Walz lifts most Minnesota virus restrictions by Memorial Day, challenges voters

Steve Karnowski, Associated Press
Crookston Times

    Minnesota will lift nearly all its COVID-19 restrictions just before Memorial Day weekend and drop its statewide mask requirement no later than July 1, Gov. Tim Walz announced Thursday, saying the mask mandate could even even sooner once 70% of residents age 16 and older get their first dose of vaccine.

    The Democratic governor said in a televised address — 14 months to the day since the state recorded its first confirmed coronavirus case — that Minnesota residents should no longer politely wait for others to get vaccinated first. He also called on people to urge their unvaccinated friends and family members to roll up their sleeves.

    “It's your turn. If you're out there right now, and if you're 16 and above, get your vaccine” Walz said.

    The first step in his three-phase timeline takes effect at noon Friday. It removes capacity limits for outdoor dining, events, and other get-togethers, and ends outdoor mask requirements except for large venues with more than 500 people. It also eliminates the state's mandatory 11 p.m. closing time for bars and restaurants.

    The second step begins May 28, the Friday before Memorial Day, when all remaining capacity and distancing limits will end, including for indoor events and gatherings. But masks will still be required in indoor public places and workplaces, and for outdoor events that exceed 500 people, such as Twins and Wild games.

    The third step, once the state hits the 70% target but no later than July 1, lifts the state's remaining mask requirements. However, local governments and individual businesses can still require masks and maintain other restrictions beyond July 1 if they choose.

    About 59% of Minnesota's population 16 years and older has received at least one vaccine shot, and nearly 46% have completed the series, according to the Minnesota Department of Health. The governor said the state is on track to hit the 70% first-shot mark by the end of June, and that it will take only 473,000 doses to get there.

    Because younger Minnesotans are not yet eligible to be vaccinated, the state's hybrid model of in-person and distance learning for schools will continue until the end of the academic year. State and local education officials will discuss over the summer what school will look like next fall, when younger age groups are expected to be vaccine-eligible. But Walz said a distance learning option will be preserved for families that choose it.

    Other emergency measures Walz has imposed under his emergency powers will remain in place, including an eviction moratorium and a price gouging ban. The governor said the Legislature should agree just to codify those protections, including a way to wind down the moratorium, which would allow him to cancel even more executive orders.

    Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm used the announcement as chance to reflect on how Minnesota could not have predicted “all of the twists and turns that would come” back when the state confirmed its first case March 6, 2020.

    “It's meant disruptions and loss for all of us,” Malcolm said. "And for many it's meant lost jobs and income, for so many it meant disrupted school years and family plans. For way too many it brought frightening new health problems and for far too many it meant the loss of of beloved family members, friends and coworkers.”

    Walz indicated he has no plans to rescind the peacetime state of emergency he declared on March 13, 2020, which gave him the emergency powers he's used to respond to the pandemic without requiring approval from the Legislature. Republican lawmakers, who have struggled unsuccessfully to roll back those powers since last summer, were quick to say his new steps don't go far or fast enough.

    “My reaction today is simple: Not good enough and not soon enough," Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, of East Gull Lake, said in a statement. "The emergency is over and the mandates need to end.”

    “The data clearly shows we’ve made incredible progress reducing case counts and getting Minnesotans vaccinated, but the Governor insists on holding on to powers he doesn’t need — it’s time to open up and end the emergency powers,” House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, of Crown, said in a separate statement.

    But the trade group Hospitality Minnesota, which represents hard-hit businesses such as restaurants and lodgings, welcomed the rollback.

    “We invite all Minnesotans to celebrate today’s good news by coming out to support your local hospitality businesses and aid their economic recovery, ”Liz Rammer, the group’s president and CEO, said in a statement.

    Walz challenged people who have been frustrated with his handling of the crisis to make sure that they live to get the chance to vote him out in 2022.

    “Get the vaccine to make sure you're around next November," he said. "Then you can cast that vote.”