Northern Minnesota counties weigh joining “reopen” movement, defying public health experts

By: - April 22, 2020 2:08 pm

Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox statues in Bemidji, Minnesota. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

Commissioners in seven northern Minnesota counties considered similar resolutions Tuesday calling on Gov. Tim Walz to end the stay-at-home order and allow restaurants, bars and other places of public accommodation to reopen.

Three county boards voted to approve, one rejected, and four discussed it but took no action. Commissioners for another eight counties, which did not meet Tuesday, were approached to pass similar resolutions but have not met yet. They could follow suit with their own resolutions in the coming weeks.

The symbolic revolt was led by Clearwater County Commissioner Mark Titera, who says the economic toll the stay-at-home order has taken on businesses and local governments has been too great.

“We’re not going to be able to run and hide from this economic situation, and we’re not going to be able to run and hide from coronavirus either,” Titera said.

Beltrami County Commissioner Reed Olson balked at the resolution, calling it reckless. The Beltrami Board voted down the resolution Tuesday 3-2.

“To open up at this moment would just be so reckless and even to try to sow that kind of division by second guessing our health experts … it borders on malfeasance,” Olson said. “I think we need to look at this for what it is. It’s a political ploy.”

The unrest Walz faces among some local government leaders poses a new challenge as he wrestles with a pandemic that killed another 92 Minnesotans over the past week. The government’s stay-at-home order will lose effectiveness without Minnesotans’ cooperation.

And COVID-19, while hitting cities faster and harder, has also found a home in suburban and rural counties, whose health care infrastructure makes them ill-equipped to deal with an outbreak.

The counties’ defiance comes amid a small but lively movement to reopen the economy, against the advice of most epidemiologists and public health experts. President Donald Trump seemed to be encouraging the movement last week when he tweeted “LIBERATE MINNESOTA.”

In interviews, county commissioners were reluctant to criticize the governor’s response to COVID-19. But they also expressed impatience with the stay-at-home order and were hopeful that businesses deemed non-essential, like hair salons, could reopen safely.

“I do believe that some of the rules that apply to more densely populated areas don’t apply to us out here,” Polk County Commissioner Darryl Tveitbakk said.

Becker County Board’s resolution calling on Gov. Tim Walz to lift the stay-at-home order.

Titera said he sent his resolution to 15 neighboring counties, encouraging them to adopt similar resolutions.

Clearwater and Becker counties passed the resolution by 3-2 votes, while Hubbard County passed it unanimously.

Hubbard County Coordinator Eric Nerness says many businesses have only a few months during the summer tourism season to turn a profit.

“The Board, in representing the interests of those residents, is asking the governor (to) please consider other options for the stay at home situation,” Nerness said. “Our commissioners do not envy the governor at all. He’s got a lot of competing interests and a lot of very hard decisions to make. We’re just trying to get ideas out on the table for discussion.”

Olson of the Beltrami board owns a restaurant in Bemidji, which he has had to shutter because of the stay-at-home order. He had to lay off his entire staff and expects it will take at least a year to recover.

“I would love to open back up,” Olson said. “I want to get my employees back into the kitchen, but am not going to push it just because of our narrow economic interests.”

Commissioners for Cass, Marshall and Kittson discussed the resolution but decided not to take any action on it. Grant County commissioners chose to table the resolution until after the stay-at-home order is scheduled to end on May 4.

“We’re not going to go against the governor,” said Marshall County Auditor-Treasurer Scott Peters. “It’s not a fight we want to take on. Safety first.”

Commissioners for eight other northern counties — Mahnomen, Pennington, Red Lake, Polk, Otter Tail, Norman, Roseau and Wadena — haven’t met since receiving the resolution but could take it up in the coming weeks.

Norman County Commissioner Steve Jacobson said he received a call from Titera asking him to consider it. The soonest the Norman County Board would be able to consider the resolution would be in early May, but Jacobson doesn’t think the county should be weighing in on the governor’s stay-at-home order.

“It’s three times now county boards have been asked to take a position on divisive issues,” Jacobson said, referring to refugee resettlement, gun laws and ending the stay-at-home order. “I think county boards should focus on the people of the county by providing good roads and bridges, law enforcement, social services and record keeping at the courthouse.”

Unlike some of its neighboring counties, the Norman County Board never took a position on refugee resettlement.

Wadena County Commissioner Sheldon Monson said he was contacted by Titera and state Rep. Steve Green, R-Detroit Lakes, to consider the resolution. Monson said the board could take it up next week depending on what the governor does in the coming days.

“If the governor opens things back up then there won’t be a need for it,” Monson said, adding that he trusts the governor to weigh the economic and health risks. “I’m sure he’s trying to make the best decisions based on the information coming his way, so I’m not just going to throw him under the bus in every regard.”

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Max Nesterak
Max Nesterak

Max Nesterak is the deputy editor of the Reformer and reports on labor and housing. Most recently he was an associate producer for Minnesota Public Radio after a stint at NPR. He also co-founded the Behavioral Scientist and was a Fulbright Scholar to Berlin, Germany.