What would Minnesota Republicans do differently than Walz on COVID-19?

Issue-by-issue contrast shows deep divide between Senate GOP, governor.

Republicans have assailed DFL Gov. Tim Walz for his response to the COVID-19 pandemic over the past six months, while Walz says the state would be worse off if Republicans were in control.

The governor likened the GOP strategy to, “You don’t want to get cancer, don’t ever go check out that lump you’ve got. Just make sure you just ignore it.”

Republican lawmakers say that’s untrue and they take COVID-19 seriously but believe Walz’s regulations have done more harm than good. The Star Tribune broke down key issues in the state’s pandemic response to see what would be different if Senate Republican leadership was in charge.

The differences are vast. From face masks to distance learning to business operations, Walz has set rules to try to limit the spread of the coronavirus. The top Republican in the Legislature, Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, said he would do away with those regulations, which he said are hurting children’s education and the economy and leaving citizens without any real say.

Instead, Gazelka said people should be encouraged to follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for social distancing, hand washing and masks. But he said individuals, business owners and school officials should be able to make decisions based on what they believe is best.

“We do think it’s serious,” he said. “We also recognize we should try to follow the guidelines, but they should be more guidelines than this top-down mandate.”

The two sides have butted heads in special sessions called every 30 days to review the governor’s emergency powers. Those powers have allowed him to make unilateral decisions about the state’s COVID-19 response, such as limiting restaurant seating and requiring face masks in public indoor spaces. So far, his actions have survived court challenges and GOP legislative attempts to curtail them.

Democrats argue that the Legislature, with its purposefully deliberative process, can’t respond fast enough as emergencies arise. They also have criticized Republicans for condemning Walz’s approach without holding hearings to discuss thoughtful alternatives.

The Star Tribune asked GOP legislative leaders what they would do if they were in charge. House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, declined several interview requests. But Gazelka offered his alternatives to Walz’s restrictions:

Business regulations

  • Gazelka: No limits on indoor or outdoor capacity at businesses, but the state would encourage people to comply with social distancing. Owners of small bars or restaurants would decide for themselves how to stay open. Customers presumably won’t patronize establishments that don’t feel safe, forcing them to follow health protocols.

    But there would be no state enforcement of social distancing in businesses.

  • Walz: Businesses need preparedness plans to protect employees and customers. All restaurants, bars, retail stores and personal service providers like hair salons must follow a number of state regulations, including maintaining social distancing and limiting access to half their capacity. Fitness centers and indoor entertainment venues like movie theaters can only operate at 25% capacity.

    State agency investigators are checking for businesses violating the protocols, which can result in fines, the loss of liquor licenses and potentially forced closures.

School operations

  • Gazelka: Social distancing guidelines would change from 6 feet to 3 feet, based on an American Academy of Pediatrics guide that says while 6 feet is ideal, 3 is the minimum. That could allow more schools to do in-person teaching, with local school districts deciding how to operate. If a school hits a certain percentage of students with the virus, they could opt for a temporary closure.

  • Walz: Local school district and charter school officials determined how to handle learning at the start of the school year with three options: In-person, distance learning or a hybrid approach. State education and health agency experts work with the districts to determine whether to adjust their approach throughout the school year. Those decisions are based on a number of factors, including the prevalence of the virus in the surrounding county. Six feet of distance in the goal, but there is some flexibility with the in-person scenario.

Mask wearing

  • Gazelka: There would be no mandatory indoor face mask requirement in public places. People would be asked to follow CDC guidance that suggests wearing a mask in congested indoor areas. Business owners could ask people to wear masks inside if they wanted.

  • Walz: Minnesotans must wear a face covering in businesses and other indoor public settings statewide. People who cannot wear masks for medical reasons are exempt, as are children younger than 5 and people in jobs where a mask would be a workplace hazard.

Testing

  • Gazelka: Testing should be focused on nursing homes and other long-term care facilities, with a secondary focus on more testing for teachers. He describes the state’s current approach as “random testing everywhere.”

  • Walz: The governor has spent a significant portion of the state’s federal coronavirus relief funding on testing-related needs. Walz partnered with Mayo Clinic and the University of Minnesota in April on a statewide testing strategy and by June built up the capacity to handle 20,000 samples a day. The state plans to open a saliva testing lab in October and is going to do mobile testing events and set up 10 semi-permanent testing sites around the state.

Decisionmaking

  • Gazelka: The governor’s peacetime emergency powers should end and power should revert to lawmakers to set state policies for addressing the pandemic through the normal legislative process. If emergencies arise, the governor should call legislators together for a special session. Lawmakers are able to pass emergency legislation in a day if necessary.

  • Walz: The governor declared the state of emergency in March and has repeatedly extended it since then. The emergency status allows him to use executive orders to respond to the pandemic, including quickly setting or ending regulations. An Executive Council made up of the lieutenant governor, attorney general, secretary of state and state auditor — all elected Democrats — votes on whether to approve each order. Governors across the country operate with similar states of emergency.

Long-term care

  • Gazelka: Republican legislators have been pushing to expand testing for residents and staff at long-term care facilities and say the governor did not act fast enough to protect the vulnerable residents. If there is more testing, there can be more family visits, he said. Family members and the individual in a facility should have more decisionmaking power when it comes to visits.

  • Walz: The administration put out a “five-point battle plan” in May to guide the COVID-19 response in long-term care settings, including expanding testing at facilities, getting them personal protective equipment and ensuring they have enough staff. The state restricted visits to long-term care facilities earlier in the pandemic but has relaxed some of those rules and allows some outdoor and open-window visits as well as visits from essential caregivers.

Modeling

  • Gazelka: Models on the spread of COVID-19 would be a factor as the GOP makes decisions, but Gazelka said he would give more weight to concerns about the economy, mental health and education. He disagreed with Walz’s decision to ask all Minnesotans to stay at home in the spring, which was based in part on modeling, and said the order should have only applied to seniors and the vulnerable.

  • Walz: Walz used a model developed by the University of Minnesota and Minnesota Department of Health as he decided to do a statewide stay-at-home order. The model estimated there could be more than 50,000 deaths in Minnesota. So far, there have been 1,988 COVID-19 deaths and 93,012 infections. Models are one factor that Walz uses to make COVID-19 decisions, along with health experts’ advice and data on positivity rates, community spread, hospital capacity and county virus levels.

Crowd size

  • Gazelka: There would be no limits on how many people can gather for indoor or outdoor events, such as concerts, weddings or funerals. Groups of people hosting events should make their own decisions about safety protocols, but Republicans would urge people to follow CDC guidelines on social distancing and masks.

  • Walz: There are social gathering limits of 10 people indoors and 25 people outdoors for events at private homes. There can be no public gatherings of more than 250 people. Event venues must operate with indoor and outdoor capacity limits of 25%, up to 250 people, and need to maintain social distancing. Such venues need COVID-19 preparedness plans.