An estimated 80,000 to 100,000 employees could return to work Monday under a plan by Gov. Tim Walz to dial back the state’s stay-at-home order, which was imposed to reduce or delay the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The move is tailored to manufacturers and offices that don’t have face-to-face interaction with clients and weren’t deemed critical industries that were exempt from the stay-at-home order.
Roughly 20,000 companies in this category now have the option to reopen if they complete and publicize plans to maintain social distancing, worker hygiene and workspace cleanliness, said Steve Grove, commissioner for the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development.
“This is a limited first step in the process of safely reopening some businesses and returning Minnesotans to work,” he said.
The move puts Minnesota in a fairly aggressive posture compared with other states, which have been adhering to the White House’s Open Up America Again Guidelines to pursue only a “phased comeback” once they have seen 14 consecutive days of declines in COVID-19 cases. But Walz and state officials said the decision was science-based and not open-ended like the plan to restart almost all businesses in Georgia that even President Donald Trump has criticized.The move also does not change the rest of the stay-home order, which remains in effect until May 4, or recommendations for people to continue to work from home if they can.
Minnesota appears nowhere near its peak in the COVID-19 pandemic, with the Health Department reporting one-day records Thursday of 21 deaths and 221 new lab-confirmed infections. That brings the totals to 200 deaths and 2,942 cases, and with expanded COVID-19 testing getting underway, health officials expect the case count to surge.
Fewer than 5% of Minnesotans may have been infected so far, but the majority will contract the virus before the end of the pandemic, said Michael Osterholm, director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy. He supports efforts to restart businesses if they can be done while maintaining appropriate social distancing.
“That’s what we have to start working on,” he said, “is how do we live with COVID.”
Walz said it would be arbitrary to reopen businesses based on dates or goals such as 14 days of declining cases. He also stressed that the new state approach of dialing up or down restrictions goes both ways and that businesses need to be prepared for renewed restrictions if new waves of the pandemic emerge. There is particular concern about a second wave that could come in the fall when the influenza season is emerging at the same time.
“We may have to be prepared to move the dial back down again,” Walz said.
Restrictions will not be lifted on retail locations that provide in-store services to customers. Retailers previously deemed to be critical, including grocery stores and pharmacies, are not affected by the new guidelines.
Walz said the new allowance for specific industries was made based on the predictability of movement within their facilities.
Shopping malls with customer interaction and unpredictable movements won’t be able to reopen as quickly — neither will professional sporting events.
“The things we love so much are going to be hard to do,” he said.
While workplace COVID-19 plans are required, businesses do not need to send them to any state agency or gain approval before reopening, Grove said. The state isn’t in a position to review and respond to plans from as many as 20,000 businesses.
The state Department of Labor and Industry will monitor companies to see if they are able to comply and keep workers healthy, through the review of COVID-19-related workers’ compensation claims and new infection data from the Health Department, Labor and Industry Commissioner Nancy Leppink said.
Regulators in that department will step in if it appears certain industries or individual businesses are suffering high illness rates after they reopen.
“All you have to do is lose half of your workforce [to COVID-19] and you’re going to be closing anyway,” she said.
One case in point was the closure of the JBS pork plant in Worthington this week, after an outbreak among workers that has contributed to 196 confirmed infections and one death in Nobles County.
Walz has been aware of the economic pain of the pandemic and the stay-at-home order, which have caused more than 536,000 people to seek state unemployment insurance benefits.
That surpasses the total of such filings for the most recent economic recession in 2009, Grove said.
Appearing at the news conference, Red Wing-based Riedell Skates President Bob Riegelman said the initial restrictions were necessary for safety reasons, and he is ready to restart some operations.
“Now we are extremely excited, almost to tears, that we are taking a cautious step forward to reopen our business,” he said.
The Minnesota Chamber of Commerce endorsed the move, as did Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka,, R-East Gull Lake.
“Everybody wants to know they’re going to be safe,” he said. “But we also know, and I think the governor would agree, that we have to open up the economy as soon as we can and make sure everyone is safe. The fact that there’s more things opening up is good news.”
The stay-at-home order was designed to at least delay the peak of COVID-19 in Minnesota, buying time for hospitals to bulk up on intensive care beds, personal protective equipment and ventilators for patients who develop severe respiratory and breathing problems. As the order is scaled back and testing increases, the state’s case count will surge.
“We’re going to go from 200 new confirmed cases [per day] to potentially 1,000 or more once this starts to go,” Walz said. “The question will be how many ended up in the hospital and when they did, was the care there for them?”
The supply of ventilators has increased, with hospitals reporting they have 3,706 available now — compared with 3,330 on April 6. Supplies of personal protective equipment for doctors and nurses remain a concern, though the state did receive a reserve supply of gowns this week after having none available to ship to hospitals earlier this week.
“We continue to be concerned about a surge in cases overall and hot spots, so a cautious approach is welcomed by the health care community as we work hard to prepare for future cases and provide high-quality care to those currently in our care,” said Dr. Rahul Koranne, president of the Minnesota Hospital Association, in response to the governor’s latest action.
Walz has highlighted how Minnesota companies have pitched in to address the pandemic and earlier this week invited the chief executive of Ecolab to share how companies are using their purchasing power to acquire more hospital supplies.
On Thursday, the governor said Target also has created a temperature-tracking app that businesses could use to monitor workers and intervene if any developed fevers that could suggest COVID-19.
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