Walz says a mask mandate is the right call, but he's waiting for more GOP support

A person wearing a face mask.
Gov. Tim Walz still has not made a decision on whether he'll issue a statewide facemask mandate to control the spread of COVID-19. He joined MPR News host Cathy Wurzer on Morning Edition to talk about the potential mask mandate, and other issues Minnesota is facing.
Euan Kerr | MPR News

Gov. Tim Walz still has not made a decision on whether he'll issue a statewide facemask mandate to control the spread of COVID-19.

The DFL governor says he supports such a mandate and that science backs its effectiveness. However, he’s hoping to get Republican support for such an order, rather than enacting it unilaterally.

Walz talked with Morning Editon host Cathy Wurzer to talk about the possibility of a mask mandate, and shared some discussion on whether the Legislature can reach an agreement on police reform during the special Legislative session, and what variables he’s weighing on how the school year will be handled during the pandemic.

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and concision. Listen to the extended interview by clicking on the audio player above.

Colorado's governor recently signed a mask order after wrestling with it for a while over how it would be enforced. More than half of states have a mask requirement now. What are you waiting for before you make a decision?

The science is pretty solid behind it, [and a mandate] is the right thing to do. A lot of what we would like to get back to doing, and certainly to protect our businesses, is wearing a mask is the way to go about it. Candidly, I'm trying to get a little more buy-in, from especially the Republicans in the Legislature. We are in a special session. They have made it clear that they are opposed to any of the decisions that I make using executive order under the emergency order. So I'm trying to get them to buy because I think, again, any ordinance you put out is going to be that social compact of people buying into it.

It's unfortunate that around masks, it became somewhat of a political statement rather than a public health statement. So it needs to be done. I've been talking about it for quite some time. And, of course, you know, we've been wearing masks and telling people to and businesses, as you said, have been doing it for quite some time. So I'd just really like to see some of that buy-in so it takes down and ratchets down some of the angst around the issue, because it's a very simple thing to do and it does work.

Are you willing to do some horse-trading with Republicans in terms of scaling back some executive orders to get this one enacted?

Sure. And I've always said the executive orders, I mean, some of them are unpopular with Democrats. Some of them are unpopular with the Republicans. We're trying to base them on best public health data that we have, and economics. At this point in time, we've done a pretty good job of that. We've stayed pretty steady. We haven't overwhelmed our hospitals. Our unemployment numbers are, you know, pretty good. We have work to do.

But as I've told them, it's a lot of the things we're doing, say, for example, in retail establishments, you wouldn't need the capacity of 50 percent on people just shopping at their local hardware store if you had masks. So I said, if you really want to make the move here, if you really want to remove some of the things that we're putting in — all in the name of making sure that: one, people are safe and two, businesses are open — we should do masks.

So at some point in time, if they don't do it, I certainly will. And I mean this: What we've seen time and time again, I want the Legislature to be involved. But whenever it gets to a legislative process, it takes a lot of time. We took months to decide what to do with the federal money to local officials. We couldn't decide. Then I end up doing it myself. I think the mask, maybe the same thing.

You said some point in time. Do you have a deadline in your head about this?

Well, I think we're watching the numbers and I candidly am nervous. The good news is, is that we haven't creeped up as fast as we've seen elsewhere. This can get out of hand really fast. It took about 16 days for the situation in Arizona to get out of control. And we're still under five percent positivity rates when we test. So it doesn't matter if we test — again, to get people straight on this — the cases are not going up because we're testing more, it's the positivity rate you're looking at. So if we test 10,000 and we have 500 cases, we get the five percent rate in that.

We have not crossed that rate, but we have ticked up from about 3.5 (percent). We're at 4.1 Thursday, the seven-day average is a little higher. I think, for me, at any time during these last two weeks as I'm trying to get this buy-in, if I thought it would have gone over, we would move then. But at this point time, it still seems fairly stable.

Other states are dialing back. Based on the Minnesota data that you're seeing, what could be the timing of dialing back on the reopening meter here in Minnesota?

