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Attorney General Keith Ellison addresses reporters at a press conference where Gov. Tim Walz, right, declared a state of emergency for Minnesota to facilitate rapid response to the COVID-19 crisis. (Staff photo: Kevin Featherly)
Attorney General Keith Ellison addresses reporters at a press conference where Gov. Tim Walz, right, declared a state of emergency for Minnesota to facilitate rapid response to the COVID-19 crisis. (Staff photo: Kevin Featherly)

COVID-19: Walz declares emergency

MARCH 13: Afternoon update

Gov. Tim Walz has declared a peacetime emergency as the state grapples with the COVID-19 pandemic.

The order gives the governor extraordinary powers to take steps such as calling out the National Guard to assist in the response. However, for the time being he is not exercising them.

“A peacetime state of emergency will allow the state of Minnesota to respond more rapidly as issues evolve,” Walz said at a Friday press conference. “I would ask you all to think of this as opening the toolbox. We’re not taking a tool out of it, as of today.”

For now, the state’s response relies on a series of strong recommendations from the Minnesota Health Department, also unveiled Friday.

The guidelines call on event organizers to cancel large gatherings of more than 250 people. Organizers of events with fewer than 250 attendees also should cancel or postpone if it is not possible for people there to keep a safe social distance of six feet apart.

Employers and workers should also make plans to telecommute whenever possible, the guidelines say. And people at risk of severe COVID-19—generally the sick and elderly—are asked to stay home and avoid public gatherings.

The plan does not, however, call on people to stay home all the time, nor does it call for the closure of state-run public buildings like the Capitol or courthouses.

“Based on the experience of other states and the message we’re getting from our health care community,” Walz said, “we are going into a heightened state of readiness to protect Minnesotans.”

Walz said that he met Thursday with Chief Justice Lorie Gildea and others to discuss maintaining the continuity of government operations. That meeting also included the four legislative caucus leaders and the state’s other constitutional officers—the attorney general, secretary of state and auditor.

Gildea was not present at the Friday press conference. However, Walz said that he came away from his talk with her feeling confident that the courts have a smart strategy for continuing to operate, albeit in a “reduced or changed capacity,” as the health crisis unfolds.

“They are already triaging and prioritizing cases that needed to go first, starting to rearrange their dockets to make sense on that,” Walz said of the courts.

“I can tell you I left the room very confident that the Judicial Branch feels like they have a plan that they could continue on, to take on the most pressing matters,” he said.

Attorney General Keith Ellison added that the courts will continue following constitutional requirements, such as giving criminal defendants speedy trials. But some cases, like civil cases, could be delayed, Ellison said. However, even among those, he said, some cases—civil eviction proceedings, for example—might have to remain priorities.

“The rule of law is a part of the continuity of government,” Ellison said. “And the rule of law is critical in these times.”

Meanwhile, The Associated Press reported that the U.S. District Court for Minnesota suspended all criminal and civil jury trials and grand juries through late April.

MARCH 13: Morning update

House Speaker Melissa Hortman late Thursday suspended all House activities until Monday’s 11 a.m. floor session.

“That means that there will be no meetings, committee hearings or other informal meetings on the Capitol complex, until after Monday’s floor session,” she wrote in her email, which was forwarded to the press.

Later today, Gov. Tim Walz and Minnesota Health Department Commissioner Jan Malcolm will jointly announce “community mitigation strategies” in response to the new coronavirus. Minnesota Lawyer will attend that 1 p.m. press conference and update as necessary.

Meanwhile, all four caucus leaders said in a joint written statement Thursday night that they will work together through the weekend on “the agenda for the session and how to conduct legislative proceedings in light of COVID-19.”

David Schultz, the Hamline University political science professor and attorney, said that he sees two possibilities coming out of those conversations. One is that leaders reach agreements on a package of emergency measures to deal with COVID-19. “That might be the ideal idea,” he said.

The other result, he said, is less appetizing. “What I’m more worried about,” Schultz said, “is a lot of backdoor negotiations that shut the public and shuts the rest of the Legislature out, where they’ve worked out deals on a whole bunch of stuff so they can maybe end session early.”

House communications staff said Friday that it is too early to know what will result or what will be presented at Monday’s House floor session. But it is very unlikely any grand agreements—a full-fledged bonding package or a sine die agreement, for example—would come out of the weekend confabs, they said.

In Thursday’s email, Hortman did not mention the COVID-19 scare, but that clearly is behind the decision to temporarily halt House business. Her announcement postpones committee hearings at a particularly busy time, as lawmakers gear up for next week’s initial deadline for bills to be acted upon in their house of origin.

Three House committees were scheduled to meet Friday. The call-off means that hearings on some 48 bills scheduled to be heard in those committees are at least temporarily delayed.

Monday’s Ways and Means Committee hearing, where a bevy of bills also is scheduled to be heard, will be delayed by just a few hours, however. Originally scheduled for 9:45 a.m. Monday, it will instead convene 15 minutes after Monday’s 11 a.m. House floor session ends.

The House also scrubbed Friday’s Legislative Audit Commission hearing. A joint House-Senate Child Protection Task Force meeting Friday also was canceled.

The Senate did not independently suspend activities in the same way, but it only had the joint House-Senate Child Protection Task Force hearing scheduled before its own 11 a.m. floor session.

However, a joint letter from Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, and Minority Leader Susan Kent, DFL-Woodbury, said that access to senator’s offices and staff areas in the Senate Office Building, starting Monday, will be limited to members and staff. Senators were also encouraged to meet in small groups.

The new policy does not limit access to the Senate Office Building’s committee hearing rooms, a Senate spokesperson said.

