Walz, a Democrat, has taken those steps even as Covid-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths continue to rise in his state. He has continually described his coronavirus response as akin to turning a dial, moving it slightly this week to accommodate some customer-facing businesses.
A former high school teacher and football coach who grew up in rural Nebraska and spent more than two decades in the Army National Guard, Walz has earned a reputation as pragmatic moderate, in part during his years representing Minnesota’s first congressional district.
Kathryn Pearson, an associate professor of political science at the University of Minnesota, noted Walz has not been as critical of President Donald Trump as other governors and that he faces a difficult balance overseeing a state where one party is in control of each chamber of the legislature.
“Initially, the Republican-controlled Senate and Republicans were pretty supportive of the governor,” Pearson said. “But as time has gone on, there has been a lot of pressure from Republican legislative leaders to reopen.” That includes a GOP threat to block the state’s bonding bill — which provides funding to projects all over the state and requires a two-thirds majority for passage — unless Walz ends his emergency authority.
“Governor Walz has been overwhelmed by the outpouring of support he’s received from Minnesotans. When the governor signed the stay home order, he asked Minnesotans to give the state time to prepare,” said Teddy Tschann, Walz’s communications director. “Since then, Minnesota launched a groundbreaking testing strategy, expanded hospital capacity and secured critical resources. As he follows the guidance of public health experts and prioritizes safety, Governor Walz has taken cautious, strategic steps toward getting people safely back to work.”
“I call them ’embers’ if it’s small — or if it’s a fire or a hotspot, we could put them out,” he said. “But we can’t have our whole country out. We can’t do it …. The country won’t take it. I won’t stand it. It’s not sustainable.”
Stark economic reality
More recently, he signed an executive order providing a framework for doctors, dentists and veterinarians to resume elective surgeries by next week. In a statement, he said he was enacting the change because Minnesota has made “significant progress in building up critical resources to combat Covid-19,” including procuring personal protective equipment, ventilators and increasing hospital surge capacity.
“We’re proud that this progress will allow our medical professionals to safely resume certain procedures to keep Minnesotans healthy and improve their quality of life,” Walz said.
Responding to the new budget outlook Tuesday, Walz said the forecast “confirms what we suspected: Covid-19 will badly damage Minnesota’s economy.”
“This will mean shared sacrifice among all of us,” he said. “Hard decisions will be made.”
In the lawsuit representing a dance studio, a yoga company and several boxing clubs, the petitioners argue that Walz’s shutdown order of March 25 “unconstitutionally shut down some businesses, but not other businesses who present no greater public health risk.”
“The government has failed to adequately explain its public health rationale distinguishing those businesses who are allowed to continue and those businesses — like the petitioners — who have been shut down,” they argued.
The lawsuit notes that sales at Target stores were up in the first quarter of 2020 because they were allowed to continue to operate, but “other smaller stores selling the same products or services are closed under the Executive Orders.
“The disparity is apparent; large corporations are favored over small businesses,” the lawsuit argues. “There is no evidence to reflect that large corporations can conduct themselves in a more socially responsible manner in the current health crisis than small businesses.”
Responding to the lawsuit, Tschann said the virus has forced the state to take “drastic action” to keep Minnesotans safe but “it’s action that is within the governor’s authority.”
“It is also in line with federal guidance and similar to what many other states are doing,” Tschann said. “All of the governor’s actions have been grounded in the need to protect the health and safety of Minnesotans, and he will continue to work to find ways to get Minnesotans back to work and to a place where they can safely gather in large groups.”
Republican lawmakers also have kept steady pressure on Walz to reopen by highlighting the pain felt by small business owners. Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, a Republican, has repeatedly argued that Minnesota can prevent the spread of Covid-19 while safely reopening Minnesota.
When Walz extended the stay at home order in late April, Gazelka released a video message noting that some businesses in Minnesota are shutting down for good
“We’ve got to figure out how to flatten that curve as well of businesses that are going out of business,” Gazelka said in his April 30 video message.
“We have to do it,” he said of reopening. “If we are unwilling to do it, more businesses will die and that spike will be more damaging than anything we’ve faced so far.”
Risks at meat processing plants
Still, the state is grappling with rising cases at the same time that it is trying to ramp up its coronavirus testing capacity. As of Thursday afternoon, the state had only conducted about 97,421 tests with 9,365 positive cases, according to Minnesota Department of Health data.
The University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation has also updated its model for Minnesota with the expectation that cases will now peak during the week of May 14. With 2,962 cases and 342 deaths, Hennepin County, which encompasses Minneapolis, has the most cases in the state. About 80% of the deaths from coronavirus have been in long-term care or assisted living facilities.
One of the biggest dangers to Minnesota, along with many other Midwestern states, is the difficulty in controlling outbreaks in meat processing plants.
The JBS USA pork processing plant in Worthington, Minnesota, reopened Thursday in a limited capacity after shutting down for two weeks. JBS officials said in a statement that the plant voluntarily closed on April 20 “in an effort to combat the community spread of the coronavirus in Nobles County,” which has the second highest number of cases of all the counties in the state.
Minnesota Department of Health estimates that at least 490 of the plant’s 2,000 workers tested positive for Covid-19. The plant handles about 4% of the nation’s pork production.
In a statement, JBS USA said the plant will reopen with reduced staff and expects operations “to normalize over time as absenteeism rates decline in response to preventative measures in place at the facility” and as “team members clear any necessary quarantine protocols.”
During a recent appearance on CNN’s “Inside Politics,” Minnesota Agriculture Commissioner Thom Petersen claimed the state has been “aggressive” in asking plant employers to create greater social distancing and instate safety measures like temperature checks for each worker as they enter the plant.
Petersen said the state has also offered testing at the plants in order to “everything we can to either keep the ones running in Minnesota” or get closed plants “back up and running as soon as possible.”
“It’s in all of our best interests for those plants to be running, but they have to provide safety for the workers,” Petersen said.
This story has been updated with additional comments from the governor’s spokesman.
CNN’s Dianne Gallagher and Pamela Kirkland contributed to this report.