We have the five criteria that we put out there, and we're not meeting a couple of them right now. That's community spread. That's where we don't understand where it's coming from and it's hard to trace. We're continuing to add resources to that. I was on Google and Apple Thursday about some apps we maybe can use to do some better tracing. I think it's watching those numbers at this point in time.

Two numbers that are really important, and I think it bodes well because we used our time wisely: Our ICU capacity is at the lowest it's been since early April, and hospitalizations. I think that's attributed to we've learned a lot more about COVID. I think the treatments are better. We're not getting as many people on ventilators, so that bodes pretty well. But I think the community spread and of course, that positivity rates the one that I worry about a little bit.

We've really struggled with this idea of a regionalism approach to it. A lot of states have tried it. It's just really hard because the minute you start to see, you know, hot spots in Mower County, you see them in Kandiyohi County, they start to spread. But I do understand and I hear very clearly if you are up in Roseau, you're kind of wondering,"what's the deal here?" when you're not seeing a lot of cases. The issue always comes back to it doesn't take very many cases in rural Minnesota to overwhelm a hospital. And that's what we're watching for.

But at this point in time, relatively stable. We've done a pretty good job. We're not really good at the mask-wearing. Goldman Sachs did a study on this. If you're really concerned that businesses aren't open, masks are the surest way to get them open. So those are the data that we put together to make those decision.

Parents are waiting to hear plans for the school year. You told WCCO radio earlier this week that you're working on a plan to get kids back in school safely. Does that mean you're planning to reopen schools for face-to-face instruction this fall?

Well, that's certainly one of the possibilities. Much like masks, I wish we wouldn't politicize this. As a governor, as an educator and as a parent of a 13-year-old, we need to have our kids in school. There is no debate about that being in school is the best place. I actually as an educator, I am very excited to see people understand the importance of being in public schools and that social aspect, the mental health and all that. The key here is it's not that we want to get them back in. It's can we do it safely?

And again, much like COVID-19, people go back to, "Well, you said in March this..." We didn't even know the genome of it in March and now we know a lot more about it. The one thing we know is that certainly kids don't appear to get as sick. But if you saw some these numbers coming out of Florida, I believe it was Broward County, if I'm not mistaken, a third of the students were positive. Now, the question there is: OK, the students don't get sick, even if they are asymptomatic. What happens to the teachers? What happens to the support staff? And we still don't know how much is transmitted from children on to adults.

I would have thought a month ago we'd be closer to a decision. Now I'm hearing CDC is pushing off their new school guidance til August. It's a challenge because parents want to know and I think most of us get it. Schools are the glue that hold things together. It impacts what parents are going to do. And as we make decisions and say, for example, we think it's more important to get the younger grades back into the class, do a hybrid with the middle grades and potentially online learning with the older students. That's extremely complicated because a lot of families have a child in each grade.

What about the expense?

Oh, my God. Yes, five times more. You can't fill the buses. Exactly right.

The federal money that came with the CARES Act, which, of course, $841 (million) went to local (governments). We used $100 million on rent support, child care, buy testing. One of the things is, we have saved back $300 million of that just for school openings.

Now, I am encouraged by this, that hearing from federal legislative leaders and the White House that there there is a commitment to understanding that they're going to need to get more resources. The president had it exactly backwards to say if you don't open, we're gonna take your money. What he needs to say is: If you're going to open, here's how we're going to help you.

But they're exactly right (about) the complicated nature of this. And, you know, there's numerous good ideas out there. Do we have everybody teach first and second grade on Monday? Do we keep that cohort together? And then on Tuesdays? It is a puzzle that is... It's hard to see if we have all the pieces. I will say this again — and it's not crying over spilled milk, it's simply factual — this would be better if we had one national strategy. And that doesn't mean one size fits all, but it means there's a strategy on how we can track this data, how the federal government's going to help us with the transportation, some of those types of things, to get this right.

