Walz directs COVID-19 strategy while on quarantine

Tim Walz
Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz signs a bill Saturday allocating $330 million in COVID-19 aid passed by the state Legislature earlier in the week in St. Paul. Walz is under a 14-day quarantine and is working from the Governor's Residence.
Glen Stubbe | Star Tribune via AP, Pool

Gov. Tim Walz entered his second week of self-quarantine Monday, which has left him to direct Minnesota’s response to COVID-19 from home after coming in contact with someone who had tested positive.

The personal precautions haven’t slowed Walz, who has moved to extend closures of school buildings, restaurants and other businesses into May. More recently, he pushed Minnesotans to just stay at home.

The directives have attracted both praise and pushback for the first-term governor. Some legislative Republicans have urged Walz to relax some of the restrictions on businesses, but so far there have been no moves that attempt to overturn any of the 24 executive orders he’s issued.

As of Sunday, Minnesota topped 500 cases of COVID-19, which has already caused nine deaths and sent dozens to hospitals. But officials say more than half of those who have tested positive — 252 of 503 — are now recovered or at least no longer being told to isolate.

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The governor said last week he was feeling fine and so was his family. He has not been tested for coronavirus.

“We’re doing what we’re supposed to be doing. We’re watching it carefully,” Walz said Friday. “As I said in a little video my wife and I made as we were sitting the step out back, we’re still getting along and we still like each other.”

They’ve been posting snappy updates on social media with book recommendations and other things they’re doing to pass the time.

Friday will mark two weeks since his last contact with a security aide who contracted COVID-19. But Walz intends to carry his precautionary quarantine through next Monday.

Walz has asked most Minnesotans to stay put for the time being. His stay-at-home order became effective on Saturday and will run through April 10.

People are still permitted to shop for food, liquor and other items. They can catch some fresh air outside. And they can go to work locations if their jobs are deemed essential.

But many appear to be heeding the guidance. The Minnesota Department of Transportation is paying attention to the broader traffic patterns on state highways and interstates.

The agency estimates that regular traffic has been cut in half compared to the volume at this point last year. It’s even more pronounced than the week before.

MnDOT communications director Jake Loesch said it’s a clear trend.

“Really what we’ve been seeing over the last couple of weeks, particularly since Gov. Walz declared the peace-time emergency in the state of Minnesota is a pretty significant decrease statewide in our traffic volumes,” Loesch said.

Walz noted that auto accidents are also down.

Politically, the coronavirus response led by Walz has earned wide support from fellow DFLers. Among Republicans, the reaction has been more nuanced.

Some Republicans argue the restrictions on business operations will devastate affected companies and the economy. They’re pressing him to ease back on the curbs and to do far more to make businesses whole.

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka expressed “grave concerns” about last week’s stay-at-home order. He said he’s voiced his disagreements with Walz privately.

“How can I give my best advice in a way that helps even if I disagree? And there are times with the governor that I have disagreed,” Gazelka said on Thursday. “And I do appreciate behind the scenes I can push and I do believe the governor listens. He doesn’t always agree with my advice but at least there is that place we can talk about issues.”

Rep. Pat Garofalo, a veteran Republican lawmaker from Farmington, publicly applauded measures that have been taken to suppress the spread of COVID-19.

“Sometimes we see the benefits of leadership. Sometimes we see the lack of leadership and it’s good to see that our governor is in charge and assisting in this process and moving us forward,” Garofalo said during a House floor session late last week.

Lawmakers are not scheduled to return to St. Paul until April 14. But they’ve given themselves power to convene sooner if they need, with virtual meetings a possibility.

The Legislature has passed two measures so far that direct almost $600 million in total toward the coronavirus fight — bolstering medical capacity and helping people whose lives were upended by the crisis.

Leaders say it’s just a start.

They intend to assemble another package that delivers additional assistance to small businesses. More than 200,000 people have already applied for unemployment insurance.

Lawmakers have also pledged to work on accommodations for first responders and others on the front lines who are putting themselves and their families at great risk.

And they’re still trying to provide a greater safety net for people suddenly unemployed, those on public assistance and people who have faced collateral consequences.

It’s going to be costly and it could take months, if not years, to untangle it all.

“And do this at a time when we are seeing extraordinary collapse in tax revenues to the state and at the exact same time that expenditures are rapidly rising as more and more Minnesotans qualify for our assistance programs in this state,” Garofalo said. “As we go forward we’re going to be making exceptionally difficult choices — choices the public will not like, choices we will not like.”