Minnesotans deserve better than the political stare-down that is playing out at the Capitol between Senate Republicans and Governor Tim Walz. They deserve to be informed, trusted and engaged in the discussion over the governor’s use of emergency powers to manage the COVID-19 pandemic and the Republicans’ emphasis on allowing schools and businesses to operate without limits.
The importance of all these goals is undeniable. Instead of having a straightforward debate, however, Minnesotans are pushed to the sidelines as spectators while a proxy battle is fought. Instead of engaging in a partisan side-show that threatens the ability of qualified commissioners to serve the public in an unprecedented crisis, the governor and Republicans should engage in a meaningful discussion on when and how the governor’s emergency powers can be terminated.
Much is at stake
There is much more at stake in this political gamesmanship than just mask-wearing and limits on the size of public gatherings. Many small businesses are on the brink of closing, and some students are losing ground academically and socially. Then there are the health concerns, including the best way to protect the entire community from the virus.
And, there are the hidden impacts that get little attention. Not least of these is the housing crisis that has been made worse by the pandemic. A temporary moratorium on evicting vulnerable tenants who have lost their paychecks and can’t make rent payments, one of the executive orders Walz has implemented, is the difference between housing and homelessness for thousands of hard-hit Minnesotans. If the governor’s use of emergency powers is terminated, how are Republicans planning to protect the thousands of Minnesotans who likely would be added to the rolls of the homeless?
Ultimately, these debates are about Minnesotans and the confidence they have that all politicians are working toward common goals – safeguarding the public’s health, restoring the economy and protecting those who are most vulnerable.
Evidence-based measures needed
If policymakers want to build consensus for action, anecdotes need to be replaced by evidence-based measures that every stakeholder can use to track progress against a shared vision of success. The governor, Republican leaders, health experts and economists should seek agreement on measurable, evidence-based criteria to evaluate when the governor’s broad emergency powers can be terminated and day-to-day life – including returning students to classrooms and customers to businesses – can return to normal.
The criteria should be in five areas to determine when emergency powers would be lifted:
First, an effective vaccine is available and affordable and enough Minnesotans are being inoculated to protect the health of the entire state.
Second, testing with rapid and accurate results is available and contact tracing — the ability to quickly reach those who may have been in the proximity of an infected person — is implemented.
Third, the state shows a consistent downward trend in the infection and hospitalization rates over a period of time epidemiologists determine is meaningful.
Fourth, the state’s economy improves, putting people back to work and earning paychecks sufficient to pay rents, mortgages and put food on the table.
Fifth, the most vulnerable, including the elderly, those with chronic health conditions and those dealing with other challenges like homelessness, are protected from the pandemic.
The criteria are interdependent
These criteria need to be refined and tactics created to achieve these goals. They also need to be seen as interdependent. Take the last benchmark, for example. Even while the homeless population has grown during this crisis, there are only around 200 reported cases of COVID-19 statewide among the homeless and, as of this writing, only one death. If the virus spreads among the very highly mobile homeless population it almost certainly will undermine the state’s ability to control its spread in the general population.
There are no easy answers to these extraordinary challenges Minnesota and the nation face. Benchmarks that track progress, like the five suggested here, give Minnesotans the confidence that comes from knowing that the sacrifices they are being asked to make are contributing to success. They give elected officials the tools to adjust their policies. They can help determine when schools and businesses can start returning to normal operations or whether more aggressive social distancing is needed. They address when the governor can relax some emergency orders – easing social distancing, for example, as progress is made in controlling the rate of infections – while maintaining other components, including the moratorium on evictions until the economy is generating jobs and income.
Time and again, Minnesotans have shown that if actions are evidence-based and transparent, measures are well-defined and there is a shared call to action, they will rise to meet any challenge head on. Policymakers of both parties have the opportunity and the need to ask for the best of Minnesota.
Tim Marx is the president and chief executive officer of Catholic Charities of St. Paul and Minneapolis. Mark Voxland is the past mayor and council member of the City of Moorhead and owner of Voxland Electric.
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