate outbreaks in long-term care facilities. And Minnesotans who do become ill, even as the state opens back up, will still need to limit their exposure to others until they can be diagnosed.
We’re on a bit of a shot clock here. Another wave in the outbreak could be coming this fall — a season that usually arrives right on time in this state. President Donald Trump’s announcement of an all-out effort to develop a vaccine later this year is welcome, but remains a goal, not a given. Minnesota is building a long-term strategy.
It’s up to all of us to help make it work.