Another day at the Minnesota State Capitol and another major expansion of the interventions aimed at slowing the spread of new cases of COVID-19.
Gov. Tim Walz joined a batch of other state governors in ordering the closure of bars, restaurants, bowling alleys and other entertainment venues as of 5 p.m. Tuesday. Some of the new cases of positive tests have come from younger adults, making it important to extend the closures, especially on the eve of one of the biggest bars nights of the drinking calendar — St. Patrick’s Day.
The executive order covers restaurants, bars, coffeehouses, brewpubs, craft breweries and distilleries, theaters, museums, music venues, gyms and fitness centers, bowling alleys, country clubs and dining clubs. The order does allow businesses to continue takeout and delivery services. As of now, it ends March 27 but Walz and his Health Commissioner said it could be extended.
“The expectation is that these will be re-upped,” Walz said. “I don’t see a scenario anywhere in the world that this will not be extended.”
Walz said the new order was needed because there was still congregating in bars and restaurants that ignored health advice to keep social distance: staying six feet away from anyone else.
“We need people’s cooperation,” he said. “To the young folks who have been told it’s not that serious, it won’t get to you: Perhaps not for you, but that’s not a given because we have young people who found themselves needing hospitalization on this. We need to stop congregating.”
“I want to be very clear. We are at a critical point here,” Walz said. “If we get beyond that curve where community spread accelerates to the point where our hospitals can’t keep up … it becomes a really critical situation.”
A second executive order will expand unemployment insurance by broadening eligibility, making payments more quickly and ending surcharges on employers. The state is adding hours for applications and encouraged those laid off by the public spaces closure order to apply at uimn.org. Among those who will be newly eligible: workers who must stay home to care for children whose schools or child-care centers have closed.
Walz acknowledged that his response to the crisis changes daily — he prefers the term “evolves” — as the state gets new information and advice from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “This is our new normal,” he said. “This is more than likely a rhythm that we may get into as new information comes up, as new CDC guidance changes in this unfolding situation.”
Legislature decides to recess
The latest executive order came just a few hours after the Minnesota Legislature outlined how they would mostly vacate the capital — after getting a few critical things done to respond to COVID-19.
Legislative leaders stressed that their evolving protocols for the 2020 session are anything but normal, with “uncharted territory” being the most-used phrase Monday. After passing some emergency legislation, the Legislature would go into an extended recess until April 14. That action moves up the start of the traditional Easter/Passover recess by more than two weeks.
The Legislature could reconvene before then at the call of House and Senate leaders, but it is likely it would do so only for additional emergency measures. Those could include additional economic actions to ease the impact of the virus on businesses and workers.
“It is our intention to bring the Legislature back to pass legislation if we need when all four leaders agree,” said House Speaker Melissa Hortman.
The Legislature will also monitor the governor’s use of the executive powers he asserted with his state of emergency declaration Friday.
Whether the House and Senate return on April 14 is subject to reassessment, legislative leaders said. “In light of what’s happening with the COVID-19 virus, it’s wise to limit the access to the capitol in the short term,” Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka said. “We’ll have plenty of time to conduct business before our constitutional adjournment on May 18, 2020.”
There will also be limits on large gatherings by the public at the Capitol. “People come here from every corner of the state, so I would imagine if there was a case of COVID-19 here it would be an epidemiologist’s nightmare to track down all of the people that person came in touch with,” said House Republican Leader Kurt Daudt.
But he said that if any official business is being done, there must be some public access to the process.
Both legislative bodies imposed new protocols for meetings. Lawmakers sat in every other desk on the House and Senate floors and used gallery space for those who couldn’t fit on the floor. The House had to have some members participate from a room outside the chambers.
And since both bodies use electronic voting machines, new methods of voting — including voice votes and even thumbs up or down — were imposed. If there is a floor debate and a member not given a seat on the floor wants to speak, he or she would need to change places with someone with a seat on the floor. Hortman said the person leaving the desk would then wipe it down before leaving.
Legislative staffers who are not needed to work at the capitol are being asked to telecommute. “It is possible for us to continue our work and do it safely from this distance,” Hortman said. But she added normal committee schedules and floor sessions are not possible while also meeting federal and state health guidelines for social distancing, i.e. keeping six feet of space between people.
House and Senate members will be available to talk to constituents and other members of the public, though primarily via phone, online or by appointment, Gazelka said. The Senate office building will be closed to the public except by appointment, he said.
Still, there could be committee meetings and other work conducted during the hiatus.
“The work of the Legislature will continue,” Hortman said. “In some ways, this will be a more intensive period of work for us than a normal session. It would be wrong to consider this a recess because we are all still working.”
Lawmakers still need to do ‘mission-critical’ work
Hortman said legislation would be limited for the rest of the regular session — if there is a regular session before the constitutional end date of May 18. She said bills take up when they return will now fall into three “buckets:” COVID-19 response legislation; “mission-critical” work, such as the supplemental budget and the capital budget construction projects (aka bonding); and bills that have broad bipartisan agreement.
“We’ll have legislators focusing their efforts on these three buckets over the next few weeks.”
The first of the COVID-19 bills was an emergency appropriation to state hospitals. “Hospitals are a critical link in the care chain and they need additional funding to prepare for additional COVID cases,” said Gazelka.
Also Monday, groups and activists began putting in their requests for funding from the state to help respond to the impacts of the battle against the virus. The Minnesota Hospital Association will have access to $150 million in grants to cover costs related to treating COVID-19 patients. The Legislature also added another $50 to the public health emergency response fund that received $21 million in new funding just last week.
The money, contained in Senate File 4334, will allow for temporary sites or additional beds, isolation wards, staff overtime and training, equipment purchases such as ventilators, extra transport of patients, cleaning supplies and personal protective equipment for staff and patients. Eligible to receive grants are hospitals, clinics, long-term care providers as well as pharmacy and ambulance services.
Those accepting grants must agree to treat uninsured patients and to accept in-network payment for out-of-network patients. The bills passed both the House and Senate unanimously in the early morning Tuesday before both recessed to April 14, at least.
A coalition of housing advocates asked for a like amount for rental assistance under the Family Homeless Prevention and Assistance Program. In a letter to Walz and the four caucus leaders, the coalition said that “$100 million will provide one month of FHPAP, at an estimated rate of $400 per month per household, for 250,000 families.”
Rep. Mike Howard, DFL-Richfield, introduced a bill with unspecified funding for that program plus a moratorium on evictions and late fees. Neither of those issues was handled prior to the legislative recess.
New economic outlook forecasts a recession
The state received an updated national forecast from its economic consultant that drastically changed the outlook, from no recession in the next several years to one starting in the second quarter of this year. According to the update, the economy will remain in recession through the end of 2020, and not starting to recover until the beginning of 2021.
It is unusual for the state’s consultant to update its forecasts in this way. The state was not set to update the February forecast until April 10. In the statement released Monday afternoon, the state office of Management and Budget described the economic situation as fluid, noting that “uncertainty is extraordinarily high about the size and duration of the negative impact on economic growth — partly because we do not yet know the effect of possible federal policy responses — but, a recession does appear likely.”
“This announcement confirms what we have suspected: deteriorating economic conditions caused by COVID-19 will stress Minnesota’s economy,” Walz said in a statement Monday.
Update: this story was updated to reflect passage of Senate File4334 on health care grants