Virus Outbreak Minnesota

Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz takes a photo of a box containing over 2,000 doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine delivered to the Minneapolis VA Hospital Monday, Dec. 14, 2020.

State Rep. Pat Garofalo recently said what’s been on the mind of just about every Minnesotan over the last several months since COVID-19 was first tracked in the state and government-imposed restrictions altered routine matters of life in March 2020.

“Pandemics suck,” the Republican from Farminton, Minn. said to a legislative subcommittee tasked with reviewing executive powers during emergencies. “All the options are bad. They ruin lives, destroy wealth and kill people.”

Garofalo made his comments as one of the lawmakers on the Subcommittee on Legislative Process Reform, which met for the first time last week with the goal of reviewing the short-term scope of the governor’s powers and the possibility of a series of bills to rewrite Chapter 12 of state statute that dictates emergency management laws.

Iron Range based state Reps. Dave Lislegard (DFL-Aurora) and Julie Sandstede (DFL-Hibbing) are also among the subcommittee members who plan to meet again this upcoming Friday to focus on two executive orders that apply to businesses and indoor face coverings, considered two key guidelines in the Walz COVID-19 pandemic response.

Stripping the governor of every single power, a common demand from the more extreme sides of the pandemic debate, isn’t in the cards. Instead the Legislature is trying to strike a more collaborative approach with the executive branch that allows more voices in the conversation about the COVID-19 response.

Still, Garofalo cautioned his colleagues toward a debate that mirrors those goals rather than devolving into rhetoric of misinformation and conspiracy theories that have dominated the extreme opposition to the pandemic response, and has even questioned the reality of the virus.

“We’re dealing with facts. We should all recognize there is no silver bullet,” he said. “There’s lots of information and disinformation — stay away from social media vomit.”

The legislative group meets as Walz enters his 11th month of executive power through the emergency declaration and at a time when Minnesota is still riding a post-surge decline in coronavirus cases, hospitalizations and deaths. The meeting also comes as a slow rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine has state officials adjusting plans for a more efficient vaccination effort.

At its current rate of vaccination — about 60,000 per week according to Dan Huff, assistant commissioner for the state Department of Health, during a subcommittee hearing last week — it would take about 3.5 years to inoculate every Minnesotan twice.

“I asked to be on this committee because I believe it needs to have full transparency and have dialogue with the administration,” Lislegard said during last week’s meeting, noting the declining numbers and recent loosening of restrictions on bars, restaurants and schools. “When does this end? I believe [Walz] saved lives. When is it no longer an emergency? I’m not going to support three years of emergency powers and executive powers.”

Lislegard expressed a common frustration among Republican lawmakers that the administration tightened or loosened restrictions with little legislative input and a small window for businesses to adjust, with details often being learned by legislators through press reports hours before an announcement.

“I don’t believe that their voice was heard,” he said of the Iron Range business owners who contacted him about new orders and guidelines. “There was no access.”

Huff, the MDH assistant commissioner, said Walz was eager to engage more with the Legislature about wielding his executive powers. The governor’s previous actions, he said, spared Minnesota from a larger, longer peak in cases as experienced across the Midwest, specifically pointing to North Dakota and South Dakota. “We wish we could have prevented that surge, but it’s very difficult when the sea is rising all around.”

Huff called the balance between public health and the economy “tricky” and noted there’s still areas of concern over the state’s COVID-19 rates, despite a rapid improvement from November’s peak. At the end of the day, he said, for Minnesota to reach its herd immunity goals and move past the pandemic, “vaccination is the end game.”

About 250,000 Minnesotans have received their first dose of a coronavirus vaccine, but short supply and a slow rollout by the state have Minnesota 35th among states in giving out first doses, according to the Centers for Disease Control. The Biden administration has pledged to 100 million vaccinations in the new president’s first 100 days. If state health officials can increase their efficiency in getting vaccines to more residents, that could put Minnesota in line for a return to normalcy by this summer.

In the meantime, Walz and the Legislature seem destined to continue a state of emergency as the vaccine rollout continues, leaving legislators like Garofalo debating what’s necessary moving forward.

“The question is, we’re in the 11th month of the governor having special powers: Are we OK with that continuing or not?” he asked. “Doesn’t matter if it’s good or bad, the primary issue is whether we’re going to have a role in this or if the governor is going to have these decisions.”

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