Walz advises no gatherings over 250 people as MN COVID-19 cases hit 14

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Gov. Tim Walz speaks during a press conference on Friday, March 13, 2020, announcing “community mitigation strategies” intended to slow the spread of the COVID-19. He's joined by Attorney General Keith Ellison (left).
Evan Frost | MPR News

Updated 2 p.m.

Gov. Tim Walz moved Friday to limit gatherings in Minnesota to fewer than 250 people and declared a “peacetime emergency” to heighten the state’s readiness to respond to COVID-19.

The event-size cap isn’t the kind of strict ban being ordered in some other states. Rather, it is being couched as recommended guidelines from the Minnesota Department of Health. It applies to things such as church services, youth sports events, business conferences and other gatherings.

“This is about reducing a pandemic in society,” Walz told reporters as he announced the measures. “We're not going to have people out there writing tickets" to groups of more than 250 people, but “Minnesotans … need to be prepared for some significant disruptions” over the next few months.

Walz also indicated he expected coronavirus worries would continue for months and that experts anticipate a “spike” in the fall even after the current phase ebbs.

The moves come as 14 Minnesotans have now tested positive for COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the new coronavirus. Anoka, Carver, Dakota, Hennepin, Olmsted, Ramsey, Stearns and Wright counties all have cases now, the state Health Department reported Friday.

Those cases remain travel-related with no evidence of community transmission — although two people are hospitalized and one "unfortunately" is in "acute" condition, Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said, adding the state needed to take action now to limit any spread.

“Stay home when you are sick,” she urged, noting that the coronavirus is spread largely from respiratory droplets from when an infected person coughs or sneezes, or when a person touches a contaminated surface and then touches their nose, eyes, or mouth.

Walz’s community mitigation steps also include strategies for Minnesota companies to adjust their workplace practices. Employers big and small have encouraged work-from-home arrangements or stepped up their sanitation efforts.

For now, the Walz administration isn’t ordering statewide school closures or putting places like the state Capitol off limits.

Walz said Friday the actions were “opening the toolbox” of government authority. “We’re not taking a tool out of it as of today, in terms of things we can do.”

He acknowledged that the decision to keep K-12 public schools open for now was perhaps the toughest decision so far.

But he said he was persuaded by arguments that closing schools could hurt the effort to curb the outbreak by drawing down the number of available nurses and other professional medical staff who’d need to stay home with their kids if schools were shut.

Malcolm emphasized the gathering advisory is not a ban on people leaving home, shopping or going to public places such as malls, libraries or the airport, but that “certainly people who are sick should stay home until they recover.”

She also recommended canceling or postponing events of fewer than 250 held in venues where close contact (within 6 feet) is unavoidable; events or meetings where most are at high risk of COVID-19 illness should be limited to 10 people.

The governor is leaving it to the Legislature to decide how to press on with its annual session, although there will be restrictions on rallies. Many groups have called off their Capitol lobby days preemptively.

But the 201 members of the Legislature aren’t the only occupants of the Capitol. There are dozens of staff, lobbyists and reporters who are in the building on a regular basis.

Minnesota is at the front end of the COVID-19 fight. So far there have been 14 cases with a presumptive positive test result and many more that have come back negative. But other states have seen their numbers spike as the coronavirus moved in.

The Walz declaration of a peacetime emergency is less ominous than it sounds. But the move opens up tools to Walz should he need them, such as a rapid deployment of the National Guard, use of armories as staging areas and quicker aid distribution.

As for his legislative requests related to COVID-19, Walz is hoping to reduce some barriers to testing, assist health care facilities in the first line of defense and tee up a response fund should the situation get dramatically worse. The governor is willing to extend the April 15 income tax filing deadline, and he’s exploring options for paid sick time for workers who otherwise couldn’t afford to give up shifts.

Earlier this week, the Legislature approved and Walz signed a law freeing up more than $20 million for public health officials at the state and local levels to combat the virus.

Rep. Tina Liebling, DFL-Rochester, the leader of the House health finance committee, said it was only an initial step.

“It was really to shore up the public health system,” she said. “That money is really not going to be sufficient to shore up our medical system.”

On the MPR News “Politics Friday” show, Liebling said she will seek $99.3 million for a fund to assist health care providers dealing with the crisis.

“This could blow up very, very quickly or it could play out over a longer period of time,” she said.

Sen. Jerry Relph, R-St. Cloud, said it’s important to set money aside now to head off problems later with an overwhelmed health care system. He deferred to his leadership on the amount that could be set aside.

“Remain calm,” Relph said on the MPR News show. “This is time for planning, not panic.”

Main points from Walz Friday

  • “Peacetime emergency” declared

  • Powers, if needed, to protect health and safety

  • Recommends no gatherings of more than 250 people

  • No order to close K-12 public schools

  • Follow MDH guidance to slow the virus spread

  • Ask lawmakers for funding to help with testing, unemployment and other needs created by the coronavirus.

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