Gov. Tim Walz said Wednesday that he will allow stores to reopen and let Minnesotans leave the house more, while leaving in place for now restrictions for bars, restaurants, theaters, hair salons and other businesses where people must be in close contact.
The policy changes, delivered in a livestreamed address, means many small businesses and retailers can open their doors to customers Monday, as long as they have a plan to safeguard employees and customers through social distancing.
Bars, restaurants, barbershops and salons could open as early as June 1 if they meet safe opening plans that will be devised later this month by state health officials.
“The stay-at-home order is expiring and the dials are turning, but that doesn’t mean we are carefree and can return to the way things were,” Walz said. “It means we have to stay safe, take care, care for our own health and care for our neighbor.”
It’s a significant step in the governor’s response to the virus, loosening a stay-at-home order after nearly two months of restrictions meant to slow the spread of the coronavirus. But it’s not a wholesale reopening of the state.
Schools are already closed for the rest of the academic year, and a separate order closing events and businesses where people are in close contact will continue, as will restrictions on other public spaces and large religious services. Anyone who can work from home must, and gatherings — including those at churches, mosques and synagogues — must not exceed 10 people.
And while the governor will open retail stores and other Main Street businesses, their social distancing plans require them to operate at a maximum of 50% occupancy.
Walz also wants the elderly and those with underlying medical conditions that leave them at higher risk of severe illness to continue to stay home.
The new strategy is being dubbed “Stay Safe MN.” The current stay-at-home order — an extreme form of social distancing — was put in place March 28 while the state worked to increase hospital bed capacity and stockpiles of ventilators and personal protective equipment.
Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, expressed support for the governor’s announcement, suggesting Walz had listened to GOP lawmakers and other critics pressing him to reopen more businesses,
“We’re moving in the right direction,” Gazelka said in a video released during Walz’s address. “This is really good news. I’m glad that he listened to us and I feel like we led the way. Now it’s up to us, you and me, that we practice safe distancing. I have every confidence we’re going to be able to do it. Minnesota is back on track.”
While officials have said the shutdowns delayed the peak of cases in Minnesota, new state modeling released hours before Walz’s address showed social distancing didn’t reduce face-to-face contact and disease transmission as much as anticipated.
Walz also extended for another 30 days a peacetime state of emergency that was set to expire Wednesday. The emergency powers have enabled him to take sweeping executive action such as the stay-at-home order and closing schools, bars and restaurants.
The use of those powers to respond to the crisis has divided top lawmakers at the Capitol. Republicans, frustrated with what they see as an overreliance on unilateral action, have urged the governor to end the state of emergency and work directly with the Legislature. Democrats say emergency powers, which have been enacted in all 50 states since the pandemic began, remain necessary in a fast-changing situation.
“There is still an emergency, and the key reason … is the executive has to be able to act quickly to deal with threats to human life and the kinds of things where you need a really fast response,” said House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park.
Walz’s dialed-back strategy comes amid an increasingly partisan national debate about protecting public health and reopening the economy, as lawmakers in Washington and Minnesota scramble to keep up with the rapidly spreading virus.
Public health experts have cautioned against relaxing stay-at-home orders too quickly, saying such moves could lead to fresh flare-ups. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, told Congress on Tuesday that premature lifting of coronavirus measures could lead to “really serious” consequences, including more death and economic damage.
A similar stay-at-home order in Wisconsin was in place until it was struck down Wednesday by the state’s Supreme Court. Michigan is keeping restrictions on movement in place at least until May 28. Officials in Los Angeles County in California expect a stay-at-home order to remain in place through the summer.
Walz’s address came hours after state health officials announced 24 more deaths from COVID-19, bringing the statewide toll to 638. The count of confirmed cases grew to 12,917 in Minnesota.
In his address, Walz suggested that a new influx of cases or other health indicators could trigger a decision to reimpose restrictions to combat the virus. “We must keep this virus at a simmer and not a boil,” Walz said.
Critics of the shutdowns have warned of dire economic damage. More than a half million Minnesotans have applied for unemployment since Walz’s original stay-at-home order in March. At the same time, the state has authorized a growing number of sectors to resume work. By last week, officials estimated that roughly 91% of workers could remain on their jobs.
The Department of Employment and Economic Development estimates that Walz’s new order will enable up to 37,000 more workers to safely return to work over the next several weeks.
Under Walz’s new order, state officials are expected to develop recommendations by May 20 to set the stage for more businesses to reopen with social distancing. Frequent hand-washing and use of masks will be strongly encouraged.
Representatives of the hardest-hit industries, along with top GOP lawmakers, have appealed to the governor to allow those establishments to reopen as long as they can follow social distancing guidelines. A lack of action, they say, would lead to permanent closures and lasting consequences for the state’s economy. Some have vowed to defy orders to remain closed.
Minnesota Chamber of Commerce President Doug Loon welcomed Walz’s move to partly reopen the economy. “Those who have not yet opened their physical doors have been taking responsible steps to design safe work environments and inspire consumer confidence,” he said.
Labor leaders say it will be incumbent upon companies to protect their workers. “The simple truth is that our economy cannot rebound unless employers are held accountable to implement safety measures to protect both workers and public health,” said Minnesota AFL-CIO President Bill McCarthy. “Failing to do so would result in more workers falling sick and even more economic damage.”
Walz also issued an executive order Wednesday protecting employees from discrimination or retaliation if they raise concerns about workplace safety.
The debate over the closures had intensified at the State Capitol in recent days as lawmakers scramble to reach accords on virus response measures before an adjournment deadline Monday. The GOP-led Senate recently approved a measure authorizing businesses to reopen, while the GOP minority in the House, frustrated with the governor’s use of executive power, has vowed to block a massive public construction borrowing bill until Walz ends the peacetime state of emergency.
Even with the looming legislative deadline, some of those fights may stretch into the summer. While the Legislature must adjourn Monday, an extension of the peacetime emergency until June 12 increases the likelihood that legislators will return to the Capitol this summer.
Under state law, legislators would be automatically called back into session next month if the governor extends a state of peacetime emergency for another 30 days. At that point, they could end an extension only if both chambers voted to reject it.
Staff writer Jessie Van Berkel contributed to this report.