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Gov. Tim Walz
Gov. Tim Walz stands in front of Casper’s and Runyon’s Nook in St. Paul on Nov. 24 to roll out a proposal for a COVID relief package. (AP file photo: Star Tribune)

Walz calls for codifying some pandemic emergency orders

Gov. Tim Walz proposed to legislative leaders Thursday that they write into law some of the key emergency measures that he has imposed to deal with the coronavirus pandemic, a move that would give lawmakers more of a say in shaping the state’s response.

The Democratic governor didn’t propose specific legislation, but he offered some bullet-point principles that he said would facilitate the eventual wind-down of the state’s peacetime state of emergency.

“With a light now at the end of the tunnel, I encourage you to begin the work of enacting into law the core provisions of the emergency response that have been keeping Minnesotans safe,” he wrote.

Walz proposed codifying the mandate for face masks in public indoor spaces and indoor businesses, which he imposed via executive order. Similarly, he proposed flexibility for school districts to decide on the right mix for themselves of distance learning and in-person instruction. He proposed continuing the state’s evictions moratorium with a specific end date to avoid surprises and a surge in evictions.

The governor also proposed measures to ensure that businesses provide safe environments, increased protections for workers from unsafe working conditions and from retaliation for raising workplace safety concerns and improvements to the unemployment insurance program.

Republican lawmakers, in particular, have chafed over the governor’s heavy reliance on executive orders to manage the pandemic, complaining that they’ve been shut out of the process. But the House Democratic majority has blocked all GOP attempts to rescind the peacetime emergency, from which he derives his special powers. Writing some of those executive orders into law would allow lawmakers to modify them to address their constituents’ concerns.

In another sign of the partisan split on the coronavirus response, the GOP-controlled Minnesota Senate voted along party lines Thursday against mandating that senators wear masks on the floor. The state House has a mask mandate, though some conservative lawmakers have resisted compliance.

“For the members who have underlying health conditions that are scared to come here right now and their doctors are advising against it, I would not tell them ‘You should come in here,’” Democratic Sen John Marty, of Roseville, said on the floor.

But Republican Sen. Michelle Benson, of Ham Lake, said the Senate should adopt a mask mandate only if all members are required to show up in-person rather than participate remotely, as many currently do.

The governor on Wednesday announced a dialing back of some restrictions on bars, restaurants, gyms, youth sports and other activities. Coronavirus cases, hospitalizations and deaths have fallen off in Minnesota since November, even as they rise in California and other states.

The Minnesota Department of Health on Thursday reported 2,004 new cases and 44 new deaths to raise the state’s totals to 429,570 and 5,572, respectively. The number of Minnesotans who’ve received their first vaccine doses rose to 91,174.

Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said 787 patients were hospitalized due to COVID-19, including 135 in intensive care, but the state’s seven-day average of hospital admissions is a third of what it was during the peak in late November. Malcolm said state officials are in a state of “genuine optimism” regarding the decline in case growth but are closely monitoring how the loosening of restrictions may change that trajectory in the coming weeks. She said they’ll adjust as needed.

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