Range lawmakers applaud loosened COVID restrictions

At the Sawmill in Virginia on Friday, Rep. Julie Sandstede (DFL – Hibbing), left, and Rep. Dave Lislegard (DFL – Aurora), second from right, met with business owners from Hibbing, Virginia, Eveleth and the surrounding area to hear their concerns. Also pictured are Shelly Hanson, president of the Hibbing Area Chamber of Commerce, second from left, and Erik Holmstrom, president of the Laurentian Chamber of Commerce, right

VIRGINIA — Two Iron Range lawmakers on a legislative subcommittee reviewing coronavirus restrictions in Minnesota said they welcomed adjustments to mitigation measures announced by Gov. Tim Walz on Friday, nearly one year after the most impactful changes to normal life were implemented in March 2020.

Minnesota has climbed into the top five nationally for vaccination rates in recent weeks, while COVID-19 infections continue to hold steady at low levels, prompting the governor to inject more optimism into the state’s outlook this spring. Broadly, the loosened restrictions announced Friday included social gatherings, bars and restaurants, religious services, entertainment venues and more.

As he announced the roll back, DFL State Reps. Julie Sandstede of Hibbing and Dave Lislegard of Aurora met with local businesses owners and area Chamber of Commerce heads to hear their continued concerns. It also highlighted their efforts on the House Subcommittee on Legislative Process Reform that has taken a deeper look at the function of the Legislature when executive powers are in place. Sandstede, last month, was the lead author on a bill focused on bars and restaurants, which will attempt to establish a reopening plan for the state. Lislegard, DFL Rep. Rob Ecklund of International Falls co-sponsored the bill and Independent Sen. David Tomassoni of Chisholm authored the Senate version.

“We’ve been driving the conversation with the administration and voicing what we’ve been hearing from our constituents and our business,” Sandstede and Lislegard said in a joint statement Friday afternoon. “We’re pleased the governor is listening to us and finally taking these steps to help our local economies recover and move us back toward normalcy.”

It was St. Patrick’s Day last year, March 17, when bars and restaurants were last able to open at full capacity in Minnesota. Schools across the state opened their doors for the last time during the 2019-20 school year the next day.

Since then has been a series of enhanced restrictions, targeted roll backs, a major fall surge in COVID-19 infections and a slow-to-start vaccination effort, but Minnesota health officials and local entities have ramped up inoculation rates and Walz, on Friday, suggested that all adults in the state could be eligible for the vaccine before President Joe Biden’s target date of May 1.

Among the new modified mitigation measures is bar and restaurant capacity increasing to 75% with a limit of 250 people and bar seating for parties of four. Religious services will no longer have occupancy limits but must maintain social distancing. Gathering limits increase to 50 people outside and 15 indoors, and on April 1, large outdoor venues like Target Field can permit up to 10,000 people.

A mask mandate, the most politicized effort to curb the virus, will remain in place, even as states like Texas and Missouri have shed theirs in recent days. Minnesota is starting to see new COVID-19 variants throughout the state and Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said Friday that “we’re going to see how that translates to perhaps increased cases in the hospital and so forth,” noting that mitigation measures remain important. Still, current signs point toward the pandemic nearing its twilight more than a year after the first coronavirus case was detected in Minnesota.

The Minnesota Department of Health announced 1,191 new cases on Saturday and 25 in St. Louis County. More than 46,000 people in Minnesota were vaccinated, according to state data.

“With the speed of vaccine distribution increasing by the day, and key COVID numbers like positive cases, hospitalizations and deaths all continuing to drop, it’s clear we’re nearing the end of this pandemic,” Sandstede and Lislegard said. “We’re excited for spring and summer ahead with ball games, family celebrations and the community gatherings we all cherish as Minnesotans.”

Republicans in the Legislature turned their attention toward Walz’s emergency powers and encouraged a serious discussion on how to end them as the rates trend in the right direction. Walz indicated he will extend his pandemic powers by another 30 days.

House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said Walz “should work with us to set clear timelines or metrics for the final dial turn,” referring to the mitigation measures. Daudt is among the high-profile lawmakers on the Legislative Process Reform subcommittee, who in the past, held a bonding bill hostage seeking for a full revoke of emergency powers. He’s also encouraged the governor and lawmakers to allow a more localized approach in which areas with lower infection rates could reopen more quickly.

Walz told the Mesabi Tribune last year that, despite his instincts to turn toward local control, he kept the mitigation measures on the track suggested by public health officials and experts. For Iron Range lawmakers, though, Friday’s roll back of restrictions was a sign that the Legislature is being heard more in the process.

“It’s no secret we’ve been pushing the governor and his administration to take bolder steps over the past few months to help businesses out while taking a careful, science-based, data-driven approach,” Sandstede and Lislegard said. “[Friday’s] announcement validates our hard work.”

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