Gov. Tim Walz on COVID-19, emergency power, Floyd's killing and more

Gov. Walz announces plans for Minnesota schools for 2020-21 school year.
Gov. Tim Walz takes part in a news conference to announce the learning plan for Minnesota schools at TPT's St. Paul studio on July 30.
Aaron Lavinsky | Star Tribune via AP file

The Minnesota Legislature is back in special session as Gov. Tim Walz once again extended his peacetime emergency by 30 more days. The governor first invoked the emergency power in March to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic when the virus started to hit Minnesota. 

Walz said he is using the emergency authority to procure supplies quicker, to carry out a mask mandate, to foster an expansion of coronavirus testing and to head off evictions for those in financial distress amid the pandemic. Republicans argue that the emergency has gone on too long, saying the Legislature needs to again be on equal footing with the governor. The GOP-controlled Senate is expected to vote to end the emergency power, while the DFL-led House supports the extension during this special session.

Six months after Walz first declared the peacetime emergency, where is Minnesota in the response to the pandemic and what will the next few months bring? On this week’s Politics Friday, MPR News host Mike Mulcahy talked with Walz, discussing some of the pressing issues in Minnesota and taking listener questions from around the state. 

Use the audio player above to listen to the program. The following interview transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Back in March and April, the goal of the peacetime emergency was to give the state time to build reserves and protective equipment, hospital space, ICU intensive care capacity. What's the goal of the emergency action now?

When COVID-19 started emerging — and I think in early January, many of us were hearing it for the first time — what we knew about it was relatively limited. We didn't know exactly the way transmission happened. But we witnessed in Italy, in China, and then in New York City just how quickly it could overwhelm the health care system. So we took those precautions to make sure that if folks did get COVID-19 that they would be cared for.

But as this started to evolve, what we understood was [that] it was striking more people. And that the goal — both here, states across the country and then internationally — was to slow the spread by using what we were learning about COVID-19, by washing hands, social distancing, wearing masks, limiting indoor interactions.

Our goal remains the same: To protect the health and welfare of Minnesotans to use the best health data, that we have to strike a proper balance to make sure that economic activities that can be done safely, education of our children can be done safely. 

Minnesota is a bit of an island right now. The states around us have what Dr. [Deborah] Birx called “uncontrolled spread.” We are not at that point. And that's because Minnesotans have — for the most part — done what they needed to do to slow it.

How will you decide when it's time to end the emergency?

Very early on, we set dial-back measures based on the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] and working with Mayo Clinic and some of the leading institutes around health, to try to put out some metrics. One of the things we measure is positivity rate. 

If you get above 5 percent, it starts to be worried because this thing exponentially grows; you get above 10 percent, and it becomes uncontrollable. Minnesota has hovered around 5 percent for the better part of the last two months.

The next thing is how many tests we’re able to administer. We have to be able to administer as a minimum 100 tests per 10,000 and we're hovering closer to 200 on that so we're pretty solid there. New cases per 100,000 [residents], we’re about 12.4.

Community spread, and this is the real tricky one. If you get above 20 percent, it starts to become a real problem. That means people getting it from, they don't know where. It makes it hard to trace exactly where it came from. We’re at 34 percent there, and that's somewhat troubling. And then, of course, hospitalizations. You get above four, you start to look at it with caution. We’re at about 5.5.

So those are measures that we use. And based on all the best health data, if we could get those below those numbers where they're at, transmission of this slows dramatically. And then you just take basic steps of washing your hands, wearing the mask when you’re around people, and you should be able to carry on a lot of these activities.

But again, those who claim that you just open up and then everything will work out, that is the surest way to close down businesses. It's the surest way that spread will go.

Republicans in the Legislature say there's no need to extend your emergency powers and that Minnesotans should be trusted to decide for themselves what steps to take to prevent the spread of the virus. How do you respond to that?

Certainly, I think Minnesotans can be trusted. But it's more than that. And we've seen this with the mask of people saying, you know, I feel like it's my right not to do this, which is one thing and we certainly protect our individual freedoms in this country and stand by them. But that has a major impact. 

The [Lyon County] wedding is a great example. I want to be clear, not being able to hold a wedding is horrific for people. These are life events that really matter. We're not doing this because we don't want to see people enjoy life. We're doing it because we know that if you don't put these measures in place, [an outbreak] will happen.

Listener question: President Trump is going to hold a rally in Minnesota next week. And based on past rallies and other states, it’s likely that few attendees will wear a mask and follow social distancing rules. How will the state enforce the mask mandate at such a rally? ~ Sarah of Rockford, Minn.

We are asking the administration will continue to ask to follow the rules that every Minnesotan is following. These are not arbitrary. They're actually the rules that are put out by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention that the president oversees. States have the authority to put these in. 

And we're going to ask people to follow them — not because we're trying to limit their personal freedoms, but because we're trying to protect our neighbors and make sure that we don't spread COVID-19. This is about caring for our neighbors. This is about following science and process. 

I understand very clearly: if I put a mass mandate out, we don't have enough people to enforce that everywhere — just like so many things, we don't have enough State Patrol to enforce speeding everywhere, but most people follow the law because they don't want to kill their neighbors. And our hope would be that people who attend this rally — and I encourage them to do so. If you're a supporter of the president, attend if that works, but just follow the rules that we have and there are ample opportunities in outdoor spaces.

Is there any thought to increase the amount of indoor dining that's allowed with the cold weather coming on?

I want to make sure I name it that there had been no industry hit harder during this than the hospitality industry. Restaurants, bars, large venue events, musical venues; They have paid a heavy price in this. One of the problems is it's just so dependent on volume. They're exactly the type of environments that show the spread of COVID-19. 

Dr. Birx made the suggestion that we turn back the dial and close more restaurants and bars. We in Minnesota think we're able to manage this with some smart policies on capacity limits, masking and some of those other things. As I said, if we turn the corner on this, if we start to see case positivity rates drop, if we're able to contact-trace and isolate quicker, those are when we can turn the dials to open more. And again, I think the idea that the Republican Senate is making that this is some type of arbitrary decision rather than a decision based on the way the virus is pushing this, that's what's wrong.

But I think it's worth noting that it appears like there are glimmers in data points that show that something is happening that we're doing better, especially when you look to the state surrounding us, much different positivity rates, much different infection rates.

What impact do you think the May 25 killing of George Floyd and the aftermath have had on the state of Minnesota? 

Certainly, the destruction of property in the civil unrest [was] not positive. The conversation, the folks on the street expressing their First Amendment rights and in many cases, their anger at a system that does not serve them well or people of color — that was a positive.

I just want to be very clear that I think a lot of people want the riots to go away. They maybe want the question to go away. I think there's a lot of and I certainly do not ever speak for communities of color, I just relay whereas they speak to me. They feel that we made incremental small changes in a good direction. But there's so much more yet to be done. 

And I am concerned every time the attorney general and the defendants go into court like they are today about what can come out of that because I think the tensions and the underlying systemic issues are still there. I think certainly in Minneapolis, the frayed trust between the police and those that they protect is still there. And we have a long way to go.

You can hear Politics Friday on MPR News at 11 a.m. and 9 p.m. every Friday between now and the election.

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