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Minnesota’s COVID-19 measures: too far, or not nearly far enough?

Though Minnesota’s restrictions on public life have been labeled tyrannical by some, they look fairly weak compared to measures taken in other cities and states with far milder outbreaks.

Nurse Kate Knepprath
Nurse Kate Knepprath dons PPE as she prepares to enter the room of a coronavirus disease patient being treated at UW Health University Hospital in Madison, Wisconsin.
REUTERS/Daniel Acker

On Wednesday, Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz announced new restrictions on bars and restaurants, social gatherings and other facets of life in Minnesota with the goal of slowing the spread of COVID-19 across the state.

As Minnesotans have grown weary of coronavirus precautions and moved activities indoors out of cold weather, the growth of coronavirus cases and deaths in recent weeks has been exponential.

Gov. Tim Walz
Christine T. Nguyen/MPR News/Pool
Gov. Tim Walz
Minnesota isn’t alone in that respect: Upper Midwest states are hotspots for the virus, and governors in some of them are taking measures like Walz’s to slow the virus’ spread.

Every time Walz has issued restrictions, he’s been met with accusations that they go too far to prioritize the safeguarding of Minnesotans from COVID-19 over their freedom and their economy. On Wednesday night, after the restrictions were announced, Minnesota Republican Party Chair Jennifer Carnahan went a step farther, sharing a graphic describing the rules on Twitter with the caption “tyrant.”

While Minnesota locked down in the spring, as many states did, to limit its residents’ exposure to the virus, the state has not imposed restrictions as heavy as some jurisdictions. It’s also been slower than others to re-implement restrictions as case counts have grown this fall.

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Minnesota’s restrictions

Walz first declared a state of emergency over COVID-19 March 13, one week after a passenger from a cruise ship was the first person in the state with a confirmed case of the virus. That day, he urged Minnesotans not to hold large group gatherings or smaller events when social distancing was not possible.

On March 17, schools, and bars and restaurants were closed, except for takeout. And on March 28, Walz’s “stay-at-home” order took effect, urging Minnesotans who weren’t doing work or errands deemed essential, or getting fresh air to stay home.

In April, there were protests of the stay-at-home order outside the governor’s residence, and many Republicans questioned the need for the measure, given its effect on the state’s economy.

That order expired mid-May, and over the following weeks, restaurants, salons and gyms were allowed to reopen. Over the summer and much of the fall, retail has been open, restaurants, bars and gyms have operated at limited capacity and Minnesotans have been asked to socially distance, wear masks and not gather in large groups.

As cases rose precipitously, things changed last week, when Walz imposed a curfew on bars and restaurants, and a 10-person limit on gatherings. This week, he took the restrictions a step further, restricting, among other things, dine-in, gyms and school sports and urging Minnesotans not to spend time with people outside of their immediate households for four weeks.

Minnesota Department of Health

Huge case surge

Minnesota’s recent response looks particularly tepid compared to coastal cities, which have begun to implement stricter restrictions even as cases rise to a fraction of what Minnesota has seen.

So far in the month of November, Minnesota has seen an average of nearly 4,500 new COVID-19 cases per day, or about 80 cases per 100,000 residents.

San Francisco shut down indoor dining when the city was concerned about going from an average of 3.7 cases per 100,000 residents at the end of October to 9 new cases per 100,000 residents in November, the San Francisco Chronicle reported.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo imposed similar restrictions to Walz last week — a 10-person limit on gatherings and a 10 p.m. curfew on bars and restaurants. New York City, with roughly 1.5 times the population of Minnesota, was reporting an average of about 1,100 cases per day, NBC-4 New York reported  — a quarter of what Minnesota has reported in an average day in November.

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That middle-ground response has been characteristic of Minnesota throughout the pandemic, according to an analysis of University of Oxford’s COVID-19 Government Response by the New York Times. The analysis puts Minnesota in the mid-range of states, in the same ballpark as Washington, Louisiana, Virginia and Texas.

Among Midwest states, it was stricter than the Dakotas, Iowa, Indiana, Michigan and Wisconsin, but less strict than Ohio and Kentucky .

The Times’ analysis shows states with minor responses, like the Dakotas, Wisconsin and Iowa, and intermediate response, including Minnesota, have seen COVID-19 cases surge the highest in recent weeks. States with tighter control measures, including California, New York, much of New England, New Mexico and Hawaii have seen some increase in cases recently, but not on the order of states with fewer restrictions.

Minnesota’s stay-at-home period, which lasted from March 28 to May 18, was in the middle of the pack,  said Jennifer Tolbert, the director for state health reform at the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, who has been tracking state response.

“It was when most states were implementing stay-at-home orders,” Tolbert said. Minnesota’s wasn’t as long as some states’ stay-at-home orders, particularly southern states’, but it was shorter than others’.

“What’s important to remember is at the time, the Midwest and Minnesota hadn’t been hit that hard by the virus at that point, and so I think at that point, that step seems measured and reasonable given the spread of the virus,” she said.

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Now, it’s a different story, as states in the Midwest have some of the highest rates of new COVID-19 cases.

“Where Minnesota is focusing in terms of limiting large gatherings imposing restrictions on bars and restaurants, that’s consistent with what other states are doing,” Tolbert said this week before Walz imposed further restrictions.

But, she said, it’s a tough call for governors to make. While some have criticized Minnesota’s response as going too far, others believe it hasn’t gone far enough.

“Governors are trying to walk a fine line between imposing restrictions that are designed to protect the public health, but understanding these are small businesses, restaurants and other retail businesses,” Tolbert said. “They’re businesses, and so there are economic consequences to shutting down.”

Political stakes

On a call this week with both Republican and Democratic governors in the region who are like-minded on COVID issues, Walz acknowledged the hardships small businesses face under a shutdown and lamented the lack of federal support.

“This is painful. It’s hard,” Walz said. “When those small businesses, especially the hospitality industry, when they raise concerns it’s because their livelihoods are absolutely on the line.”

Governors who have the backing of the other branches of government may be having an easier time walking that line between business and public health, though, Tolbert said — regardless of what party they’re from.

“This never needed to be a partisan issue,” Walz said. But some legislative GOP campaigns made restrictions, especially disruption of schools and school sports, an issue. Some predicted that further restrictions would come as soon as the election was over. But politics were not the reason why infections surged across the U.S. in November.

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At the opening of a new saliva COVID-19 testing center at the Minneapolis Convention Center this month, Walz also acknowledged the “chaotic” Nov.3  election played a role in the timing of things.

“Candidly we knew the week of the election would be very chaotic. It would be very difficult,” Walz said. “It’s also one that I anguished over in talking to [Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm.] Everyday we wait on things that we believe can mitigate the risk is another day that someone got infected and potentially ends up in the hospital.”

In Minnesota, Walz has been at odds with the Republican controlled Legislature. In Michigan and Wisconsin, state supreme court rulings have curtailed the power of Govs. Gretchen Whitmer and Tony Evers to impose COVID-19 related restrictions, Tolbert said. In Kentucky and Louisiana, by contrast, courts upheld the authority of the governors to impose restrictions.

“I do think some of this comes down to the relationship the governor has with the state legislature and in some cases, even if it’s controlled by different parties, that relationship is working well, in other cases, there’s a little bit more of an ideological difference,” Tolbert said.

She emphasized that the differing state approaches have grown out of a lack of federal leadership on the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I do think the piecemeal approach is somewhat problematic. The virus doesn’t respect state boundaries. Lax requirements in some states can have an effect on another state … [making] our collective response, I think, less effective.”

Peter Callaghan contributed to this report.