Gov. Tim Walz on Thursday announced a pact with six other Midwestern governors to coordinate on a strategy to reopen their states for business.
At the same time, he provided no timeline for phasing workers back into their jobs and stressed the need for widespread testing to better track COVID-19. Walz’s administration is also seeking input from business leaders on how they would safely operate.
Senate Republicans on Thursday meanwhile used debate on a bill to temporarily allow beer and wine sales with takeout food orders to publicly pressure Walz to more quickly get people back to work.
Governors throughout the country are facing blowback to stay-at-home orders, with protests occurring this week in Michigan and Ohio, and one planned for Friday at Walz’s Summit Hill residence.
Walz is joining governors from Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, Illinois, Indiana and Kentucky in the pact. The group includes five Democratic governors and two Republicans and blends states hit hard by COVID-19 such as Michigan and Illinois and states that have been relatively spared, like Kentucky and Minnesota.
“We are doing everything we can to protect the people of our states and slow the spread of COVID-19, and we are eager to work together to mitigate the economic crisis this virus has caused in our region,” the governors said in a statement.
The regional agreement mirrors those signed by governors of California, Oregon and Washington — and under discussion in other states as well — and comes amid what has been a vacuum of coordination at the federal level. On Thursday, President Donald Trump, announced his own guidelines for reopening the economy. Trump’s three-phrase plan lays much of the responsibility on the states to screen, test, trace and provide protective gear and hospital capacity.
The governors, including Walz and Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan, Mike DeWine of Ohio, Tony Evers of Wisconsin, JB Pritzker of Illinois, Eric Holcomb of Indiana and Andy Beshear of Kentucky, said they would examine at least four factors when deciding to reopen the economy:
- Sustained control of the rate of new infections and hospitalizations;
- Enhanced ability to test and trace new infections;
- Sufficient health care capacity to handle resurgence of outbreaks;
- And best practices for social distancing in the workplace.
The joint statement emphasized that public health will drive the decisions about the economy: “Our number one priority when analyzing when best to reopen our economy is the health and safety of our citizens. We will make decisions based on facts, science, and recommendations from experts in health care, business, labor, and education.”
The governors said they would coordinate the reopening. “Phasing in sectors of our economy will be most effective when we work together as a region,” the statement reads. “This doesn’t mean our economy will reopen all at once, or that every state will take the same steps at the same time. But close coordination will ensure we get this right.”
Funding needed for more testing
How soon people can go back to work will depend on being able to test on a large scale and on Thursday, state lawmakers learned about the current testing capabilities in Minnesota and what would be needed to ramp up testing.
Officials from Mayo Clinic, Hennepin Healthcare and the University of Minnesota told members of the House Health and Human Services Finance Committee that their institutions are performing two types of COVID-19 tests: diagnostic tests, which determine whether someone has the infection, and antibody tests, which determine if the patient has already contracted the disease.
Scott Beck, a senior vice president at Mayo Clinic, said the facility has performed diagnostic tests on more than 100,000 people since March 19, with a capacity to test around 7,000 people per day.
Mayo Clinic also made antibody tests available April 10 and can currently test 20,000 individuals per day, Beck said.
Daniel Hoody, chief medical officer at Hennepin Healthcare, said testing for contagious individuals is one of the most effective ways to help slow the spread of the virus among communities that are not as easily able to practice social distancing, including lower income communities and elder care facilities.
Hennepin Healthcare can process around 600 diagnostic tests per day, Hoody said.
Jakub Tolar, dean of the University of Minnesota Medical School, explained testing can help identify those who might be immune to the virus after developing antibodies. The university is requesting $20 million from the Legislature to roll out increased testing and identify Minnesotans who would be safe to go back to work.
The university says its medical school could provide 10,000 diagnostic and 10,000 antibody tests per day.
More COVID-19 relief for restaurants, bars
Also on Thursday, the Minnesota Senate passed a bill that would allow bars and restaurants to include limited quantities of alcohol with takeout orders only during the peacetime emergency.
The bill permits licensed establishments to include one bottle of wine and one six pack of beer, malt liquor or hard seltzer with food takeout orders. The legislation does not allow for delivery of alcohol, including through third-party services like UberEats and DoorDash.
“This is a sector of our communities that have been particularly hard hit,” said Senate Minority Leader Susan Kent, DFL-Woodbury.
Walz has said he will sign the legislation.
Telemedicine approved for erectile dysfunction medication
The Senate also passed a bill that would allow healthcare providers to write prescriptions for erectile dysfunction medications via telehealth consultations.
Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester, said the need for telemedicine has become increasingly apparent in the wake of COVID-19, adding she hopes future legislation will cover more treatments.
“We are forced to look at telehealth in a broader sense,” Nelson said.