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Will Minnesota restrictions lift soon? Walz to decide this week

By Brian Bakst, Minnesota Public Radio

The same goes for restrictions on bars, restaurants and other entertainment venues that have been closed to all but takeout and delivery since the middle of March.

Both sets of curbs are due to blink off first thing next Monday, barring extensions. Right now travel that isn’t considered essential is still discouraged and workplaces that aren’t explicitly exempt should stay closed. And for now people can’t get a drink or a bite to eat in a restaurant, only to go.

Some other states in the region — Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin among them — have their stay-at-home restrictions in place well into May or for most of the month.

Walz promised last week to let people know what course he’ll take by the middle of this week.

“I understand for folks that uncertainty in this time is like the worst. That opens up space for confusion or rumors,” Walz said Friday.

Last week, Walz introduced a dashboard he’ll use to convey where his administration believes the state is at. It has dials that move up or down based on when his experts believe it’s safe for workplaces and social activities to fire back up.

Walz has been gradually allowing more exemptions to his stay-at-home mandate.

Thousands of workplaces without much direct customer interaction can reopen starting Monday. They must have COVID-19 safety plans in place that involve health screenings of employees and deep-cleaning plans for facilities.

He’s more hesitant to do the same for eat-in establishments, concert halls and other places where people congregate.

Those, he said, are less predictable environments where the virus can too easily spread.

“Bars and restaurants, for example, are quite a ways on that social setting dial,” Walz said. “Single family gatherings, potential houses of worship, those are further down on the dial.”

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, posted a video to Twitter on Sunday calling for church services to be allowed to resume with social distancing in place.

“This is a big part of our daily lives for many of us, and we want churches to open,” he said. “We want it to be safe. People want to know they’re safe going to church but frankly they want to go to church.”

Walz hinted that small, single-shop businesses might be the next to come on line.

But the governor made clear that his dial can move in both directions. So if places open too quickly and COVID-19 cases start to outpace the ability to handle things, he’s also ready to dial it back.

Minnesota has seen some of its largest daily increases in positive cases and deaths in recent days. As of Sunday, more than 3,600 people were known to have coronavirus and 272 have died from its complications. But about half of the people infected with COVID-19 have now recovered to the point they are no longer isolated.

Case counts will surely go even higher, especially as Minnesota moves to conduct thousands of daily tests under a new agreement involving the University of Minnesota and the Mayo Clinic.

At the Capitol, remote hearings and limited agendas remain in place.

A House committee is reviewing a bill to provide rate increases for personal care attendants during the COVID-19 response phase.  Another panel is looking at putting at least 30 million dollars more into broadband grants to even out technological gaps around the state.

Senators are also working on the broadband issue as well as grants for telemedicine equipment. They’ll continue to push ahead on a tax bill that could relax some payment deadlines.

And there will be lots of talk about how to conduct elections if the pandemic stretches well into summer and fall.

However, there could be trouble brewing with state employee contracts that cover tens of thousands of workers.

The two-year agreements were negotiated last summer between the Walz administration and public sector unions. They call for across-the-board raises above 2 percent and make other changes to health and fringe benefits. They’ve been provisionally in place since fall, but the Legislature still has to sign off.

The pacts are likely to get a positive vote soon in the Democratic-led House. But Republicans have the Senate majority and they’re starting to raise questions about whether Minnesota can afford these contracts and have asked for possible renegotiations.

Administration officials said that won’t happen.

In a statement Friday, Department of Minnesota Management and Budget Commissioner Myron Frans noted that the deals cover the health lab technicians, unemployment assistance personnel and others now at the forefront of Minnesota’s coronavirus response.

“These contracts are fair and we support ratification by the Legislature. We will review our budget projection in early May and work with legislators on steps to ensure the state budget remains balanced,” he said.

If the contracts aren’t ratified, they’d be voided and employees would have the option of going on strike.