ST. PAUL — Gov. Tim Walz on Wednesday, March 18, said state directions to shut down schools, bars, restaurants and salons have been warranted amid the spread of the coronavirus. And he called for Minnesotans to be patient as they adapt to their new normal.

The comments came the same day the Minnesota Department of Health reported 77 cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, had been detected in Minnesota. But that figure likely underrepresents the total number of Minnesotans with the illness, Walz said, as more than 1,700 samples have been put on ice because the state lacks the tests it needs to assess the disease's spread in Minnesota.

And without a clear model of how vast the disease's impact is or how it could potentially spread, Walz said state officials have been taking steps to limit transmissions, like closing Minnesota schools, bars and restaurants and community gathering spaces like theaters and gyms.

“We know this is going to be not a blizzard but a winter,” Walz said. "It is an eerie and heartbreaking scene to see shuttered businesses and shuttered schools, but the encouraging part of that means the better we do that, the sooner we get through this and the more lives we save."

During the shutdown, life is going to be different for Minnesotans as the state and health systems take actions aimed at limiting the disease's spread, Walz said.

The rollbacks in access to public spaces are aimed at preventing transmission and the potential overrun of Minnesota hospitals. The Minnesota Medical Association on Wednesday said the steps were key to flattening the curve.

While a shelter-in-place order could be employed in Minnesota, Walz said he wasn't ready to take that step on Wednesday. And he said the National Guard was preparing to be deployed to respond as needed in the face of the pandemic.

"If people are asking, with so few numbers, why are you moving so quickly? Because it's the ability to stop it before you reach that tipping point that overwhelms your healthcare system and I want to keep reminding Minnesotans, that's why we're asking you at this critical time, days matter," Walz said. "We need to hunker down, this is going to be a little longer haul."

Bar, restaurant closures fuel surge in unemployment insurance applications

Department of Employment and Economic Development Commissioner Steve Grove said roughly 50,000 people have sought unemployment insurance this week, up significantly from the 2,100 applicants who signed up this week a year ago. He encouraged those out of work for no fault of their own to seek unemployment insurance from the trust fund fueled by payments from Minnesota employers.

“Many people are encountering unemployment insurance for the first time," Grove said. "Numbers are climbing really rapidly."

State workers in positions that allow them to work remotely were asked to take that step this week. And to give Minnesotans more flexibility, Walz said those with expired driver's licenses wouldn't be ticketed or fined. The governor also said businesses wouldn't be required to pay February sales tax until April 20 and wouldn't face any penalties.

Walz urges lawmakers to return, pass response policies

Walz said he needed lawmakers' help to pass priority legislation amid the pandemic and while he said the Minnesota House of Representatives should exercise caution after an employee tested positive for COVID-19, he urged them to return to St. Paul.

Lawmakers on Monday recessed until April 14 after approving a $200 million aid package for Minnesota's hospitals. But they could call themselves back and legislative leaders on Wednesday met to consider what they would take up if they did return.

"We're giving a list to the Legislature of things we're prioritizing in tier 1 and tier 2 and tier 3 and as the situation evolves, trying to move through that," Walz said.

Among those top priorities are waivers for child care and health care providers and potentially pushing back the due date for state taxes.

More than 100 organizations on Tuesday signed onto the letter calling the Minnesota Legislature to return to the Capitol to approve changes needed to keep their doors open during the COVID-19 pandemic. Without waivers on state regulations, child care providers, support providers for people with disabilities, mental health providers, those who work with older adults or state housing support and economic assistance providers have had to limit services or close down this week.

"Minnesotans who rely on basic and essential supports, like child care, health care, mental health care, and other support services administered by the Department of Human Services(DHS) are especially vulnerable during this crisis," the organizations wrote to legislative leaders. "We urge policymakers to reconvene Wednesday, March 18 to take action that will better ensure our friends, family members, and neighbors who depend on safety-net supports can weather this crisis."

Legislative leaders have not yet said whether they plan to return to St. Paul before April and whether they'd prioritize those measures.

MDH COVID-19 hotline: (651) 201-3920.

Business impacts hotline: (651) 297-1304 or (800) 657-3504.

School and childcare hotline: (651) 297-1304 or (800) 657-3504.

MDH COVID-19 website: Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) website.

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