Two weeks ahead of an election that could decide control of the Minnesota Legislature, state GOP leaders pledged Monday to roll back Gov. Tim Walz's COVID-19 regulations if voters give them majorities in both houses.

A campaign-themed "Contract to Open Up Minnesota" came as GOP legislators have been trying for months to rescind emergency powers the Democratic governor has used to respond to the pandemic. They are aiming to maintain their three-seat majority in the state Senate and overcome the DFL's 16-seat majority in the House, which has thwarted several GOP attempts to end Walz's seven-month state of emergency.

"We trust the people of Minnesota to keep safe and keep others safe," said Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, arguing that health and safety protocols such as limiting restaurant seating and wearing masks should be voluntary, not state-mandated. He also called for cutting other government regulations and returning more students to in-school education.

The Minnesota Republicans' vow to loosen state COVID-19 restrictions came on the same day that President Donald Trump sharply criticized Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious disease expert, referring to him as a "disaster" in a call with campaign staff and reporters. "People are tired of COVID," the president said. "People are tired of hearing Fauci and all these idiots."

At recent rallies in Iowa and Wisconsin, Trump also has told crowds that states need to reopen and get kids back in school.

Meanwhile, COVID-19 cases have surged in the Midwest, sweeping rural communities that previously had not seen high infection rates. The Dakotas, which Minnesota Republicans have praised for their light-handed approach to the pandemic, have the highest case rates in the nation.

Wisconsin also has one of the highest rates. A judge there reinstated an order Monday limiting indoor venues to 25% of capacity, reversing a previous court decision that lifted the state restrictions.

Walz has limited indoor capacity to 50% in places like bars, restaurants and places of worship. Gazelka said customers and business owners would take precautions they feel are appropriate without government limits.

While Gazelka has said current conditions no longer constitute an emergency, state officials say it is too soon to permit large gatherings of people without restrictions.

"While the desire is certainly to see things open up … that is all in the context of 'does the virus allow it?' " Minnesota Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said during a briefing Monday.

"We are seeing hospitalizations increase, we are seeing, unfortunately, mortality rates increase," she said. "All of these indicators are going in the wrong direction."

The Minnesota Department of Health on Monday announced 1,632 newly reported cases in the state and five more deaths, bringing the total this year to 2,239.

"If you test a lot more, you're going to get a lot more people that have the virus," Gazelka said. He focused on the death data and said five deaths in a day "is a low number" for COVID-19.

Ahead of the Republican news conference, Gazelka tweeted a New York Post story noting that COVID-19 deaths aren't dramatically higher than deaths during the particularly bad flu season in 2017-18.

However, state Health Department data show 435 flu deaths in Minnesota that season.

Gazelka and House GOP Minority Leader Kurt Daudt stressed that more schools need to return to in-person learning. They said it can be done safely since children in schools are not spreading the virus.

"Every student should have a right to be in a classroom," Daudt said, adding that he wants to see all school sports and activities resume with spectators back in the stands.

The state has allowed local district or charter school officials to decide whether to hold classes in person, via distance learning or as a hybrid model. But schools need to follow state guidance for operations.

Gazelka said he also wants local school officials making the call about how to operate but believes the requirements the Walz administration is providing are too strict.

DFL Party Chairman Ken Martin blasted the GOP plan. "If Republicans win in 15 days, COVID-19 cases will spike, hospitals will be overwhelmed, and more Minnesotans will lose their lives to the coronavirus," Martin said in a statement.

Staff writer Glenn Howatt contributed to this report.

Jessie Van Berkel • 651-925-5044