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Minnesota Republicans set May 1 goal for full reopening, press Walz for metrics driving dial turns

The plan would allow for raising capacity limits on businesses and gatherings unless COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations hit a certain threshold.

WCT.STOCK.RepDaveBaker
State Rep. Dave Baker listens to Sen. Andrew Lang speak during a Willmar City Council meeting Feb. 3, 2020, at the Kandiyohi County Health and Human Services building in Willmar. Erica Dischino / West Central Tribune file photo
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ST. PAUL — Minnesota hospitality industry leaders and Republican lawmakers on Monday, Feb. 8, pressed Gov. Tim Walz for a more defined timeline of when restaurants, bars, gyms and theaters would be able to open at a larger capacity. And they set a May 1 goal for the full reopening of businesses and larger events.

As new COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths trend downward in the state and vaccines become more readily available, the governor should allow more sectors of the economy to open at a greater capacity, they said. At a minimum, the Walz administration should work with lawmakers and business owners to set a metric to signal when the state would consider revisiting executive orders to loosen restrictions or to tighten them, the business owners said.

The push comes after businesses have been closed or limited in terms of capacity and restrictions for patrons for months. And hospitality industry leaders said without a clear guide for when capacity limits might grow or large events might again be allowed, operators have had planned reservations or other business canceled through fall.

Rep. Dave Baker, R-Willmar, put forward a timeline that would immediately allow for restaurants to operate at 75% capacity, gyms and fitness centers at 50%, and indoor and outdoor events with a 50% cap and a 100-person limit.

After four to six weeks, capacity limits would again be bumped up until they were ultimately lifted on May 1 (or sooner) if COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations remain within a manageable threshold. If cases or hospitalizations jumped, capacity limits or other constraints could be imposed again.

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“This offers a roadmap showing how we can actually open up quickly and as quickly as possible without unpredictable announcements that we’ve been hearing for several months,” Rep. Dave Baker, R-Willmar, said pointing to the governor's dial turns adjusting orders around various industries. “The thing we’re going to have to come up with is something everybody can trust: a number or some kind of guide that says this is working."

Health officials and the governor have said executive orders aimed at mitigating the spread of COVID-19 have been informed by health data. And Walz has said he has tried to provide substantial lead time ahead of his announcements but has been constrained by having to make decisions quickly.

Walz hasn't recently indicated if or when he intends to increase capacity limits or ease other COVID-19 restrictions.

"As more and more Minnesotans are getting vaccinated, Governor Walz will continue working with business owners across the state to keep their businesses open and operating safely," Teddy Tschann, Walz's spokesman, said Monday.

Business owners said they'd been hard-pressed by the pandemic and the state's steps to mitigate COVID-19 and they urged Walz to provide them more notice before announcing additional changes around executive orders. Hospitality Minnesota President and CEO Liz Rammer said the industry is down 116,000 jobs because of COVID-19.

“The consumer confidence is there. We need to instill that consumer confidence and ensure our consumers that we have a forward-looking plan," Madden's Resort Managing Director Ben Thuringer said. “We could really use the certainty within tourism and hospitality."

The measure will need bipartisan support if it's to make it through the divided Capitol. And Baker said he hoped to find Democratic lawmakers willing to work on the proposal. He also said he'd be open to the governor taking up the timeframe on his own as it could more quickly be implemented into law through executive order.

House Democrats on Monday also highlighted a plan that would require business owners to prioritize hiring back employees laid off as a result of the pandemic as their budgets allow. Larger hotels and event centers, security services and airport hospitality positions would be among those directed in the proposal.

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Follow Dana Ferguson on Twitter @bydanaferguson , call 651-290-0707 or email dferguson@forumcomm.com

Dana Ferguson is a Minnesota Capitol Correspondent for Forum News Service. Ferguson has covered state government and political stories since she joined the news service in 2018, reporting on the state's response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the divided Statehouse and the 2020 election.
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