I again, want to assure folks, our No. 1 priority is the safety of those students, those teachers and the support staff. But no one needs to make it clear to me that we need to be back in school. That's the life I've lived. I think there's no more important place in students. It's about relationships. You cannot do this by not learning. It was a point in time when I remember them telling us with the internet that we wouldn't need brick and mortar schools. We could save a lot of money. Well, that's not the way it works.

You're scheduled to facilitate a conversation with Sen. Paul Gazelka and families of individuals who've died in encounters with police. What's the reason for that meeting?

Yeah, this is groups of families that I've got to know, just quite unfortunately. I feel honored to get to know these families. Some of the mothers of young black men who died in police encounters. And they have a lot of things to say. And it's a lot of things they think about. These are families that have come through this tragedy, but also thought about change. And we were on a pretty extensive call, about a 90-minute call going into discussions of things we'd like to see. And the group on there asked if I would help facilitate this call.

And I think in fairness to Sen. Gazelka, because they believe that he's got his heart in the right place. They wanted to hear from him and they know that he can have an impact on how this works. Again, the senator immediately said yes. And I think that bodes well. I think Minnesota politics still are a bit of an outlier that among all the angst that's going on, we're still talking. I had lunch with (House Minority) Leader Kurt Daudt yesterday. We agree on very few things. But I think we enjoy the discussion and I always find that perspective helpful.

This sounds like everyone's talking, but what's your next move? If lawmakers don't come to an agreement on new police reform measures, this special session?

Well, I worry about it. I worry about it because I think, you know, every night there's folks doing what they need to do. There's a large group in front of my residence last night, as they should be there out there asking us to do stuff, to get things done, to be thoughtful.

I will say this. Everybody is talking. I had a long conversation yesterday with MPPOA, the police officers association, and those folks over there. They want to get this right. They understand that this is horrific. And they also understand that there is a lot of officers who to go to work every day, do their job, and do it with a sense of trust in their communities. And so that's happening. Talking to the business community about helping us.

I think something will get done, because of the coalition of folks who understand that this has to get done. We need to have stability, security in our communities. We need to have trust of the people that are being served by the police. And we also understand that something is broken when we have a situation that we saw with the death of George Floyd. So I'm hopeful. I think they are crossing the bridge if nothing happens. I worry, again, that the public's angst is still there. I certainly think and I hope we've learned our lessons about channeling that in a positive direction rather than into a destructive nature of what went from civil unrest and civil protest into rioting. I think we've learned a lot there. I think the activists, as I said, the folks who come to my house are organized. They are peaceful and they are expecting results. So I do think we can get something done. If it doesn't, we're going to have to change course and figure out how to how to force that change because the public is asking for it.

What are the tools in your toolbox to force change?

I think I can do some things with the POST board. I do think that public pressure — and I don't say this as a pejorative — there are leverage points and one of the biggest leverage points in American policy-making are elections. They do have consequences. If folks are moving too fast and you don't want to see this, you'll vote to keep the status quo. If you don't think people are moving and things should be done or you feel someone's an obstacle, they'll vote to, I don't think that's necessarily a threat or a bad thing. That's how you get change.

I'm leery of doing anything unilaterally around this because it doesn't have buy-in. It's much like the mask mandate. I certainly could do it, but I don't... I stopped at a Lowe's to pick up a tool yesterday in Shakopee and I asked the clerk who was there, what they'd think about doing that. And this young woman said, "I'm just worried of confronting people and telling you put on a mask. It just seems kind of scary and unnecessary." And that's why we're trying to get all this buy-in.

I think the same thing is true of police reform. If this feels like it's forced rather, than that it's collaborative — and I think there's much more collaboration — I think the public would be heartened to know that conversations yesterday that I moved from Black Lives Matters to Republican and Democratic legislators to Minneapolis (sic.) Police and Peace Officers Association, to head of the business partnership. And those were in a series of about a two hour set of conversations of running between the two and shuttling in. That's positive. That's stuff that's happening. I want to continue to believe that's the way to go. And I think, again, I would say this conversation this morning that Sen. Gazelka is going to do is a good sign. That's a really good sign that he's willing to sit and listen for 90 minutes to these families of where they're coming from.

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