Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz held a press conference Wednesday updating the state’s latest efforts to respond to the coronavirus pandemic. Here’s a summary of what he had to say:
- The state unemployment insurance system has responded to 50,000 new applications for benefits this week.
- Walz doesn’t think it is realistic for the state Legislature to wait until April 14 to return from recess.
- The 32 Minnesota residents who had been quarantined after sailing on the Grand Princess cruise ship are home.
- Walz is not ready to use “shelter in place” orders that have been used in Europe and in the San Francisco area.
- The governor complained again about the lack of testing capacity; 1,700 samples have been taken that haven’t been tested.
- He is confident the Minnesota National Guard could take on tasks such as the delivery of food and supplies if needed.
Unemployment fund in good shape
In the wake of Walz’s order to close businesses like restaurants and hair salons, state officials said they’re experiencing an unprecedented wave of people applying for unemployment insurance benefits. During this week last year, the state received 2,100 applicants. This week, about 50,000 have applied.
“Numbers are climbing really rapidly,” said Steve Grove, commissioner of the Department of Employment and Economic Development.
While Grove has consistently said Minnesota’s “healthy” $1.5 billion unemployment trust fund leaves the state in better shape than many others, DEED modeling found the uptick in applicants to the insurance program will quickly take a bite from the cache. Still, Grove said the federal government is quick to bail out states when trust funds evaporate.
The Legislature might need to convene sooner than April 14
Walz was asked if it is realistic to think the House and Senate can wait until mid-April to return from their recess. “No,” he said. “Candidly, operationally, I don’t know how to do this. I know there is frustration that the governor is taking action on things. I have to. I can’t wait. But no, I don’t think we can wait until the 14th.
“I have certain executive powers, but there are things we need the Legislature to do. We’re working this as we speak. More information will be put out. I have been in contact with the four leaders. There are things that we’re going to be asking for in the next 24-to-48 hours and we’re gonna have to figure out how that works.”
Said House Speaker Melissa Hortman: “We are working on draft legislation in a variety of areas to respond to COVID-19. We will return in session to provide assistance for Minnesotans where legislative action is needed. A very significant amount of work is going on. Because any action we take will require agreement by all four leaders, all four caucuses are working together in a way I have never seen before.”
Former Grand Princess passengers return to Minnesota
Walz said his administration worked with U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar to find a way to bring home the 32 Minnesotans who had been passengers on the Grand Princess cruise ship.
The federal government chartered a flight from California, where the passengers had been quarantined, and Walz waived his earlier request to wait until tests confirmed about each passenger’s COVID-19 status. They arrived at 3:30 this morning and were met by Metro Transit vehicles, which delivered them to their homes where they will complete the quarantine period.
“It’s a much better situation than being on an airbase on a cot,” he said. “They’re back in their homes self-quarantined.” He said none is exhibiting symptoms. Another nine residents stayed in California by choice.
Testing capacity still lacking
Walz said he heard from other governors during a morning conference call that the lack of testing capacity is hampering the response. He said tests are important for individuals who are concerned about their own health but the impact on the broader response is vital.
“It’s the data from testing that allows us to model where this is going to go. The response is based on that modeling.”
South Korea, which is considered to have launched the strongest response, tested 274,000 people in a nation of 51 million. Italy, which is not an example to follow because of the extent of the outbreak there, has done 134,000 tests. The U.S. has done 25,000.
Because of that, he thinks there are far more cases in Minnesota than the current numbers report.
“We’re making the assumption that there are far more than 77 cases out there,” he said. At the current rate of positive tests, there could be another 100 cases among the 1,700 swabs that have been taken but not tested.
Shelter-in-place order? Not yet
On that conference call with other governors, Walz said Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York talked about the possibility of issuing a “shelter-in-place” order, which requires people to stay in their homes and not leave save for designated exceptions.
“I’m trying to base it on the best data that we have with a clear understanding that we could have used more in the testing,” he said. “As the early warning signs come in, especially from the health care providers, that’s where you need to think of all things. I don’t want to alarm Minnesotans, but if there’s anything that I can tell you, is as you are watching this unfold in New York which is about eight days ahead of us and in Seattle and San Francisco, steps that are being taken there are best practices, those are all potential things.
“Last Friday we didn’t think there’d be a need to close schools. Last Saturday we didn’t think there’d be a need to close bars. That’s the speed of this.”
National Guard at the ready
“They are prepared,” said Walz of the Minnesota National Guard, which could potentially be used to deliver food and supplies to people during the crisis, or help with food banks. “They’re ready to go. It’s 13,000 Minnesotans who are well trained, many of them who have actually done this in combat situations and have delivered supplies that way. They know what they’re doing.”