Minnesota is under a peacetime state of emergency, the latest and so-far most serious action by state government to respond to the threat from the novel coronavirus and the COVID-19 disease it can cause.
Gov. Tim Walz on Friday triggered powers given him by the Legislature when “an act of nature” endangers life and property, using it to urge against holding large group gatherings and smaller events when venues do not allow for “social distancing” of six feet between people.
Walz called it “a heightened state of readiness.”
“The systems that are in place to deal with this in the Minnesota Department of Health and in our private sector health care are prepared to deal with this,” Walz said during an afternoon press conference. “The mechanisms to make sure they are able to do that is what will change.”
The emergency declaration allows him to act more quickly as the situation changes with the virus. Under state law, he must have the declaration ratified by the state executive council, which is made up of the five statewide elected officials. The Legislature has an opportunity to rescind the powers after 30 days.
“I ask you all to think of this as opening the toolbox,” he said. “We’re not taking a tool out of it as of today.”
Walz and state Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm referred to the new guidance as recommendations. But they also said they are more than requests, with Malcolm describing them as “please do.” Mandatory measures could follow under the governor’s emergency powers, and the national guard could be used to help respond to the crisis.
Walz summarized ongoing public health recommendations — wash your hands, stay home if sick, cough and sneeze into sleeves and keep six feet away from others — with some blunt additions: “Wash your hands so you don’t kill your neighbor who has an underlying condition,” he said.
The declaration came just one hour before President Trump declared a national state of emergency. It also came as the Minnesota Department of Health said there are five additional cases of residents testing positive for the disease, bringing the state’s total to 14. Based on reports from places where it has circulated, COVID-19 presents as a range of illnesses. While many cases may be mild to moderate with symptoms similar to colds and flu, some cases may be more severe. The risk of severe illness seems to be higher for older people and those with underlying health conditions.
The governor also asked the state Legislature to pass a set of emergency bills to speed testing for the virus; provide help for hospitals’ modify unemployment insurance for those impacted by quarantines and closures; and further strengthen his emergency powers.
Among the new recommendations:
- Large events of 250 or more should be postponed or canceled. These could be concerts, conferences, school performances or sporting events.
- Events with fewer attendees but that are in rooms where social distancing isn’t possible should be canceled or moved to larger spaces.
- Events where most participants are at higher risk for severe illness, such as older residents and those with underlying health conditions, should be limited to 10 people or fewer.
The new recommendations do not include school closures, but the state is saying that large school events should be canceled or postponed and that high-risk children should be considering distance learning.
Malcolm said that current advice from the Centers for Disease Control is that there isn’t a proven reduction in risk where schools remain open. Alternatively, having children around vulnerable adults or having emergency and health care workers off the job to care for children would have a negative impact.
The state has moved from a containment approach — which tries to isolate all those testing positive or who have been exposed to someone who has — to community mitigation, which involves attempts to slow and spread out contamination to reduce the strain on the healthcare system.
“We have long since thought it is not possible to stop it, but it makes a world of difference if we can slow it down and spread it out,” Malcolm said.
Each of the recommendations is to lower the likelihood of person-to-person spread, something health officials think requires being within six feet of an infected person for 10 minutes or more.
Walz said the Legislature must make its own decisions about how the recommendations affect the ongoing legislative session. While he has urged lawmakers to finish work quickly on must-do legislation, such as bonding, disaster fund appropriation, COVID-related requests and a supplemental budget, he also said that as long as there is a session, the state needs to make it accessible to the public. “The idea of telling people they can’t come to their capitol is a pretty significant step,” Walz said. “We can’t do democratic action here without the public having access to it.”
But Walz acknowledged the disconnect between announcing advice about large gatherings in a very crowded press conference room that would be in violation of the recommendations. He said larger rooms will be used but that he needs the state news media to help get information about the crisis to residents.
“We can’t get to the point where we can’t do a press briefing with you and get this out to the public because of this,” he said.
The government is taking additional steps to assure continuity, including measures to protect Walz from being exposed. A Thursday meeting of legislative leaders, the chief justice of the supreme court and the other statewide election officials was held in his large cabinet room with an empty chair left between each attendee. Walz also noted that Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan, who usually accompanies him to announcements, was not attending in order to not risk both getting ill at the same time.
“It’s hard to do,” he said. “My entire career in life is shaking hands and picking up babies by instinct. I have to hold myself back.”
Attorney General Keith Ellison Friday warned residents to look out for scams and frauds such as vaccines or cures for the virus or attempts to raise money for victims. He also reminded people not to click on links in emails that purport to be from government agencies or health officials. “It’s disgusting even to think of scam artists taking advantage of a moment like this but sadly it happens,” he said.
Ellison also asked the Legislature for authority to prevent price gouging during emergencies.
The Legislature does not meet until Monday at 11 and Friday and early Monday committee meetings were canceled. House Speaker Melissa Hortman said in a statement Friday that her chamber will respond to the Health Department recommendations.
“Due to the community mitigation standards that have been recommended by the Minnesota Department of Health, the schedule of House business will change very substantially in the coming days,” she said.
Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka spoke to reporters after Walz to say the Senate will remain open but that it is discouraging large gatherings and is requesting that people either talk to lawmakers by phone or email or make appointments. Access to Senate offices will be more restricted but those with appointments can still visit.
“It’s important to remind folks that we don’t intend to close it completely down,” he said. “We want to say the Senate is open, the House will say the House is open. But at the same time we’re going to listen to medical experts about how to do that in a way that’s safe.”