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Gov. Tim Walz speaks to reporters at a Capitol press briefing as Minnesota Health Department Commissioner Jan Malcolm looks on March 15, 2020. (Staff photo: Kevin Featherly)
Gov. Tim Walz speaks to reporters at a Capitol press briefing as Minnesota Health Department Commissioner Jan Malcolm looks on March 15, 2020. (Staff photo: Kevin Featherly)

Walz order: Court workers on COVID-19 front line

Gov. Tim Walz on Sunday placed court employees on the front lines of the COVID-19 response, ranking them alongside corrections workers, first responders, health clinicians and public health professionals.

As he did for other front-line responders, Walz on Sunday ordered schools to provide day care to court workers’ kids, keeping their parents on the job. Minimally, that means offering services to children ages 12 and under.

The declaration was part of a Walz executive order issued Sunday. It closes Minnesota’s public schools no later than Wednesday until March 27, though they must continue to provide daycare to front-line workers’ kids. The school-closure process begins Monday, Walz said.

“We are in uncharted territory,” Walz said during a Sunday press conference.

As of Sunday morning, Minnesota reported 35 confirmed cases of COVID-19-related illness—a jump from 21 a day earlier. The state Health Department confirmed Sunday afternoon that, for the first time since the outbreak, three new cases were spread from inside the community. Previous cases were all labeled travel-related.

However, Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said Sunday that no infection clusters have yet emerged anywhere in the state, suggesting that community transmission, as yet, is not widespread.

Part of what makes that hard to gauge is the lack of widespread medical testing for COVID-19, a delay for which critics have blasted the Trump administration. On Friday, Walz sent a letter to Vice President Mike Pence calling on the president’s team to do more to make widespread testing possible.

“We have been forced to ration the number of tests performed at our public health lab,” Walz’s letter to Pence says.

Executive orders

Walz’s Sunday order states: “Emergency workers (including providers of health care, emergency medical services, long-term and post-acute care; law enforcement personnel; personnel providing correctional services; public health employees; firefighters and other first responders; and court personnel) are critical to the state’s response to COVID-19.”

Therefore, schools must take care of their kids despite the shutdown. “In providing this care, schools must practice hygiene and social distancing best practices,” Walz’s order states. “Schools are not required to provide this care during previously scheduled breaks reflected on a school-board approved calendar.”

The governor encouraged schools to also provide extended care—before and after school hours—to children of emergency-response and court workers.

Meanwhile, other licensed daycares are encouraged to remain open, on the theory that they generally involve small groups and pose less risk of transmission.

The governor’s latest order follows one by Chief Justice Lorie Gildea, issued Friday, that keeps many state courtrooms functioning, albeit with major adjustments.

Her order followed an emergency Judicial Council meeting, convened without public notice, on Friday. The council’s bylaws permit emergency meetings to be held without alerting the public in advance.

Reflecting the complexity of the system she manages, Gildea’s order is long and detailed. All of its provisions are subject to change as circumstances evolve.

Gildea’s order requires that:

  • Appeals pending before both the state Supreme Court and Minnesota Court of Appeals, including argument calendars, will continue as scheduled.
  • Trials for any case type in which a jury has been empaneled and the trial was underway by March 13 must continue to conclusion—absent good cause to suspend based on health and safety.
  • Beginning March 16, every judicial district will use the Judicial Branch’s case priorities list to decide which cases will proceed. But proceedings in “Super High Priority” and “High Priority” cases must continue according to governing statutes and court rules.
  • For cases other than Super High-, High-priority and criminal proceedings subject to the speedy-trial demand, no new jury trials can start or be scheduled on or after March 16; that condition remains in effect for 30 days. No other non-exempt District Court proceedings may begin after March 16; that restriction lasts through March 30.
  • Effective immediately, or at least as soon as practicable, all case-type proceedings—including the Supreme Court’s Commitment Appeal Panel—should be held via interactive video. To facilitate that, Criminal Procedure Rule 1.05 and Rule 14 of the Rules of Procedure governing commitment and treatment are suspended, pending further orders.
  • Jurors summoned for trials that will proceed must appear as directed, unless they notify the court in writing or by phone that they have been exposed or are at risk to infection. Jurors empaneled for trials already in progress also must appear, subject to the same conditions.
  • Parties or witnesses scheduled to appear in court also must provide notification if they can’t appear because of actual or suspected exposure.
  • Courtrooms and court proceedings will remain open to the public, though non-essential visits are discouraged. No one at elevated risk of transmitting COVID-19 may attend a court hearing or proceeding.
  • To the extent that people must be present at courthouses, court staff will promote social distancing and other strategies recommended by the state Health Department.

The order will be updated as necessary.

The chief’s justice’s directive, which affects all state appellate and district courts, is contrasts starkly with the order issued Friday by Minnesota U.S. District Court Chief Judge John Tunheim.

Tunheim’s order immediately suspends all criminal and civil jury trials in all four Minnesota federal courthouses, until after April 27. Further, beginning on March 23, all grand juries will be suspended through April 27. Attorney admission ceremonies also are suspended through April 27, Tunheim ordered.

According to a Star Tribune report, no such order has ever before been issued by Minnesota’s federal courts.

Soon rather than later

Walz said the new coronavirus hasn’t spread widely in schools, but officials expect that it will have a sizable impact on the education system in the coming weeks and months, potentially even the full year.

As events unfold, Walz said, it might be necessary to take steps similar to those recently taken in places like Illinois, California and Ohio, where public gathering spots like bars and restaurants have been ordered closed.

Right now, the state is relying on “strong recommendations” from the Department of Health, including one that requests the cancellations of gatherings expecting 250 people or more people. Another guideline recommends that smaller gatherings be cancelled, too, if social distances of 6 feet can’t be maintained.

The national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, meanwhile, on Sunday issued guidance suggesting that event organizers cancel or postpone any events consisting of 50 or more people. Its guidance does not apply to “schools, institutes of higher learning, or businesses.”

Late Sunday evening, meanwhile, the Minnesota Legislature’s four DFL and GOP caucus leaders jointly announced that House and Senate floor sessions and legislative committees will meet only on an “on-call basis” from March 16 through April 14.

“This means there will not be standing floor and committee meetings,” the joint statement reads, “but we will meet on the House and Senate floors and in committees with advance notice to members and to the public.”

During that nearly month-long period, House and Senate leaders said they intend to take up legislation “only by agreement of the House DFL, House GOP, Senate DFL and Senate GOP caucus leaders.”

Walz cautioned that the state’s voluntary guidelines could become mandatory under his emergency powers—and possibly soon.

“Sooner rather than later, the community transmission will move us out of that,” he said. “That is absolutely apparent to all of us.”

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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