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Walz wants quick action on COVID-19 response package as Legislature to remain open

House Photography file photo

With the COVID-19 pandemic shutting down sporting events, concerts and other activity across the state and country, the Legislature has again been asked to expedite a package to address the global challenge — but it won’t shut down.

As part of an executive order declaring a peacetime emergency, Gov. Tim Walz on Friday urged the House and Senate to quickly put together a response package that includes:

  • providing emergency funding to ensure state resources are in place to address emergencies;
  • removing financial and administrative barriers — such as waiving co-payments for testing, lab, office visits and urgent care — that may keep Minnesotans from being tested for COVID-19;
  • creating a grant and loan program to respond health care facility needs for training, equipment, transportation, and expansion of systems;
  • provide access to emergency short- and long-term grants or cash for health care systems and facilities;
  • allowing benefits to kick in immediately for employees who qualify for unemployment insurance because of COVID-19; and
  • allowing private-sector employees to use paid sick time benefits when taking time off work related to COVID-19.

“We strongly support the proposals from Governor Walz to address the COVID-19 pandemic,” House Speaker Melissa Hortman (DFL-Brooklyn Park) said in a statement. “Many of these proposals have already been introduced in the Minnesota House of Representatives, and legislators are already working closely with state agencies and experts to enact measures quickly. We will work with Senate Republicans to mitigate damage from COVID-19 and ensure the physical and economic well-being of all Minnesotans.”

Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in the state is up to 14.

Gov. Tim Walz declares a state of peacetime emergency in response to COVID-19 pandemic 3/13/20

“The idea that this is nothing is put to rest. This is a serious pandemic,” Walz said at a news conference. “While some people may feel invincible, our neighbors may not.”

To that end, the Health Department has put forth recommendations to help slow the spread of coronavirus in Minnesota. Although they do not have the force of law, Malcolm said the emergency declaration gives Walz power to make the recommendations mandatory.

Among the Health Department recommendations is cancelling or postponing gatherings with 250 or more people, which would theoretically include much House and Senate activity. However, Walz and legislative leaders collectively do not want to shut down the State Capitol or state-run buildings.

“The overriding theme is let’s keep calm and carry on,” Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka (R-East Gull Lake) said at a news conference. Legislators must constitutionally finish their work by May 18.

But how things get accomplished could look different.

In a mid-afternoon email to House members and staff, Hortman said: “Due to the community mitigation standards that have been recommended by the Minnesota Department of Health, the schedule of House business will change very substantially in the coming days.  As soon as we develop more specific protocols, I will let you know.”

Senate Media Availability 3/13/20

As of now, hearing rooms and public areas will remain open, Gazelka said, but he urges people to think of their own health and those around them and stay away if they are sick. He wants people’s voices to be heard, but encouraged that be done via phone, email or in smaller groups.

“This is the people’s house and access to democracy is critical,” Walz said. “… The idea of telling people they can’t come to their Capitol is a pretty drastic step.”

Walz reiterated what he said Thursday, that the Legislature needs to finish key jobs, including COVID-19 legislation and a robust bonding bill.

Chances of anything else getting passed could be iffy at best.

“Let’s make sure we can finish the things we agree on,” Gazelka said.


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