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How the rollback of Minnesota’s COVID restrictions could affect the end-of-session politics at the Capitol

Gov. Tim Walz said that it should take away some of the conflicts that have soured relations with legislative Republicans.

Gov. Tim Walz
Gov. Tim Walz said he will renew the peacetime state of emergency when it expires next week — the latest extension of an emergency that has given the governor unilateral powers to impose orders such as those being relaxed now.

Will Thursday’s announcement on a timeline for ending pandemic restrictions in Minnesota lessen political tensions in the state Capitol? And will that help Gov. Tim Walz and legislators reach a deal to finish the regular session by May 17?

If so, those possible side effects of the announcement weren’t obvious on Thursday. GOP Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, who could have taken credit for the governor’s decisions by claiming it was what he had been urging for months, instead blasted it as “not good enough and not soon enough.” And House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt focused his reaction on the continuation of Walz’s peacetime state of emergency powers rather than the announcement that most of the uses of those powers will cease in a month.

“The data clearly shows we’ve made incredible progress reducing case counts and getting Minnesotans vaccinated, but the Governor insists on holding on to powers he doesn’t need — it’s time to open up and end the emergency powers,” the Crown Republican said.

Walz, after at first declining to examine the politics of the rollback — saying he preferred to focus on what should be a reason for the state to celebrate — offered that it should take away some of the conflicts that have soured relations with legislative Republicans. While he said he needs emergency powers for reasons other than business restrictions and mask mandates, he is suspending many of the orders that have caused the most pushback.

The DFL governor even suggested that he would invite legislative leaders to a barbecue at the governor’s residence to begin to restore relationships.

Walz: political rhetoric ‘more personal because we’re less in-person’

Thursday’s announcement set a timetable for ending the most controversial pandemic restrictions: the limits on indoor and outdoor crowd sizes; caps on customers and hours in bars and restaurants; and the indoor mask mandate. Most will end in time for the Memorial Day Weekend, which serves as the unofficial start of summer. And all will end either by July 1 or when 70 percent of residents age 16 and older are vaccinated, whichever comes first.

Walz said he will renew the peacetime state of emergency when it expires next week — the latest extension of an emergency that has given the governor unilateral powers to impose orders such as those being relaxed now. But it also includes orders to allow out-of-state health workers to practice without getting state licenses and triggers certain federal funds that flow during emergencies.

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“Where this thing got politicized is where they said the governor is using emergency powers to close businesses … at the point we’re at right now, after May 28, most of those are gone,” Walz said. “At that point, I don’t think there will be much talk or much complaint around emergency powers unless it’s being used just strictly as a political thing.

“It’s a lot about narrative. I think now it just becomes an easy talking point, especially after the 28th of May.”

The reduction in infections and hospitalizations tied to increased vaccination rates also have allowed more in-person legislating and in-person negotiations. Gazelka said Thursday that the final week of the session will have no distancing rules on the Senate floor, where all 67 members can sit at their desks. Masks will be optional, as they always have been in the Senate, and members who are uncomfortable can still work remotely.

Walz said the most productive meeting he has had with legislative leaders was last week, when they met in person for the first time in more than a year. It was from that event that the barbecue sprung to mind.

“As I thought about it, I’m kind of savoring a day where Minnesotans can be happy about this, I will go out of my way to make a difference,” he said during a press conference after making Thursday’s announcement. “Those who aren’t so certain, I’m gonna invite them over to my house for a barbecue. We’ll get back together, we’ll set in the backyard and figure it out and get back to normal.

“Some of that angst should be gone away. I’m confident that many of them want to get this budget done too.”

When asked if his invite was real or just rhetorical, Walz said. “I just threw that out just now. I’m sure my team is thinking, ‘Wow, that’s great. Maybe you should have let the first lady know that before.’” 

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But he blamed increased political fighting on the lack of personal contact. “It had to become more personal because we’re less in-person. When you’re sitting in a room with someone looking at them, it’s much better.”

The remaining issues for the regular session are a two-year state budget; the debate over tax hikes that DFLers want and Republicans do not; how to spend $2.6 billion in direct federal aid to the state in response to the pandemic; and emergency powers. 

The latter is illustrated by dueling ideas on how to end the eviction moratorium without triggering a spike in evictions that neither landlords nor tenant advocates want. While a $350 million influx of federal money on top of the $2.6 billion coming to the state from the American Rescue Plan is available for back rent, agreeing on a timeline for providing for the money to flow while stretching out the pace of other evictions is still needed.

Gazelka: ‘We are moving in the right direction’

Speaking on the Senate floor Thursday afternoon, Gazelka first complained that none of his ideas were accepted by Walz, including saying that anyone who has been vaccinated would be relieved of the mask mandate immediately. He also called for the emergency declaration itself to end, not just the more onerous uses of that power.

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka
Earlier in the week, when Gazelka released his first list of demands in bargaining with House Speaker Melissa Hortman, the three emergency orders he said had to end were the mask requirement; restrictions on businesses, schools, places of public accommodation and youth sports; and the eviction moratorium. All are in process of being eliminated or altered after the Walz announcement Thursday.

Gazelka appeared to soften his rhetoric after that.

“We are moving in the right direction,” the East Gull Lake Republican said. “And if the governor will work with us on some of the mandates I’ve highlighted here, we’ll get done and find a way to finish.”

While GOP legislative leaders were critical of Walz’s actions — at least the scope and timing — others affected by them were less so. 

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“Local bars and restaurants have been desperate to fully open safely and quickly — and the end is in sight,” said Tony Chesak, executive director of the Minnesota Licensed Beverage Association. “We’re thrilled to fully open for business with minimal restrictions. Please visit your local bars and restaurants — we’ve missed you!”

Said Liz Rammer, president of Hospitality Minnesota: “With today’s welcome announcement, brighter days are ahead as our citizens and communities can come back together to discover what they’ve been craving for – connectedness and hospitality. We appreciate the ongoing partnership we’ve forged with state officials as we have all worked to navigate the impact of the pandemic.”

The attacks from the GOP may have inadvertently helped Walz politically, given the criticism from his left for lifting restrictions too soon.

Had the GOP pronounced that it had won this battle, it would only have made things stickier for the DFL governor, who had full support from DFL leaders in the Legislature.

“As more and more Minnesotans receive the vaccine, Gov. Walz’s approach to wind down restrictions is consistent with his earlier decisions – thoughtful and measured,” said Senate Minority Leader Susan Kent, DFL-Woodbury.

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