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How the Walz administration is developing its plans for restarting Minnesota’s economy

Utility workers
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Utility workers working in the North Loop neighborhood of Minneapolis earlier this week.

When Gov. Tim Walz extended his stay-home order until May 4, he asked state agencies to get some workers back on the job quickly while planning for how to reopen the economy on a wider scale once public health restrictions begin to ease.

It’s no simple task. Which business can safely restart — and when — has been a puzzle facing state governments across the U.S. as they try to bolster an imploding economy without overwhelming hospitals or putting lives at risk from COVID-19.

State Sen. Paul Utke, a Republican from Park Rapids, said he sees nothing but “dark storefronts” of small businesses while driving through his central Minnesota district. “And then we go past the big box store and of course they’re open,” Utke said.

Walz has not released a comprehensive plan for reviving business in Minnesota yet, a subject of growing frustration among some Republicans, but his administration has been working behind the scenes over the last week to build its strategy.

The governor said the state can’t move so fast that it causes outbreaks, like the one that has shuttered the Smithfield Foods pork processing plant in South Dakota. “Keeping Smithfield open did not keep Smithfield open,” Walz said.

But he acknowledged in a call with reporters on Tuesday: “There’s a limit to everyone’s patience.”

How the state is developing its plan

To develop economic plans, the state has drawn hundreds of comments from businesses through an online form. Steve Grove, commissioner of the Department of Employment and Economic Development, said his agency is also in frequent contact with labor and business leaders, like the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce and studying how essential businesses have adapted to the pandemic.

Commissioner Steve Grove
MinnPost photo by Walker Orenstein
Commissioner Steve Grove
Soon, DEED and other agencies will make their own recommendations to the governor on how to proceed. “First and foremost, the main factor is just safety,” Grove said. “Can a work environment get people back into the economy in a safe way that continues to stop the spread at the same rate we’ve done now?”

Grove said they’ve been lumping businesses in categories. One is office and industrial settings that have no customers — which may be easier to open. Another are businesses that can sell products by delivery and curbside pickup.

For businesses that rely on in-store customers, Grove said lessons from grocery stores could help places open.

By way of the online portal, Grove said businesses have sent in ideas on workplace adjustments like spacing requirements, improved cleaning, mask-wearing protocols, physical barriers, shift staggering and use of appointments for customers. Amazon has been checking the temperature of employees, Grove said.

Jan Malcolm, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Health, told reporters last week her rule of thumb is that businesses should be able to minimize direct contact between people — which she considers contact within six feet for more than 10 minutes at a time.

During a virtual hearing held by state senators on Wednesday, Grove said each noncritical business will need an individual plan for reopening based on health guidance. While DEED wouldn’t review each one, the state could look at them if complaints come in. 

Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm
Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm
Based on its work, the state has already allowed some businesses that were initially considered non-essential to reopen. One is dock installers, who Walz allowed to go back to work after a campaign from the industry and Republican legislators. 

Another is garden centers. Leitner’s Garden Center in St. Paul, which reopened Monday,  implemented 12-foot wide aisles and moved all products and registers outside so no one has to enter a building, said manager Joan Westby. Workers have masks and the business also does delivery and pickups to limit in-store purchases. So far, things are running smoothly, and she said the business can bring joy to the community.

“People are staying at home — they want to be outside doing something productive,” Westby said.

Yet for now, most businesses designated non-essential remain closed.

Construction workers adding on to the Fulton Brewing Taproom in the North Loop.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Construction workers adding on to the Fulton Brewing Taproom in the North Loop.
Roughly 14 percent of the state’s labor force has applied for unemployment insurance — more than 460,000 people. Servers, cooks, retail workers, barbers and other in-person jobs top the unemployment ranks, all workers for whom safely returning will be difficult.

Still, Grove said the Walz administration hopes to make a real dent in unemployment once their plan is implemented. The number of people who can return “could be as few as tens of thousands and as large as hundreds of thousands,” Grove said. He quickly added putting zero workers back on the job is an option. “It just depends on where we land on it from a safety perspective,” he said.

Doug Loon, president of the Minnesota Chamber, said his organization has appreciated Walz’s flexible approach, but would like to see more businesses return to work than have been authorized so far.

Manufacturing and wholesalers, particularly in smaller industries, could easily adapt to meet CDC guidance, Loon said. That includes business related to supplying household goods, furniture and boat building. “They are important ingredients to our economy and to supply chains,” he said. “By opening up more of those businesses, we’ll bring back more workers. We’ll do it in a safe way and get our economy back on track.”

In an interview on Thursday, Loon said businesses tied to outdoor activities, like resorts and golf courses, can prepare safely to open for spring and summer as well. On Friday morning, Walz issued an executive order allowing bait shops, outdoor shooting ranges, public and private parks and trails, golf courses and some boating services to open.

