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House leaders announce package of COVID-19 preparedness legislation

Joined by other DFL leaders at a March 11 news conference, House Speaker Melissa Hortman discusses additional COVID-19 preparedness legislation that will be considered by the House. Photo by Paul Battaglia

Should the spread of the COVID-19 virus cause a major public health crisis in Minnesota, state government wants to be prepared.

So House DFL leaders are introducing a package of legislation, announced Wednesday afternoon, to address a range of interconnected concerns.

“It’s to get this conversation started in an intentional and serious way,” said House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler (DFL-Golden Valley).

House Speaker Melissa Hortman (DFL-Brooklyn Park) said she plans on the bills advancing “as fast as is reasonably possible,” given the need for continued work, both hearing from the community and addressing disagreements within the House and the Senate.

“We want to get working on the numbers right away,” she said. “We need to know the range of potential costs for these measures before we proceed much further down the path of setting the supplemental budget this year.”

The proposed package includes:

  • HF3980 (Liebling) which would establish a loan program to help health care providers prepare and respond to a possible pandemic;
  • HF4326 (Liebling) which would explicitly authorize the governor to declare a peacetime public health emergency and allow public health emergencies to continue up to 90 days — the current limit is 30 days;
  • HF4414 (Noor) which would expand unemployment insurance and sick leave benefits during the outbreak of a communicable disease;
  • HF4415 (Davnie) which would ensure that hourly workers employed by school districts are compensated if they are unable to work because of COVID-19 — whether because of school closures, “non-essential employee” status, or because they are infected with the virus; and
  • HF4416 (Schultz) which would require health plans to cover testing, treatment, and quarantine costs related to COVID-19 so long as the virus is considered a public health threat by the Department of Health.

It also includes a yet-to-introduced bill sponsored by Rep. Jay Xiong (DFL-St. Paul) that would ban price gouging during a declared state of emergency, making it illegal to sell certain goods and services — like medical supplies and consumer food items — for amounts more than 10% more expensive than the price charged immediately before the state of emergency was declared.

Some of these measures were discussed Tuesday in the House Government Operations Committee and in the House Health and Human Services Finance Committee.

Lawmakers passed a bill Monday evening that would appropriate $20.9 million to help fund the state’s public health response. Gov. Tim Walz signed the measure Tuesday.

“I’m pleased that we were able to respond so quickly and with unanimous support,” Hortman said.

Reporters asked about the possibility of COVID-19 impacting activity at the Capitol Complex.

Because authority is shared between the branches of government, those decisions would need to be made in concert, and in response to recommendations from the Health Department and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Hortman said.

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