As Minnesota grapples with a worst-in-the-nation surge of COVID-19 cases, the response from Gov. Tim Walz will look quite different compared to how he handled the spike last winter.
Speaking to reporters by phone Wednesday from a trade mission in Finland, Walz said that another state of peacetime emergency to unilaterally institute a mask mandate or restrict bars and restaurants would be politically costly — and not particularly effective.
And as the Republican-led Senate threatens to remove his health commissioner, Walz downplayed the chances of turning to the Legislature for a special session in order to alter regulations meant to ease the burden on the medical system.
Instead, Walz said he’s focusing on the few things left in his control, such as expanding eligibility for COVID-19 vaccine boosters and using his platform as governor to ask people to get vaccinated and avoid crowds. Walz is also spending money from Minnesota’s share of the American Rescue Plan on pandemic response. Lawmakers in June set aside $500 million from that federal stimulus plan for Walz to use.
In a statement Wednesday, Senate Majority Leader Jeremy Miller, R-Winona, said the Senate GOP remains “ready to come back for a special session.”
“The governor is the only person who can call a special session and we look forward to continuing discussions with the governor when he gets back from his trade mission,” he said.
Walz, however, said he’s “getting no help from the Senate.”
“Because of that, I’m continuing to focus on the tools that will make the biggest difference and that’s where I’m going to stay,” Walz said. “Vaccines, boosters, and getting these 5-to-11-year olds done is the most effective thing we can do.”
Where things stand on emergency powers
Last winter, as hospitals filled to the brim with COVID-19 patients and deaths hit record highs, Walz sharply limited gatherings and businesses. The governor had authority through his peacetime state of emergency to act on his own, though many Republicans argued Walz should have relinquished his power. Vaccines were just arriving in Minnesota, and the pandemic eventually eased as more people got shots.
Now, Walz said that immunity is waning amid a spike in cases among the unvaccinated. Some hospitals, like the CentraCare system in St. Cloud, are pleading with Minnesotans to get vaccinated and take precautions to slow the spread of COVID-19 as they struggle with full hospitals and staffing shortages. Only 47 intensive care beds were open Wednesday to Minnesota patients, according to the governor’s office.
Still, Walz all but ruled out declaring another peacetime emergency to dial up new regulations via executive order. For starters, Walz said most people are vaccinated, which does still offer significant protection against severe cases of COVID-19. Announcing new executive orders also comes “at a heavy price with the Republican Senators,” he said, and aren’t guaranteed to be followed by the general public.
Walz said if he thought ordering a new state of emergency would save lives, he would do it. “What percentage of people would simply not do a mask mandate?” Walz said. “And at this point in time, with 76 percent of people vaccinated and the vast majority have done the right thing, it’s not those people that it’s hitting. It’s the unvaccinated in many cases that are spreading or those who are unable to be vaccinated.”
But Walz also said his administration isn’t doing nothing. They have set up more free testing and vaccination sites lately and have rolled out vaccines to children ages 5-to-11. Walz has put the National Guard on alert to help with long-term care staffing issues, and directed money from Minnesota’s share of the American Rescue plan to help contract staff to help add capacity to long-term care facilities and help ease staffing shortages at hospitals, among other things.
The governor also said Wednesday the federal government accepted a request for emergency staffing help and will send next week two medical teams — each with 22 people — from the Department of Defense to spell doctors and nurses at the Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis and St. Cloud Hospital.
The Walz administration also plans to open on Monday a third “alternative care site,” where older patients can be treated at a long-term care facility rather than a hospital to free up space at hospitals. And the governor said hospitals can do things on their own without his direction, such as limiting some less urgent treatments and surgeries. Walz had ordered such measures early in the pandemic.
Minnesota Department of Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said Tuesday the state plans to soon offer booster doses to all adult Minnesotans who are at least six months past their second dose of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines, perhaps before the federal government approves the extra shots for much of the general public. “The expansion of boosters to everyone will make a difference,” Walz said.
No special session?
In early October, Walz sent a pandemic to-do list to state lawmakers, asking them to pass a series of measures primarily aimed at easing the burden on hospitals and long-term care facilities.
“What I need from people is I need them to be vaccinated and I need some relief around some of the regulations and the ability to take the pressure off of the hospitals,” Walz said.
But Walz and lawmakers in the Republican-majority Senate have clashed over a potential special session — which might also include approving extra pay for frontline workers and money for farmers hurt by drought — before legislators convene for their regular session on Jan. 31.
Meanwhile, many Senate Republicans have been frustrated with Walz’s pandemic response, including his ordering of business closures last year and the development of a phone application that displays a person’s vaccination status. In response, they have threatened to remove Malcolm from her position during a special session under the state Senate’s power to confirm, or not confirm, Walz’s appointed commissioners.
The governor and the GOP have traded letters and public statements back and forth for weeks. Last Friday, Walz sent a pre-written agreement to Miller, the Senate Majority Leader, outlining how the governor would want a special session to go. It had an empty space for Miller to sign.
“Pre-signed letters at the end of the week are not how the public expects their government to work,” Miller responded. “Our conversations have provided a number of ways to deliver bonus checks for frontline workers, drought relief, and COVID waivers. This kind of publicity stunt leaves me worried Democrats aren’t serious about having a special session at all.”
On Wednesday, Walz said again the cost of losing Malcolm was not worth what could be accomplished in a special session, which means the already dim prospect of a special session has been all but snuffed out.
“It’s not really a negotiation, it’s a threat that hangs over me that would cripple our response to COVID and I’m not going to let it happen,” Walz said. “If I don’t have the lead person in charge of vaccinations at a time when we’re peaking — the lead person in charge of decompressing hospitals — the lead person in charge of testing at a time when we need this, that’s the most serious threat to our response that we can have.”