As for the service industry, Walz recently told reporters that “restaurants are going to look different” if the state is able to get them open. They’ll have fewer tables and could be limited to outdoor patios as spring arrives.

More answers are needed. So are more tests.

There are other considerations for state officials and businesses deciding how to reboot the economy. One is liability. If a noncritical business opens and a worker gets sick, will they be sued? (Loon said liability for employers should be limited if they use best practices to safeguard customers and workers.) And what if a business opens, but people who are young, healthy and considered not at highest risk for severe complications of COVID-19 don’t feel safe enough to work?

Another question being raised around the country: can a business sustain itself if infections pick up and people are too scared to be in public? Westby, the Leitner’s manager, said they are happy to be open, but high income for the store right now would normally be considered low. “It’s been very slow,” she said. “I think people are hesitant to come out and they should be. There is still a stay-at-home policy.”

Gov. Tim Walz
MinnPost photo by Greta Kaul
Gov. Tim Walz
Grove said there’s only so much the government, particularly a state government with taxed budgets, can do. Businesses must choose for themselves to open or not. He also told the Senate panel that people scared to return to work if their employer opens won’t be able to keep using unemployment benefits if they and their family are healthy and not at risk of severe complications from coronavirus.

“If you’re just worried — I mean everyone is worried,” Grove said. “So I think we have to draw some lines there on eligibility based on actual access and exposure to COVID.”

One of Walz’s key variables for reopening the economy is in the hands of the health care industry: testing. The governor called for testing 5,000 or more people a day as a prerequisite to opening the economy. While Mayo Clinic and the University of Minnesota have said they could potentially meet those needs, the efforts are still ramping up. And for hospitals and clinics, there’s a separate hurdle to bringing back workers: Walz ordered a halt to elective procedures — a main source of patients and revenue for many — to conserve personal protective equipment that remains in short supply.

For Walz, it’s not just how to reopen the economy — but when. He has pledged to try and get some back to work shortly. But exactly what comes after May 4 is unknown. Shelter-in-place policies could continue, or be scaled back to a varying degree. The state recently shared public health modeling that predicts how different closure and social distancing strategies could affect health care capacity and death totals.

The governor announced Thursday that Minnesota will join a pact with other midwestern states like Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, and Illinois to collaborate on restarting nonessential work. Wisconsin on Thursday extended its stay-home order to May 26.

Walz has also looked to states like Washington, which is further along in its outbreak, for help and guidance. House Speaker Melissa Hortman said Walz often talks to Washington Gov. Jay Inslee.

Construction workers working on a new apartment complex in the North Loop on Thursday.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Construction workers working on a new apartment complex in the North Loop on Thursday.
On Wednesday, Inslee said Washington would reopen its economy in phases, likely in a reverse fashion to how businesses and activities were closed. He also described the transition as a “dial” he could manipulate up and down in response to data.

President Donald Trump
REUTERS/Leah Millis
President Donald Trump
President Donald Trump on Thursday released a set of guidelines for “opening up America again” that also calls for returning people to work in phases. In the initial phase, the feds recommend closing common areas at offices, keeping schools and bars shut down and opening large venues and gyms only under strict distancing protocols. The president also said governors should choose for themselves when to open businesses, though he tweeted “LIBERATE MINNESOTA!” on Friday in apparent support of protests being held to criticize Walz’s actions.

On a call with reporters Thursday, Malcolm, Minnesota’s Health Commissioner, said Walz will look at “a whole range of data points and factors as we get closer to May 4.”

“That next decision point is a couple of weeks away,” she said. “But things can change pretty quickly. What’s the situation going to be like a week from now, much less two weeks from now in terms of our growth rate of cases, what’s happening with healthcare capacity, what’s happening with increased information about the virus itself.”

The role of politics

How and when to start lifting the stay-at-home order is a political question as well.

Republicans in the Minnesota Legislature have mostly supported the closure orders — of schools, public gathering places such as bars and restaurants, and the state as a whole.

But they have also raised questions about the modeling used by Walz to make decisions and have blanched at what they see as the Legislature’s limited role in governing during the coronavirus response.

Those frustrations reached a new level last week when many Republicans questioned the extension of the stay-at-home order to May 4. It continued Tuesday during a one-day session.

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka
Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka initially offered a measured response to Walz decision, saying in a tweet it was “welcome news some businesses can open up and safely resume work even as the stay at home order is extended.”

But the next day he said: “I do not approve of the Governor’s unilateral decision to continue the order to shelter at home until May 4th. We have to get on with our lives.”

Walz retorted during a call with the media: “I will be glad to give them whatever they need, but I would say, and this is just for me, I don’t think deliberating in a crisis by tweet is the way to go.”

