ST. PAUL — After months of pushing to end the state's peacetime emergency and, with it, Gov. Tim Walz's executive orders, House Republicans this week took on a more nuanced approach to rolling back the restrictions.
GOP lawmakers put up plans that would let businesses drop capacity limits if they have COVID-19 safety protocols in place, require the signoff of both legislative chambers to continue the peacetime emergency and set each executive order up to expire two weeks after it takes effect.
And they sought to hammer home two areas weighing most heavily on the minds of Minnesotans: reopening schools and businesses.
On Monday, Feb. 8, Rep. Dave Baker, R-Willmar, introduced a bill that would set a May 1 target for reopening businesses without restrictions. Under the proposed "roadmap" to reopening, existing restrictions would shift, allowing restaurants to operate at 75% capacity, gyms and fitness centers at 50%, and indoor and outdoor events with a 50% cap and a 100-person limit.
After four to six weeks, capacity limits would again be bumped up until they were ultimately lifted on May 1 (or sooner) if COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations remain within a manageable threshold. If cases or hospitalizations jumped, capacity limits or other constraints could be imposed again.
"I just want to crawl and scratch my way out of a box that we're in and we're just trying to focus on business openings, how we can move something along that makes some sense, that makes my businesses happier," Baker told Forum News Service. "When nothing is being talked about and nothing is being shared with what does a pathway look like, everyone starts canceling because they're not sure."
Business owners embraced the plan and said any information that could help them plan for next phases of reopening or dialing back could help them. Minnesota Chamber of Commerce leaders and heads of the state's hospitality industry noted the blow the pandemic and the state's response had had on the bottom lines of many businesses.
Baker said he'd heard bipartisan support, as well as pushback, on the bill.
State health officials and Democrats said the virus and new variants of the illness continue to spread and could pose a serious challenge in outlining a recovery plan. They advocated for planning the next stages of reopening based on where the state stood with the pandemic.
Walz on Friday, Feb. 12, said he'd again extend Minnesota's peacetime emergency to fight the coronavirus, setting up one year of his enhanced authority. And asked Friday for a clearer target for next phases of reopening, Walz said, "we're going to continue moving in that direction, as long as the virus keeps being suppressed."
Slow return to the classroom strikes a chord
As Minnesota families approached the one-year mark of enduring distance and hybrid learning, Republicans moved forward plans to strip the governor's authority to close down or change school schedules or activities during a state of emergency.
While elementary school students around the state had resumed in-person instruction and, in some districts, middle and high school students were back in the classroom, GOP lawmakers said school board members and parents around the state felt constrained by current processes for determining whether to teach in-person, remotely or using a combination of the two.
Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester, brought forward the bill to end the governor's authority over school closures saying the closure of Minnesota schools in March, and later move to hybrid or distance learning, resulted in untenable situations for parents and kids. And on Thursday, Feb. 11, the House voted down a motion to take up a similar bill on the floor without moving it through committees. Republican lawmakers said the matter was urgent and needed to be considered immediately.
"The governor and his administration at this point have created a culture of fear and confusion. There's no way to overcome the administration's fear or to keep up with the changing executive orders," Rep. Ron Kresha, R-Little Falls, said. "Our school officials are having a hard time keeping up with what they can, should and shouldn't do in these guidelines."
Current planning models let district officials determine instructional plans with the consultation of state health and education officials. And those decisions hinge on the number of active COVID-19 cases in a given county.
House Democrats said the proposal wouldn't resolve the issue of getting more students into the classroom. They ultimately voted down the effort to take up the bill right away.
"It's a bad idea and it's not an urgent idea," House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, D-Golden Valley, said, noting that his three children were attending in-person classes. "This isn't an urgency because it's already happening. This isn't a question of local control because local school districts are making decisions every day about which kids should be in school and when."
The bill doesn't appear to have a path forward in the DFL-led House but is set to come up for a floor vote in the GOP-controlled Senate as early as Monday, Feb. 15.
Walz on Friday said state education and health officials are working to get all students back into the classroom "as quickly as possible." But challenges could emerge at the district level as officials navigate larger classes, older school buildings and potentially higher rates of infection in the community.
"It's not a cookie-cutter approach, each school has always had a say in the Safe Learning Plan, we think there'll be some that take a little longer," Walz said during a Friday visit to a Roseville elementary school. “The worst thing we can do is lose staff, lose a teacher and not be able to continue on."
More fighting over pays for security against riots
A deadline imposed by the governor came and went this week without legislative agreement on whether to put up funding for additional security called in to respond to possible civil unrest around the trial of former officer Derek Chauvin.
The Senate and House teed up differing proposals that were set to come up for debate next week. And public safety officials urged them to quickly move funding that could help Minneapolis repay police departments called in to assist them in the event that demonstrations grow violent.
In the Minnesota House, lawmakers scheduled a Monday, Feb. 15, floor debate on a bill that would create a fund to respond to emergency situations and put $35 million in it for potential unrest. But Democrats tacked on an amendment that threatened Republican support in that chamber as law enforcement groups said they opposed it.
Meanwhile, Republican senators said the state shouldn't create a fund to help Minneapolis when the city had cut its police budget. They put up a counterproposal that would require cities that call for mutual aid to pay back departments that help them using their local government aid funds if they don't have other money available.