Pressure on Walz grows as COVID-19 orders set to expire

Two people wearing masks sit while a man at a podium speaks.
Commissioners Jan Malcolm, right, and Steve Grove, center, watch Gov. Tim Walz speak at a press conference inside the Department of Public Safety in St. Paul on April 30, 2020, as Walz unveils a plan that extends the state's stay-at-home order and keeps bars and restaurants takeout-only until May 18.
Evan Frost | MPR News, Pool file

For several weeks, Gov. Tim Walz asked Minnesota residents to help fight the coronavirus pandemic by staying home, sacrificing meals out and enduring other inconveniences and personal hardships in the name of public health.

The longer that societal lid has remained in place, the harder it has been for Walz to convince a restless public that it’s still worth the payoff.

Walz and his Minnesota strategy are at a crossroads: New cases and fatalities show no sign of slowing but adherence to his directives seems to be fading even without his explicit go-ahead. 

On Wednesday, Walz scheduled a 6 p.m. address to the state, a signal that something significant is afoot. He’ll announce whether to keep Minnesota in a peacetime emergency that gives him a range of powers and, he says, allows for a more-nimble response. He could also decide if it’s time to soon ratchet back on a stay-at-home order and restrictions on bars, restaurants and other entertainment venues.

Grow the Future of Public Media

MPR News is supported by Members. Gifts from individuals power everything you find here. Make a gift of any amount today to become a Member!

While the DFL governor hasn’t spoken publicly this week, he said last week that getting the decisions wrong could result in more illness, death and economic uncertainty. But he acknowledged he would be faulted either way.

“This is one of those difficult things that if we do this right, it will appear like we’re wrong because we didn’t overrun the health care system,” Walz said.

The political pressure on Walz to crank the reopening knob faster has grown more intense. It has manifested itself in lawsuits. And, in a few instances, resulted in outright defiance.  

A St. Paul barber opened his shop for haircuts before being ordered shut again. In Stearns County, some bar and restaurant owners are making plans to serve customers on site no matter what Walz does with a dine-in ban in place until Monday.

Kris Schiffler, who owns six establishments there, is done waiting for a green light from the state.

“So, we sat our two weeks. We sat another two weeks. We sat another two weeks,” Schiffler said of the period in which takeout was the only allowable option for restaurants.

Schiffler said he’s worked with local officials, presented health protection plans and will step up cleaning to keep patrons safe.

“We’re going to go for it. We’re going to take a jump off the ledge,” Schiffler said Tuesday. “We’re going to try to do it as legally as possible. We’re going to try to obey everything. We let everyone know in advance what we’re doing. We’re opening for business. Either we’re opening now or we’re closing forever.”

Earlier this week, the state Senate passed a bill that would allow for any business with a coronavirus safety plan to open up. It also would grant them immunity from any regulatory crackdown for opening without state permission.

Sen. Mark Johnson, R-East Grand Forks, spoke and voted in favor of it.

“Up in my neck of the woods, we all have haircuts. We all are able to go out and eat dinner. We can go to the shoe store and get our shoes. We can go out and do all of these things,” Johnson said. “The only problem is that we’ve got to go across the border to get them.”

He said towns along the western border feel especially pinched because North Dakota loosened its rules already. But Johnson also argued the sense of strain is pervasive in other regions, too. 

“Open up, Gov. Walz. It’s time,” Johnson implored. “You’re bleeding us dry. Our citizens are hurting.”

This week, a hospitality roundtable group submitted a 16-page reopening guidance document to the state about various hospitality sectors. It covers personal hygiene, cleaning and sanitation, social distancing and other measures to keep employees and customers healthy. 

“This industry needs to have a clear, bright line on when it can open overall,” said Liz Rammer, president and CEO of Hospitality Minnesota, a trade organization representing 2,000 members that include resort lodging, campgrounds, outfitters and restaurants.

“While we’re anxious and ready to open, we want to make sure this is done properly,” she said. “We know we can do it safely because our industry is so highly regulated anyway.”

She said the move by some states to let restaurants open at significantly reduced capacity is not a sustainable model. Even when they can open dining rooms again, Rammer expects that many restaurants will keep their curbside options for customers who aren’t yet comfortable walking through the door. 

Meanwhile, cities around Minnesota are bringing up resolutions that encourage the governor to back off restrictions or make clear they won’t enforce them.

The Chanhassen City Council considered a reopening proclamation on Monday. Council member Julia Coleman put it forward.

“Salon owners, restaurants and business owners are capable of choosing whether they are comfortable and capable of safely reopening while following safety recommendations, protecting themselves, their employees and their customers,” she said.

Mayor Elise Ryan saw it as overly partisan and joined a successful effort to table it for a future meeting.

“I think it’s a false narrative to say that if we don’t support this proclamation we don’t support our local businesses,” Ryan said.

Last week, Walz sounded bothered by the budding trend.

“If each community is going to determine on their own, it makes it very difficult to have community health,” Walz said. “Because if that community ends up spreading to others, it is a problem.”

Minnesota health officials are expecting there to be more COVID-19 spread once more facets of the economy are running again.

“As we start to see more interactions in the community, more contacts among people, it is quite natural to expect that with as little exposure we think the community has had so far to the disease, to the pathogen that we will see increased cases,” Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said. “Our whole goal is to make sure that happens in a way that is measured and that the health care system is prepared to respond to.”