The dust-up was one reason House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler sent a text message to Hortman, the House Speaker, saying: “Bipartisanship is on a ventilator.”

Gazelka, a Republican from East Gull Lake, said he regretted expressing concerns through twitter, and pledged to work with Walz and the DFL on COVID-related bills. But he has also made it clear he wants the Legislature to be part of the decision-making process, even under an emergency declaration. On Tuesday, he said Walz has been listening to suggestions from lawmakers, including House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, about reopening the state and of using a working group of business and health care advisors.

“That is one of the areas I think he is listening to,” Gazelka said Tuesday. “That’s what we need to explore with every industry. Can you do what you do and follow CDC guidelines? And if you can, I think you ought to be able to move forward.”

Wednesday, the Senate GOP caucus announced an online portal for businesses to show how they would operate under CDC guidelines for social distancing.

House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt
Reopening the economy was also at the center of a debate on the House floor Tuesday when Daudt moved to rescind Walz’s declaration of a peacetime emergency.  The effort had no chance of passing — it was opposed by the DFL majority — but it was a way for GOP lawmakers to express frustration, to assert the role of the Legislature and to ask for a different path toward normalcy than Walz has proposed.

“Just as you and I didn’t ask for this, this governor didn’t ask for this,” Daudt said. “And he’s certainly responded in a way that he thinks will keep Minnesota safe, and I respect that. But we need the Legislature to be brought back up to its co-equal branch of government status.”

Daudt and Gazelka both cited Walz’s modeling to make the case for earlier action to reopen the economy. They say two scenarios — one Walz is largely following (scenario 4) and a similar one with a shorter stay-at-home period (scenario 3) have similar outcomes of deaths, hospitalizations and ICU needs.

“I wouldn’t say the governor’s approach is wrong,” said Daudt, R-Crown. “But given the data in his own modeling … I couldn’t look at that and say — with the damage this will do to our economy — choose scenario 4.”

In response, Winkler said he hopes Minnesotans “won’t listen to the armchair epidemiologists who have been speaking on the (House) floor.”

“We have people who do that for a living,” said the Golden Valley DFLer. “Now is not the time to say the governor acted when he needed to and now the emergency is over. It is far from over.” 

Instead of rescinding the declaration, the Legislature could continue to work together to lessen the impact on residents and businesses, Winkler said. He suggested passing rental assistance that would pay landlords directly when tenants are unable to make payments and advancing federal loan and grant programs to small businesses.

“Everyone is anxious for the stay at home order to end,” Winkler said  “Everybody is anxious for the economy to get up and running like normal and everyone is heartbroken at the economic devastation, especially to our small businesses and especially to our hospitality industry. But we know the governor is balancing these things and constantly talking to his commissioners and looking at the data and sharing the data with us.”

Comments (14)

  1. Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 04/17/2020 - 12:17 pm.

    Well we know how this plays out, guilty if you do and guilty if you don’t and the president setting it up to be used as a wedge issue in the election,. If he would have been in charge of all 50 states, more lives would have been saved and folks would already be back at work, with zero to negative facts as support. Anyone want to take bets? .

  2. Submitted by joe smith on 04/17/2020 - 12:41 pm.

    Everyone is for more testing but unfortunately China, where 90% of America’s medical supplies are made, is withholding tests. Makes one think we need to decouple from China in any essential good that America needs. So if Walz is waiting on tests, he may wait a long time.
    Now I see Governor Walz and his team will determine what businesses are essential and open them first. Every small business owner knows their business is essential to them, their employees and all of their families. I find it sad that folks (including Walz) didn’t understand with lack of foot traffic and inability to restock shelves, Mom and Pop small stores would have to close. When they closed, big box stores (Target) would thrive. Getting a haircut, very essential for barbershop owner, is out, thousands of folks in Target a day is deemed safe, ok.
    The facts are clearly in on who is dying from Coronavirus, older folks with underlying health issues. Put our resources towards those folks and let the workforce (average age 42) go back to work.
    Look up the death rate and who’s dying yourself. Relying on the experts (2.2M Americans will die estimated 2-3 weeks ago moved down to 60k, USA hospital beds needed for just Coronavirus cases this week was estimated at 260k, 50k actual this week) is a waste of time until they get their modeling numbers in line with what is actually happening.
    This is not “the big one”, bad news to the fatalist who seem to want more bad news. Time to leave the basement and start getting our country up and running again.

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 04/17/2020 - 02:13 pm.

      The numbers are down because of the precautions and opening up too soon and too quickly may hurt the economy even more. This is the problem with having a president who knows absolutely nothing about running a successful business. A man with a long history of business failures and job killing is trying to do the same to the whole country.

    • Submitted by Joel Stegner on 04/17/2020 - 03:21 pm.

