The top-ranking Republican in the Minnesota Legislature on Thursday came out against Gov. Tim Walz's decision to extend the state's stay-at-home order amid mounting GOP pushback to the DFL governor's handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
"I do not approve of the Governor's unilateral decision to continue the order to shelter at home until May 4th," Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka tweeted Thursday. "We have to get on with our lives."
The tweet marked a shift in tone for the East Gull Lake Republican. While he previously expressed "grave concerns" about the original order, he has largely refrained from publicly criticizing the governor as they work together on COVID-19 response legislation. Just 24 hours earlier, Gazelka had called Walz's move to allow more businesses to operate under the revised order "welcome news."
Walz defended his decision to extend the order Thursday, saying it was based on data and guidance from health experts. He said the revised order, which allows about 80% of Minnesotans to continue to work, has been criticized by others as too lax. He also signaled this week that his team is looking at relaxing some business closures in stages.
"My heart breaks for the people who are worried for their economic well-being, but you can't get frustrated, go on a hunch and throw caution to the wind and pretend like our neighbors' lives are somehow disposable," Walz said.
Gazelka's statement comes amid growing pushback from state Republicans, who question the governor's use of executive power and whether the actions meant to curb the fast spread of the virus are merited and worth the economic toll.
"It is past time to allow reopening of businesses that are clearly Covid-safe," tweeted Sen. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka. "Many should have never been closed in the first place. Tragically some of those are gone for good. Unnecessary collateral damage in the Covid War."
Sen. Andrew Mathews, R-Princeton, questioned why "major stores like Walmart" remain open while smaller companies that feel they can operate safely are closed, saying the "blanket order does not fit our largely rural state."
"Let business owners do the planning," he said. "If we wait for the state to micromanage each industry, many businesses will run out of time."
Beyond the economic impacts, some Minnesota Republicans are questioning the model the state is using to project illness and death and, in some cases, the severity of the outbreak itself. In a second tweet Thursday, Gazelka noted that the state's estimates plan for 5,000 ICU cases at the pandemic's peak, a figure higher than New York, an epicenter of the outbreak, is seeing today. "We are ready for the surge now," he wrote. "Why shut MN business down for a NY sized surge?"
Walz said while he hopes he is wrong about the need for beds in Minnesota, "all the data shows me I cannot risk that at this time."
"I will certainly change course of action based on the facts, but the facts don't support taking it off right now," he said of the stay-at-home order. "No one else is doing that and no one else is suggesting we do that."
Questions about the model have prompted calls for more transparency on the assumptions and data used for the state's projections. House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, on Thursday urged state officials to make that information public.
"Every day legislators are fielding dozens of calls from families and business owners whose lives have been turned upside down as a result of decisions based on modeling data that has not yet been released to the public," he said. "It would be helpful for Minnesotans to see for themselves the data informing the governor's executive orders — not just a few summary slides."
Minnesota Department of Health officials and University of Minnesota researchers plan to address some of those questions on Friday, as they provide a closer look at the model the state is using to project potential illness and death due to COVID-19. But criticism and public pressure to lift the order and address the economic impact of the order may grow louder when the Legislature resumes work on Tuesday.
Walz on Thursday applauded leaders in the politically divided Legislature for working collaboratively to address the crisis so far. He dismissed concerns that dissenting opinions could make those efforts more difficult, saying talks on what to include in the next response package have continued to be productive.