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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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 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 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.
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.”