      Trump said he would be a war time President taking total responsibility – and within backed off punting to ball to the governors, so he can blame them whatever they. Don’t see him. Criticizing the incompetent South Dakota governor who kept the state open and now has 500+ infected workers in one meat processing plant. Trump is very willing to sacrifice tens of thousands of lives to enhance his chance for re-election, as with 22 million unemployed, this will go down as Trump’s depression. The Trump touch has turned a vibrant economy into a disaster, something that had not happened to other countries. Even China is going to come out better. We are now having 2000 deaths a day – two months of that is about 120,000 deaths. Double that by reopening and we are at a quarter million deaths. Obviously he has to shift blame for that, or he will lose the race by the largest margin ever.

    • Submitted by Brent Stahl on 04/17/2020 - 04:03 pm.

      Mr. Smith: Gov. Walz and his very impressive team know what they are doing. Minnesota has had the most success of any state in managing this pandemic, and they are in the process of loosening up the economy while still preparing for the peak expected in another month or two. I am not impressed by those who complain because the Covid-19 deaths in Minnesota are highly concentrated among old people. These complainers also give the impression that they would support the state government actions only if the death rate and distribution here were the same as in less successful states.

      • Submitted by Betsy Larey on 04/18/2020 - 09:12 am.

        I don’t think people are complaining the death rate is concentrated in the elderly population with underlying health conditions as much as they are pointing out that is a fact. The average age dying is well over 70. I think in MN the average age is 86. Those people, for the most part are home bound anyone.
        The point I make is why force an economic crises that doesn’t have to be. Businesses will have to adapt to social distancing. All can, with the exception of sports stadiums, concerts et al.
        I don’t agree with trump supporters parading up and down Summit Ave demanding everything open right now. But with the right protocols in place we should open up and let the economy recover. To wait another 16 days is the wrong thing to do. Small business needs to open now or many will be permanently closed.

    • Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 04/18/2020 - 11:05 am.

      As before Joe, seems you and your conservative bros are the experts, got this all figured out and modeled, (please share your models and projections), and the experts are all quacks! Are you advising Fauci, Mayo, etc. with this medical model breakthrough information?

    • Submitted by Mike Hindin on 04/21/2020 - 02:03 pm.

      Mr Smith, Your expertise in epidemiology? Infectious disease? Do you not know that there are many people who are infected and not showing symptoms who are shedding virus? Or do you have trump magic and can see virus particles and by trump voodoo and see who is a silent carrier? I’ll trust the Governor”s team’s expertise over your unknowing speculation. In fact I’ll bet my life and Master of Public Health on it.

  3. Submitted by Mike Chrun on 04/17/2020 - 06:22 pm.

    So one day after Trump says that states should determine when they re-open, he sends out a basic provocative tweets, one of which is, “Liberate Minnesota.” So we have essentially a MAGA rally in front of the governor’s mansion today. I get people are distressed and worried about the economy and have lost their livelihoods, but they’re stupid enough to bunch together without masks just so they can show how easily they’re manipulated?

    I’d guess the large majority of that bunch today also use “The sanctity of life,” and would welcome an abortion ban. Yet, they’re essentially making the argument that we can sacrifice x amount of people (after all, most of them are old) for the sake of the economy. They claim that they are willing to take their chances with Covid-19 while ignoring the characteristics of this virus: that you might not know you have it; that it is easily passed to others; and that a whole lot of people might die than what they’re claiming and not all of them will have dementia.

  4. Submitted by Thomas Savage on 04/19/2020 - 09:27 am.

    Liberate and containment.

    • Submitted by Brian Nelson on 04/19/2020 - 01:43 pm.

      Where does “Liberate and containment” appear in the President’s three-phase plan? Please explain.

  5. Submitted by Gary DeVaan on 04/19/2020 - 11:55 am.

    All businesses should have to develop a plan to do business following the CDC recommendations. I suspect most have already. The state should approve these plans and allow these companies to open. Any complaints get an inspection and some testing if warranted.

    • Submitted by Mike Hindin on 04/21/2020 - 02:15 pm.

      Testing is problematic. From the point of infection to a positive test is 7-8 days until viral genetic material can be detected in your nose by swabbing. You would have to be quarantined and tested twice to be virus free. At any instant after that you could get infected. Essentially you can only trust a positive test. Antibody test have a similar problem.

  6. Submitted by Clayton Haapala on 04/21/2020 - 02:46 pm.

    I am sure all businesses and the Walz administration would like to have more tools in the testing toolbox than thermometers in order to make plans to open up. Smart people are working on it, but it may be another month.

    Even while an increasing number of businesses demonstrate safety plans an go back to work, the legislature could deliver something to ease the near-term pain of those who cannot.

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