Gov. Tim Walz dialed back Minnesota’s stay at home order by allowing non-essential businesses and retailers to reopen with social distancing rules and letting gatherings of 10 or fewer people resume, effective May 18.
In a televised speech Wednesday, the governor said he is still keeping bars, restaurants, gyms and salons closed, though his administration is developing plans for those businesses reopen at least partially by June 1.
Walz also informed legislative leaders that he is extending by another 30 days his declaration of peacetime emergency.
“We have continued to implement policies and exercise emergency powers to protect the health and safety of all Minnesotans,” he wrote. “ As COVID-19 cases and fatalities continue to increase, our emergency efforts must also continue. As a result, I have determined that there is a need to extend the peacetime emergency for an additional 30 days, until June 12, 2020.”
Wednesday’s address is the latest iteration of the governor’s exercise of emergency powers first declared on March 13 and now extended twice. Under the powers granted him, Walz has issued more than 50 executive orders, including the closure of public gathering places and a stay-at-home order.
Under state law, the orders must be ratified by the five-member state Executive Council made up of Walz, Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan, Attorney General Keith Ellison, Secretary of State Steve Simon and Auditor Julie Blaha. The council was scheduled to meet after the speech Wednesday.
The law also gives the Legislature an opportunity to rescind the declaration of emergency, but that would require a majority of both the GOP-controlled Senate and the DFL-controlled House. That is unlikely to happen. If Walz extends the emergency again in mid-June, he is required to call the Legislature back into session to give it the opportunity to cancel the declaration.
“We know there’s no stopping the storm of COVID-19 from hitting Minnesota,” Walz said. “But we’ve prepared for it. We’ve successfully pushed out and reduced the peak of this virus. We’ve made great progress to treat Minnesotans who fall ill.”
He credited adherence to early stay at home orders and closures for saving the lives of residents.
He called his next steps a “measured Minnesota approach.”
“We’re not flipping a switch and everything’s going back to normal at once,” he said. “We’re slowly moving the dial and introducing more interaction between people over time.”
That includes the reopening of stores with reduced capacity and allowing non-essential businesses to reopen with social distancing protocols in place. It also includes allowing stores in shopping malls to open, though the state is working on rules for common spaces in malls.
Gatherings of 10 or fewer in social settings, at ceremonies and in religious settings will be allowed. People in those settings should wear face masks, keep six feet apart and practice other recommended hygiene steps, however.
“Stay close to home, limit travel to what’s essential,” he asked. “But we can now gather with friends and family in groups of less than 10. This CDC guidance in all cases is asing Minnesotans not to gather in large groups — whether a backyard barbecue or a religious meeting at a church, synagogue or mosque are limited to 10 and require social distancing.”
He also said his Cabinet would continue to work with businesses about finding ways and rules to let public gathering places such as restaurants, gyms and salons to reopen. Walz said that could come by June 1.
Why are restaurants treated differently from retail stores? Walz said health officials tell him that walking through a store briefly to shop is safer than sitting down in a crowded restaurant. Generally, the governor said activities are riskier when you are closer to people and around others for a longer period of time.
Walz warned that if infections increase or hotspots develop, he will quickly act to dial back on public gatherings. “This can go in a bad direction very quickly,” he said. “We must keep this virus at a simmer, not a boil.”
And he called on residents to do their part after health care workers and first responders did their part during the closures.
“We can make this turn of the dial and keep people safe if we can trust each other to continue to be cautious,” he said.
While Walz said he wants business owners to create safe at work plans, he also signed an executive order protecting workers who complain about unsafe conditions from retaliation.
And he asked at-risk populations — those over the age of 65 and those with underlying health conditions — to continue to stay home and keep away from gatherings. At the same time, the governor asked other residents to reach out to those with health challenges to stay in touch and help them get the supplies they need.
“We know more people will get sick and some will end up in the hospital. We’ve prepared for that inevitably,” with ICUs ventilators and PPE and plans for long-term care and hot spots.
“But we’ve got work to do to continue to control the spread of the virus. We will test people and find out where the virus is spreading. … So yes, the stay at home order is expiring and the dials are turning. But that doesn’t mean we’re carefree and can return to the way things were.”
And while he is not ordering the wearing of masks in public settings, Walz stressed that their use could help keep these opening steps from being reversed.
“Not wearing a mask is not a sign of rebellion,” he said in a press call after his speech. “It’s just hurting your neighbor. I get it that people are frustrated with the shutdown. But the way to protest that is to yell at me or whatever. But not wearing a mask makes it worse.”
The reaction to Walz’s announcement among other politicians and business leaders was mostly positive.
“We’re moving in the right direction,” Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka said. “This is really good news. I’m glad that he listened to us and I feel like we led the way. Now it’s up to us, you and me, that we practice safe distancing. I have every confidence we’re going to be able to do it. Minnesota is back on track.”
House Speaker Melissa Hortman echoed Walz’s call for the public to make this work. “We have a responsibility to be considerate of each other and do the things that are smart and proven to reduce transmission of this deadly disease,” she said. “Minnesotans have trusted Gov. Walz through this crisis and he has done an excellent job. Now he is putting his trust and his faith in the people of Minnesota.”
Doug Loon, the president of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, was also supportive. “Today’s announcement is welcome news for businesses throughout the state who are eager to get our economy moving again.” Loon said. “Those who have not yet opened their physical doors have been taking responsible steps to design safe work environments and inspire consumer confidence. We’re thankful that they will now have that opportunity.”
One criticism came from Mary Turner, the president of the Minnesota Nurses Association, who said the union has “reservations with the timing of lifting the state’s shelter-in-place orders at a time when hospitals continue to dangerously ration PPE, new supply lines have not appeared in state warehouses, and the Minnesota Department of Health still cannot show that testing has dramatically increased.
“Nurses believe that the decision to turn the dial to re-open Minnesota requires every Minnesotan to turn the dial to find more PPE, more beds, and more tests while protecting health care workers and each other.”