Minnesota lawmakers agreed Friday to keep the State Capitol open despite growing concerns about the coronavirus outbreak that have led public health officials to recommend canceling public gatherings of 250 people or more.
The decision, following days of behind-the-scenes discussions, will continue public access to the building, with some restrictions. Legislative leaders said it is critical for House and Senate to remain in session to pass legislation addressing the rapid spread of COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. Proposals requiring paid time off and insurance coverage for testing and treatment are among several proposals being considered.
“This is the people’s house, and access to democracy is critical,” Walz said at an afternoon news conference.
The decision came even as Walz declared a “peacetime emergency,” including limiting large gatherings such as concerts, conferences, performances and sporting events.
Lawmakers have been forced to balance their ability to act on legislation and deliver state services with calls to prevent spread of the virus in public places such as the Capitol. House and Senate leaders, meeting privately this week to discuss continuity of government, have weighed plans to limit access to the Capitol or recess for several weeks. Walz urged legislators to take action on proposals directly responding to the spread of the virus now, in case access to the building suddenly needs to be restricted in the weeks and months ahead.
“This institution can move very quickly when the circumstances require,” said House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, noting that committee schedules were likely to scale back to focus on COVID-19 responses and other top priorities. “There’s always a point in the session where everybody has to get very realistic about what we can accomplish, and we’ll get to that point more quickly this session.”
Senate Republican Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, said senators will limit interactions with the public and follow best practices while still continuing their work. “The people deserve to have their voice heard; we are, however, encouraging people to make their voice heard through phone calls, e-mails and small gatherings,” he said.
During session, the Minnesota Capitol complex is home to 201 state legislators, seven Supreme Court justices, Walz and much of his administration, plus thousands of staffers, state employees and lobbyists who work in the area. Droves of tourists file in and out of the historic building each day.
Pressure to restrict access increased this week as Congress shut down the U.S. Capitol to the public until April 1 to limit the spread of the coronavirus.
But even before Friday’s decision, unions and other advocacy groups had already canceled lobby days on the hill.
Curt Yoakum, spokesman with the state Department of Administration, said many organizations are being proactive in rescheduling plans. But, in accordance with guidance from the Minnesota Department of Health, the agency is informing those with permits for events expected to attract 250 people or more that their gathering must be canceled or postponed.
State legislators aren’t holding committee hearings or meetings until Monday. House floor and Senate offices have also been restricted. Political parties and candidates are also taking steps to discourage mass gatherings. Both the DFL and Republican parties have canceled or postponed in-person endorsing conventions scheduled for the weeks ahead.
Walz said his office has moved into a new phase of continuity of operations, keeping him separated more often from Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan in case one or the other gets sick.
“My entire career and life is shaking hands and picking up babies by instinct,” Walz said. “I have to hold myself back.”
The Legislature has a different problem: State law requires any votes the members take to be in person, meaning shutting down the Capitol could make it difficult for them to continue their work and move legislation. Some top lawmakers have floated changing the law to allow for remote votes. But in terms of passing legislation, there’s no work-from-home option for now.
“What we all don’t know is what we don’t know. It’s the unknown,” Gazelka said. “We’re open to moving some of those bills earlier if we can, and that is where we’ll have to work together.”