Minnesota health officials on edge ahead of Labor Day weekend

Gov. Tim Walz on pictured last week urging Minnesotans to stay vigilant ahead of the Labor Day weekend, testified virtually before a House panel Thursday. Photo by Ricardo Lopez/Minnesota Reformer.

Gov. Tim Walz and Minnesota health officials on Thursday implored Minnesota to continue avoiding large social gatherings to stop the spread of COVID-19 as fall and colder weather approaches, forcing people inside where officials say the risk of transmission is higher without masks or social distancing.

“We are not out of the woods,” Walz said Thursday, adding that the pandemic has disrupted many fall activities like football games and normal school operations. “The virus has not allowed us to do that, and we have to remain vigilant.”

While Walz and his top public health officials ready for the threat of a rapid outbreak that hit Florida, Texas and other southern states this summer, they are also contending with political opposition to further mitigation measures. 

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, sent Walz a letter recently telling him, “There is no longer an emergency.” He asked Walz to outline what his parameters would be for rescinding his peacetime emergency declaration, which he has renewed every month since March. The emergency powers, which governors in all 50 states have utilized, have given Walz the authority to issue a long list of executive orders, including strict stay-at-home orders for nonessential businesses and workers that he dialed back beginning in May. 

Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm cautioned that Minnesota is in a precarious place heading into the Labor Day weekend, with transmission of new cases caused by unknown origins. Malcolm said, however, that private gatherings are likely driving new infections. 

Health officials said a 275-person wedding in southwestern Minnesota resulted in 56 new cases of COVID-19. Infectious Disease Division Director Kris Ehresmann said the event was held indoors and few masks were used.

“We’ve been walking along the edge of a high plateau … for quite some time,” Malcolm said. 

Minnesota is approaching 80,000 confirmed cases since the start of the pandemic. Currently, 272 patients are hospitalized with COVID-19 and 138 people are in intensive care. Thursday brought news of seven new deaths, bringing the state’s death toll to 1,837. 

“Just because we’ve been stable for a while, doesn’t mean we can’t tip over,” Malcolm said. “The virus is all over the state.”

The briefing comes just days after White House Coronavirus Task Force Coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx visited Minnesota, which has seen higher rates of positive tests since the start of the summer. 

Thursday began with dueling letters sent between Gazelka and Walz, whose top aide issued a rebuke Wednesday criticizing the GOP Senate leader for failing to attend COVID-19 related meetings and briefings. 

Walz is expected to renew his emergency declaration next week. In the past, with each emergency declaration he has also called a special legislative session that would give legislators an opportunity to vote to rescind the declaration. Despite votes by the GOP-led Senate to undo the emergency powers, the House DFL majority has blocked those efforts thus far. 

Relations between the governor and Senate majority leader have deteriorated in recent months as Gazelka has held votes to rescind the governor’s use of emergency powers. More recently, the Minnesota Senate ousted Walz’s labor commissioner, Nancy Leppink, in a move that Walz called a “petty political move,” vowing a “reckoning on this.”

Gazelka on Thursday briefly addressed reporters after a roughly 30 minute meeting with the governor, saying the “emergency powers brought a division between us.” Gazelka said he still disagrees with the governor’s view of the pandemic. The emergency has passed, he said, citing plenty of hospital and intensive-care capacity in the state.

Walz struck a conciliatory tone, giving brief remarks about the meeting ahead of the COVID-19 briefing. He said the meeting with Gazelka was intended to “reset the relationship.”

Still, the two are locked in a battle for control of state government to be decided in November, as Walz campaigns for a DFL Senate, while Gazelka tries to protect the GOP’s 35-32 majority.

Ricardo Lopez
Ricardo Lopez is the senior political reporter for the Reformer. Ricardo is not new to Minnesota politics, previously reporting on the Dayton administration and statehouse for The Star Tribune from 2014 to 2017, and the Republican National Convention in 2016. Previously, he was a staff writer at The Los Angeles Times covering the California economy. He's a Las Vegas native who has adopted Minnesota as his home state. In his spare time, he likes to run, cook and volunteer with Save-a-Bull, a Minneapolis dog rescue group.