Walz not weighing new restrictions as he extends emergency powers

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Briana Bierschbach, Star Tribune
·4 min read
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Gov. Tim Walz says while he's closely monitoring an increase in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in Minnesota, he doesn't anticipate tightening restrictions on businesses or social gatherings any time soon.

But he's not quite ready to relinquish the emergency powers he's used to respond to the pandemic and put those restrictions in place. Walz plans to extend those powers for another 30 days on Wednesday, citing the need for continued vigilance as the state races to vaccinate as many people as possible against more contagious variants of the virus.

"As we've said this entire pandemic, the way the virus acts, we will respond accordingly," Walz said Tuesday at a mass vaccination site on the Minnesota State Fairgrounds. "If we start to see numbers go back up, we will see if there are things that need to happen. At this point in time, we don't have plans to do that. We think the mitigation efforts are working."

Governors in states like Michigan are getting pressure to shut down schools, bars and restaurants again to slow a sudden surge of cases. Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer stopped short this week of mandating that schools temporarily go back to remote learning or put a pause on youth sports as more people are vaccinated.

Minnesota hospitalizations have doubled in three weeks, but Walz said hospitals are still "significantly under capacity" and more people are being vaccinated every day. "At this point in time, we're still asking folks to wear their masks, socially distance, get the vaccine, get tested," said Walz.

But his use of emergency powers — which have enabled him to impose a statewide mask mandate and limit the number of people inside bars, restaurants and other venues — has become a flash point at the Capitol, where Republicans in the Senate have passed a slew of bills to curtail his powers to close down schools and businesses.

As lawmakers enter the final weeks of the regular 2021 session, winding down some of those powers is expected to be a critical bargaining chip as Walz and the divided Legislature attempt to come together on a roughly $52 billion state budget.

"Other states have begun to wind them down now, and so I think that will happen too as the vaccination numbers continue to grow — I think it's about 85% of people over 65 have been vaccinated," Republican Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka said last week. "So we're definitely moving to a place where I think Minnesota can just have a sigh of relief that we are going to get through it."

So far this session, Democrats in control of the House have shot down attempts from Republicans to vote to end Walz's emergency powers outright.

Under state law, both the House and Senate must vote to end a state of emergency. If Walz continues to renew his emergency powers after lawmakers adjourn the regular session on May 17, lawmakers are automatically called back into a special session.

DFL House Speaker Melissa Hortman said they hoped cases would be going down by now as more people are vaccinated, but the surge triggered by more contagious variants of the virus have made it harder to determine if they should unwind any of Walz's executive orders or powers by end of session.

"As the virus has again flared, I think he's more cautious and wants to make sure that he has all the tools that he needs in the toolbox," she said. "We want him to have all the tools he needs."

Hortman said they will continue to be "very strong allies" to Walz as he navigates the complicated vaccine rollout during the surge of cases.

"I imagine he's getting pressure from everyone. People to the right of him want him to open more things more, and people who are to the left of him on this issue want him to be more cautious," she said. "Human health, as he has noted, ecncompanses those emotional, social and economic issues."

Walz said in states like Alaska, where an emergency declaration expired in February, lawmakers are still debating ways to restore it until the end of September to help with vaccine distribution and make the state eligible for federal emergency food aid.

If Minnesota were to end the emergency tomorrow, Walz said it would lose out on $35 million in federal food aid for low income families.

"We are still in the pandemic, we are still vaccinating people, we are still receiving federal aid, and we are still in the same position as every other governor," he said.

Gazelka signaled they could agree to some emergency powers when it comes to vaccine rollout.

"The powers for all, every part of a person's life, we don't think are appropriate," Gazelka said. "But related to the vaccines and testing, certainly we're open to a conversation."

Reporter Jessie Van Berkel contributed to this story

Briana Bierschbach • 651-925-5042

Twitter: @bbierschbach