As the number of confirmed cases continues to rise daily in Minnesota, Gov. Tim Walz is getting closer to a decision on a “shelter-in-place” order that could further restrict Minnesotans’ travel outside their homes.
“How do you make this decision? It certainly needs to be predicated on the best science. Some of it’s going to be extrapolating from what’s happened in other states to determine if that’s the time,” Walz said Friday, noting that Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker gave the order Friday for residents to stay at home.
There is not a checklist guiding when to pull the trigger on shelter in place, Walz said, but as he weighs that decision he is monitoring data on community spread, the number of patients coming into hospitals and hospitals’ supplies of masks and equipment.
Walz’s remarks came as he issued a trio of executive orders expanding the authority of the Department of Human Services (DHS) while taking aim at the growing threat of scams and price gouging of essential goods during the COVID-19 emergency.
Friday’s executive orders were the latest in a series that the Democratic governor has issued since declaring a “peacetime emergency” to handle the outbreak, including closing schools, bars and restaurants.
One of the new orders came in response to growing reports of price gouging nationwide, including exorbitant prices for food and hygiene and cleaning products. Two other executive orders Walz issued Friday aim to loosen regulations around DHS programs to ensure that services are available to Minnesotans in need.
While some leading Republicans have questioned Walz’s business closings, his orders on health and human services appeared to receive bipartisan support.
One change would give the DHS commissioner the power to waive a wide range of requirements for services, such as in-person assessments and work or community engagement requirements. Another order allows the department to seek federal authority to waive or change federal requirements for programs, including the Minnesota Family Investment Program, Medical Assistance and MinnesotaCare.
Two Senate Republicans who lead committees on health and human services applauded that action Friday, as did House Democrats.
“Minnesotans who depend on federal and state assistance can rest assured they will be cared for during the COVID pandemic. Continuity of care and support is especially important for many who are in vulnerable and high-risk situations,” Sen. Michelle Benson, R-Ham Lake, said in a statement.
But while Walz’s order strengthening DHS received no pushback, his decisions to shutter public eateries has. Some GOP leaders also have begun to express general unease with the breadth of his actions on COVID-19, most of which have taken place while the Legislature is recessed to limit the spread of the coronavirus.
Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, said he wants more conversation with the House and Senate moving forward.
“The decisions without consultation, at least, with the Republicans in the Senate, I think is a big deal. He has tremendous powers he has invoked and I want to make sure they are focused on COVID-19,” Gazelka told MPR News on Friday.
Gazelka added he doesn’t want to second-guess the governor, but he wants to be able to “raise flags of caution” if something needs to be looked into deeper. Gazelka also said if the situation goes on past the end of the regular legislative session on May 18, lawmakers should extend their work in a special session.
Walz said he understands some of the lawmakers’ concerns.
“Some of the decisions that are made may seem incredibly counterintuitive,” Walz said, citing the closure of small businesses in rural counties that don’t have confirmed cases. But he noted access to health care resources is more limited in rural communities, and the population is older. “The protocols that are put in place are based on the best data and the best practices possible,” he said.
While Walz’s executive orders aren’t going through a legislative process, they do need to be approved by the state’s Executive Council, made up of Walz and Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan, along with the three other constitutional officers — the secretary of state, attorney general and state auditor.
That group, all Democrats, met Friday and signed off on the latest three orders. Despite concerns about the latitude granted to the governor, Walz is poised to continue to act on a number of other issues.
He said Friday that he intends to follow the federal government’s lead in allowing taxpayers to delay filings and payment until July 15 without penalty. He also is considering whether malls should close, though he noted some malls include pharmacies that their communities need. Walz also said he is looking into allowing restaurants to make alcohol part of takeout orders.
Staff writer Briana Bierschbach contributed to this report.