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Walz wonders about 'more bipartisan approach' to COVID-19

The governor looks back on his response to the pandemic in Minnesota and what he could have done differently.

ST PAUL, Minn. — Six months after declaring a state of emergency to combat the coronavirus pandemic, Gov. Tim Walz believes the steps he took saved lives but acknowledges that if he had known earlier in the crisis what he knows now, he would have done some things differently.

For example, Walz said in an interview, “maybe I could have extended the stay-at-home order a bit longer” to prevent more Minnesotans from contracting the virus.

The Democratic governor wonders if he had taken a “more bipartisan approach” and given Republican lawmakers a larger role in making policy decisions, maybe the issue “wouldn’t have been so politically charged.”

The state might also have tested more health care workers for infections and eased restrictions on nursing homes and other long-term care facilities earlier, the St. Paul Pioneer Press reported.

“If I had all the data then that I have now, yeah, I would have made some decisions differently,” he said.

“I’m not going to make the case that every decision we made was correct, but I can assure people that we made it with the best data at the time, with the best interests of Minnesota at heart.”

Walz declared a peacetime state of emergency on March 13 as the virus was quickly surging across the state, nation and world.

Within days, he ordered all nonessential workers to stay at home, closed schools, bars and restaurants, and banned large public gatherings. He also imposed a moratorium on housing evictions, created a nutrition program for children and provided paid leave for workers sickened by COVID-19.

As scientists and public health experts provided better data on measures to slow the spread of the virus, the governor gradually eased many restrictions. He and the Legislature also directed hundreds of millions of dollars in state and federal relief funds to local governments, food shelves and food banks.

In six months, Minnesota has flattened the curve on deaths and the spread of the virus. But the transmission rate remains at what Walz called a “slow burn,” which has led some epidemiologists and public health experts to fear a rise in cases as students return to schools and Minnesotans head indoors during colder weather.

Walz’s critics, including Republicans and business owners, have suggested he has failed to respect the public’s ability to make safe decisions — without government mandates — when presented with accurate information.

Walz has been reticent to come out and say that no, people can’t be trusted. Here’s what he said when pressed on the question:

“I think the majority of people’s better angels work, but I don’t understand that thinking in this. Do we just assume people wouldn’t smoke indoors if we didn’t have that ban?” he said. “It’s not that you don’t trust people. … I’ve got a libertarian streak in me, from cannabis to leaving people alone.

“But the strongest indication that in a public health (crisis) you’ve got to do this is people who say, ‘I’ve got the right to not wear a mask in crowded spaces.’ It’s not about you. It’s about your neighbor. It’s like free speech: Your free speech ends where your knuckles hit my nose.”

Walz said he believes it’s hard for some people — especially the young and healthy — to act in deference to the powers of an invisible contagion that spreads silently from asymptomatic people via something as cherished as a wedding.

“I get it,” he said. “It just doesn’t seem real. But you wouldn’t have that wedding if the church were on fire.”

One of the most significant impacts the pandemic has had on Minnesota is how it changed people’s routines, he said. “We found out how important it was to see our neighbors. We found out how important it was to have our kids in school.”

Some Minnesotans, including Republican legislative leaders, felt misled by some of the numbers Walz used in early warnings about the spread of the virus. For example, he cited a University of Minnesota model that suggested 50,000 to 55,000 possible deaths in the state and 5,000 hospital patients needing intensive care beds.

Since the start of the pandemic, 83,588 Minnesotans have tested positive for COVID-19 and 1,906 have died, the state Health Department reported Saturday.

The governor acknowledged that some of the early models never became reality. He didn’t intend to mislead anyone, he said, but the “early numbers warranted taking it seriously.

“If the National Weather Service is predicting 19 inches of rain and we end up getting 8 inches, I have to take precautions for a 19-inch rainfall. … We used the best possible data. Fortunately we didn’t hit the higher numbers.”

He also conceded that he may have ordered businesses in rural areas with few COVID cases to close earlier than necessary. Now, he said, state officials have county-by-county data that enable them to target restrictions or send supplies only to places where they’re needed.

For example, he said, “Now we can have a snapshot of every single hospital bed … and how much equipment they have across the entire state.”

He thinks the state and national economies will continue to recover slowly from the current, pandemic-induced recession. But he said he’s slightly more optimistic than economists who are predicting 3.2 percent growth in the first quarter of 2021 because he expects consumers will spend money on things on their bucket lists.

“Like so many things in this economy, it’s a little bit psychological,” the former high school football coach said. “The minute this thing is up, I’m going to go watch a football game at Notre Dame.”

Like other Minnesotans, Walz is experiencing pandemic fatigue and can’t wait for it to end. “If I never have to issue another executive order it would be the best day of my life,” he said.

The coronavirus, of course, hasn’t been the only thing to tear apart lives and society.

Minnesota became the epicenter for a national reckoning on race relations following the death of George Floyd while being arrested by Minneapolis police officers on Memorial Day, spawning mass protests as well as spells of violent rioting, arson and looting that has scarred commercial corridors in Minneapolis and St. Paul.

Looting flared up again last month following inaccurate social media reports that police had killed a man — who in fact was a murder suspect who took his own life.

Walz now sees preparations for civil unrest like preparations for a spike in COVID cases: a must.

What does he think the likelihood is of more civil unrest?

“I think it’s a high likelihood,” he said. “I think it would be irresponsible not to assume that. Once again, in many of these positions, you have to assume the worst-case scenario and plan for it. To not, ends up in a situation like we saw at the end of May.”

As he spoke, crowds gathered outside the Hennepin County courthouse, where the four officers charged in Floyd’s death had a hearing.

“To be candid, we were watching today very carefully,” Walz said. “I felt like today potentially could have been one of those moments. We have to be ready to respond to that civil unrest, but I think fundamentally the issue that still needs to be addressed is those systemic issues that we started to get at, and I think there’s reasons to be hopeful that the Legislature moves some of those things.

“But I think in echoing what the Black community — not as a homogenous (group) but as what some of the leadership that I’ve talked to (have said) — believes that it was a small first start and that if we decide to move on like Minnesotans tend to do, that tinder box will still remain ripe for fire. I think it’s there.”

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