Minnesota’s congressional delegation adapts to the new normal while delivering help to people back home

.S. Sen. Tina Smith (D-MN)
Sen. Tina Smith said an empty plane home from Washington was eerie. Photo was taken before coronavirus outbreak. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — If I start to feel sick, should I go to the emergency room to get tested for COVID-19? Is it safe to touch my daily newspaper or receive package deliveries? Are you sure this is really that big of a deal? 

Those were some of the questions asked by over 7,000 people who called into a telephone town hall this week hosted by Minnesota DFL Sen. Tina Smith and Rep. Dean Phillips. Another 1,000 people streamed the conversation online. 

Smith and Phillips — like the rest of Minnesota’s congressional delegation — are scrambling to respond to mounting public concern about the public health crisis while trying to ensure constituents are equipped with the knowledge and resources to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. 

Meanwhile, lawmakers on Wednesday passed legislation that will release hundreds of billions of dollars to respond to the crisis while President Donald Trump contemplates a nationwide direct deposit of $1,000 per U.S. citizen to help families get by as unemployment skyrockets. 

In an open letter this week, all 10 members of Minnesota’s congressional delegation urged calm and caution as the country faces this “unprecedented” pandemic. 

“We know that by working together and using best practices like social distancing, we can help to ‘flatten the curve’ of COVID-19. This must be our first priority,” the members wrote, including Smith and Phillips; Sen. Amy Klobuchar; Republican Reps. Jim Hagedorn, Tom Emmer, Pete Stauber; and DFL Reps. Angie Craig, Betty McCollum, Ilhan Omar, and Collin Peterson. 

“We encourage all Minnesotans to stay informed as well.” 

The number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Minnesota climbed to 77 this week, according to the Minnesota Department of Health. That number was current as of Wednesday afternoon. 

People had tested positive in 16 counties: Anoka, Benton, Blue Earth, Carver, Dakota, Hennepin, Martin, Nicollet, Olmsted, Ramsey, Renville, Scott, Stearns, Waseca, Washington and Wright Counties. Hennepin had the highest number of reported cases with more than 20. 

Gov. Tim Walz has ordered all state public schools to temporarily close through March 27, along with partial closures of bars and restaurants.

Even as Minnesota health professionals have performed over 2,000 virus tests, the health department early this week narrowed the criteria for who can get a test in anticipation of nationwide shortages. 

‘Hunker down for a while’

Smith, like many lawmakers, has closed her office and is working remotely. She said on a call with the Reformer that the most important thing right now is to “heed the advice of doctors and public health professionals and hunker down for a while.” 

“I had to fly back to Washington Monday morning to be back for votes and I had no trouble practicing social distancing because the plane, which is usually jam-packed, was empty,” she said. “It was very eerie.” 

Craig said although it’s a challenge to practice social distancing, it is of the utmost importance. 

“The bottom line is this: We have to make sure that we are completely focused on flattening the curve. We cannot allow the virus to spread to the point that our health care system is overwhelmed,” she told the Reformer.

“People in Minnesota are used to coming together in a crisis. We have blizzards here, schools get closed. So we’re having the conversation of how can Minnesotans help each other even though we’re self-isolating?” 

Craig said her office is working remotely, and she has moved her in-person town hall to a virtual one. She’s also working from home. 

“My dog keeps looking at me like, ‘Why are you here?’ And my wife asked me last night, ‘So when do you go back to Washington?’” 

‘Plenty of time for lessons learned’ 

On Capitol Hill this week, the Senate passed the House-backed coronavirus aid package, which aims to provide free testing regardless of a person’s insurance, institute a paid leave program, strengthen food assistance for low-income and pregnant women, and bolster unemployment insurance, among other provisions. 

Emmer was among a small group of Republicans who voted against the House bill late last week. In a statement, Emmer said he is “fully aware of the serious situation we are in as a country” but complained that the process was rushed and haphazard. Emmer declined to comment for this article. Trump is expected to sign the relief bill. 

While Trump is being praised by Republicans for pitching a $1 trillion package that would include financial assistance for individuals and industries affected by the outbreak, some Democratic lawmakers feel the administration did not act quickly enough during the initial stages of the pandemic. 

“The Trump administration was very slow to move on this, and that has hurt people,” Smith said. “Though I’m glad in the last few days, Trump has started to echo the wise words of public health professionals that this is serious.” 

Craig said the problem goes even further back to two years ago when the Trump administration dismantled the National Security Council’s global health security office, which was responsible for planning for global pandemics. A number of high-level global health experts left following the office’s elimination, including Luciana Borio, director of medical and biodefense preparedness, who had warned of a flu pandemic. 

“But there will be plenty of time for lessons learned,” Craig said. “Right now we need to do our best, put partisan politics aside, and figure out how we flatten the curve.” 

Even if the spread is slowed long enough for health care providers to adequately tackle the pandemic, Phillips said, the consequences of this global pandemic will be far reaching in scope and duration. Though, he noted, there could be a silver lining. 

Rep. Dean Phillips (D-MN) speaking at news conference
Rep. Dean Phillips said there’s a silver lining, as Minnesotans rediscover what’s impotant. This photo was taken before the coronavirus outbreak.

“Because of this unprecedented threat to every individual, nobody in America is safe. It’s going to change how we consume and interact, how we spend our time and what we value,” he said. 

“People who are now isolating at home have time for reflection. Families are spending time together that is very precious and important, and we are going to have an opportunity to become a more compassionate country. Habits will change, and our economy will have to adapt.”