MINNEAPOLIS — Hundreds of President Donald Trump's grassroots supporters protested outside the Minnesota governor's mansion on Friday, angered that a stay-at-home order to stem the spread of COVID-19 has not been lifted and buoyed by a presidential tweet.
Gov. Tim Walz meanwhile insisted that he agrees with parts of Trump's guidelines for restarting the economy during the coronavirus pandemic and said he's unsure why the Republican president took to social media to urge: "LIBERATE MINNESOTA."
Walz said at a news conference Friday afternoon that he called the White House soon after Trump tweeted, but that he couldn't get through to the president or vice president.
The protest in St. Paul was one of several nationwide by conservatives pushing back against restrictions imposed to slow the spread of COVID-19. Many of the protesters wore pro-Trump gear and carried American flags. Very few practiced social distancing or were protected by masks.
On Thursday, Trump issued a road map for recovering from the economic pain of the public health crisis, making it clear that governors call the shots and that a return to normalcy will take longer than Trump initially envisioned.
Walz said he supports the plan for a phased approach to resuming business and is grateful that Trump said governors should lead the effort. He said the three-step plan "mirrors exactly what we're trying to do" and that he doesn't know the motivation for Trump's tweet.
"I just don't have time to try and figure out why something like that would happen," the Democratic governor said. "I just have to lead from Minnesota's perspective." Walz recently extended the state's stay-at-home order to May 4.
He said he supports the protesters' right to object, and that he too is frustrated with the pace of change. But he warned that the protesters were "advocating for really reckless behavior" and that they should have stayed 6 feet apart.
Walz has said Minnesota must significantly expand its testing capacity before it can begin relaxing restrictions.
The number of Minnesotans infected with the coronavirus on Friday climbed by 159 to 2,071, while 17 new fatalities raised the death toll to 111, the Minnesota Department of Health reported. As of Friday, 223 patients were hospitalized — 10 more than Thursday — and 106 of them were in intensive care, an increase of three. But 1,066 patients have recovered.
Walz loosened some restrictions Friday by signing an executive order that allows residents to golf, boat, fish, hunt and hike as long as they follow new guidelines: maintain 6 feet of social distancing; avoid crowded areas; and stay close to home.
Businesses that could reopen Saturday include golf courses, bait shops, marinas and outdoor shooting ranges. Campgrounds, recreational equipment retail and rental stores, charter boats and guided fishing remain closed.
Meanwhile, 19 people linked to a JBS pork plant in Worthington have become infected with the coronavirus, according to the union that represents most of the facility's 2,000 workers. Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said seven cases have been confirmed in people associated with the plant, but that she expects that number to rise.
Walz said his administration has been in close contact with JBS management, local government and union officials in Worthington. The state has sent a team to set up testing and ensure safe conditions, he said.
Local union president Matt Utecht urged JBS to slow assembly line speeds and guarantee at least 6 feet between workers.
JBS spokesman Cameron Bruett declined to say how many COVID-19 cases had been confirmed at the plant, but detailed the safety enhancements he said the plant has made, including increased disinfection, promoting physical distancing between workers, temperature checks and clear plastic dividers in key areas.
A Smithfield Foods pork plant in nearby Sioux Falls, South Dakota, shut down after hundreds of workers there tested positive and one died, Walz noted. But he supported allowing the JBS plant to remain open.
"We can't have all these plants go down," Walz said. "Not just for our workers and our local community. We have to help feed the world."