The House, meanwhile, has asked members to stop inviting guests onto the floor and is restricting floor access to members, staff and credentialed media.

Any decisions about managing legislative agendas and meetings are being made based on information and advice from the Minnesota Department of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Gazelka-Kent letter said.

According to a report in the Star Tribune, two scenarios have emerged for the session going forward: Either the Legislature will recess until the COVID-19 danger passes, or public access to the Capitol will be dramatically scaled back until the session’s work is complete. The second option—hints of which are already being witnessed—is seen as likelier.

Certainly, Gazelka’s recent statements on the Senate floor demonstrate little appetite for immediately suspending activity and going home.

“If we go sine die or stop,” Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, told reporters on the Senate floor, “then the governor has complete—or much more—authority and we’re not engaged. So I want to make sure we’re engaged all the way through.”

As noon approached on Friday, the Minnesota Judicial Branch’s COVID-19 page had no new updates. “Currently, there has been no adjustment in court operations and court calendars are continuing as usual,” the page says.

Also on Friday, the Department of Corrections sent out its own status update, via a press release.

Effective immediately, the release says, Corrections it has suspended all in-person visits to inmates “until conditions warrant a change.” DOC also is working with its video-visiting and tablet vendors to provide no-cost video communications to allow the incarcerated to maintain contact with their families.

Professional and attorney prison visits can continue, but the agency says that phone calls, video conferences or “non-contact visits” could be emphasized, if necessary.

DOC also has set up an agency command post and incident management team, according to the release. The team’s role is to “ensure coordination with the state’s health and emergency management functions and DOC correctional facilities and field offices.”

MARCH 12, 2020

Though jaw-dropping COVID-19 news seems to break every hour, Minnesota’s Legislature, executive branch and judiciary all continue to function as normal—for now.

That could change at any time.

In fact, Gov. Tim Walz said in the Thursday press conference where he unveiled his slim $256 million supplemental 2020 budget package, he would like the Legislature complete its only true priority task—pass a 2020 bonding bill—and then get out of town.

That’s not an order, he said, acknowledging that he has no powers to issue such a directive.

“I think it just behooves all of us that this is not the time to posture around issues that we are not going to consensus around,” he said.

“We can do multiple things,” Walz added. “But I don’t think now is the time to be here to try and make political points alone. … My suggestion to them would be let’s finish as quickly as possible, reach a compromise and move on.”

Passing a bonding bill would put the state in a good position to handle potential spring flooding, grow jobs and deal with “the COVID situation,” the governor said.

Things are moving on several fronts. House leaders on Wednesday unveiled a package of COVID-19 emergency bills, one of which permanently expands the governor’s peacetime emergency powers to public health crises like the current pandemic. That bill, House File 4327 from Rep. Tina Liebling, DFL-Rochester, would also extend declared public health emergencies for up to 90 days, rather than the current 30-day limit.

Officials throughout the Capitol say they are keeping a close watch on developments. But for now, virtually everything is operating as before. House Speaker Melissa Hortman said Wednesday there are no plans to shut down operations or limit public access to the Capitol.

She said that she, Walz and Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, have been in constant contact with each other and officials from the state Health Department. They also are monitoring developments through the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and consulting with officials from other states.

“We are tracking very carefully what the things are that we could consider, and at what timeline we would want to consider those things,” Hortman said. “It is our hope that we’ll be acting in concert with regard to any decisions that we would make on the Capitol complex.”

In a written statement Wednesday, Gazelka struck a note of cooperation.

“As we monitor our situation in Minnesota, we will take appropriate action on bipartisan ideas,” he said. “The best thing now is for people to follow the advice of the experts: Cover your cough, stay home if you are sick and wash your hands frequently.”

All contingency options are on the table, Hortman said Wednesday. But right now, shutting down the Capitol or even dialing back public visits isn’t seen as necessary. That’s because none of Minnesota’s identified COVID-19 cases has yet resulted from community transmission.

“We so far do not have a public health justification to start to limit public gatherings,” she said.

On Thursday, Walz said “continuance of operation” contingency plans have been under discussions for months. For the executive branch, that involves things like making decisions about employees working remotely, he said. In “the next day or days,” he added, a more concrete plan of operation will be released to the media.

Walz said he has also been in contact with Chief Justice Lorie Gildea about the Judicial Branch’s contingency plans.

“We’re thinking about everything and I think it’s really important,” he said. “We have to have continuity of our system. We have to have things work—the judiciary is going to need to work. They’re thinking about what does that look like in a courtroom, what would happen? So yes, we are in contact.”

A Judicial Branch spokesperson said Thursday that scenarios are being gamed out in case court hearings or cases need to be postponed.

But under Judicial Branch policy, nothing like that will happen unless the governor and Department of Health declare a public health emergency, ordering state and other public facilities closed. That point has not yet been reached.

In the meantime, the Judicial Branch is maintaining a special COVID-19 emergency page on its website, http://mncourts.gov/emergency. Like the other branches of government, the judiciary plans to follow Health Department guidance.

“Currently, there has been no adjustment in court operations and court calendars are continuing as usual,” the web page says. “If you have a scheduled matter or hearing, you are expected to come to court unless the court has excused you.”

In remarkably fast action earlier this week, the Legislature passed and Walz signed Senate File 3813, from Sen. Jerry Relph, R-St. Cloud. The bill authorizes nearly $21 million in state funds for a public health response to the coronavirus outbreak.

About Kevin Featherly

Kevin Featherly, who joined BridgeTower Media in mid-2016, is a journalist and former freelance writer who has covered politics, law, business, technology and popular culture for publications and websites in the Twin Cities and nationally since the mid-1990s.

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