ST. PAUL — With a growing number of workers being asked to self-quarantine out of concern for spreading the COVID-19 coronavirus, Democrats in the Minnesota House of Representative said Wednesday, March 11, that they would push to expand unemployment insurance to allow more people to collect during an outbreak.
The proposal along with a variety of others came a day after Gov. Tim Walz approved $21 million in funding for the department of health to contain and treat the disease and as the department on Wednesday ticked up the number of cases of COVID-19 in the state to five.
In the United States, 647 Americans have been diagnosed and 25 have died as a result of the virus, according to the CDC. And in Minnesota, 222 individuals had been tested for the illness as of Wednesday, state health officials said.
As the number of individuals asked to seek care or self-quarantine due to exposure to COVID-19 grew, lawmakers said they should consider proposals to provide financial relief to workers and to health services.
"We want to keep Minnesotans safe. We're moving these bills and considering these bills as fast is as reasonably possible," Minnesota House Speaker Melissa Hortman, D-Brooklyn Park, said. "Things are changing on kind of an hour-by-hour basis, so we just want to be prepared to consider the things that Minnesotans would want us to take action on."
House Democrats put forth proposals that would grant the governor the authority to declare a peacetime emergency in the event of a health emergency and allow workers to seek unemployment insurance or paid sick leave if they are quarantined due to the outbreak of a communicable disease or if their employer shuts down due to the outbreak. The workers wouldn't be required to seek new employment as a condition of collecting unemployment in that situation.
"We are trying to be more proactive in situations where the employer may shut down due to quarantine or they don't allow any workers to come to work due to health concerns," Rep. Mohamud Noor, D-Minneapolis, said. "This is more about public safety, in order to ensure the individuals can continue to receive income."
Additional bills would also prevent price gouging certain crucial items during a time of emergency, ensure compensation for hourly workers in Minnesota's public schools and require health plans to cover testing, treatment and quarantine for COVID-19 patients without sharing those costs with the patients. And lawmakers said they should set up a revolving loan account to help health providers to cover the expense of treating new cases of the disease.
“We want to come out on the other side of this with a health care system that is at least as strong as it is right now,” Rep. Tina Liebling, D-Rochester, said. “We definitely don’t want to lose providers over this and hopefully we’ll come out stronger.”
Senate Republicans a day earlier said they would consider additional proposals to address COVID-19 but didn't commit to approving any of the plans.
"As we monitor our situation in Minnesota, we will take appropriate action on bipartisan ideas," Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, said in a release. "The best thing now is for people to follow the advice of the experts: Cover your cough, stay home if you are sick, and wash your hands frequently.”
A conversation about closing the Capitol
Hortman said legislative leaders, the governor and Minnesota health officials were in an ongoing discussion about the need to close the Capitol to the public if the disease's spread triggered that need.
And while the University of Minnesota on Wednesday announced that it would move from in-person classes on its campuses to online-only classes from March 18 through at least April 1, attendees at the Legislature didn't come from quite as broad geographic base.
"It's not really a light switch of either we're functioning here as a state Capitol in legislative session or not, there are things we can do to slowly dial back risk to participants in the building if we need to," Hortman said. "We, so far, don't have a public health justification to start to limit public gatherings."