ST. PAUL — State leaders on Thursday, March 12, said they're not ready to shut the doors at the Capitol, but they're keeping that option open as coronavirus COVID-19 cases creep up in Minnesota.
The decision to allow members of the public to continue with slightly limited access to the Legislature comes as the number of reported COVID-19 cases in the state nearly doubled Thursday, March 12, jumping from five to nine, according to the Department of Health.
Lawmakers were taking additional precautions to prevent the spread of germs and of the virus Thursday, including canceling in-person meetings with constituents, calling off public events and blocking access to the House of Representatives for school groups and guests. House Speaker Melissa Hortman, D-Brooklyn Park, said she asked the Department of Administration to increase cleaning around the Capitol and advised state employees or legislators to stay home if they are sick and start skipping handshakes in favor of alternative greetings like bumping elbows.
And Hortman in an email to House lawmakers and staff said committee hearings and other meetings at the Capitol would be postponed until Monday at 11 a.m., when members are set to reconvene.
Legislative leaders and the governor said they were holding frequent meetings with state health officials to decide whether they should close down the Capitol in the interest of preventing the virus's spread. The leaders met Thursday afternoon to address the situation in Minnesota.
They said they were preparing to leave partisan wish lists at the door and move instead to top policy and spending priorities of the state in the face of a potential legislative hiatus.
“There is always a point in the session where everybody has to get very realistic about what can be accomplished and we’ll get to that moment more quickly this session,” Hortman said.
Gov. Tim Walz was set to hold a press conference Friday outlining community mitigation efforts, which in other states have included efforts preventing large gatherings.
Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, said lawmakers were taking a gradual approach to dialing down the action in the Legislature at the direction of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state health officials.
“It appears that it will continue to spread and we’ll just have to figure out how to navigate around it,” Gazelka said.
Three doctors who also serve as Democratic lawmakers on Thursday called on leaders and others around the Capitol complex to take more aggressive steps to avoid putting lawmakers and the public at risk. They recommended canceling large gatherings, avoiding handshakes, creating hand-washing protocols for all those at the Capitol and setting up an "isolation area" for anyone exhibiting flu symptoms or fevers.
"As members of the medical community and the Legislature, we want to be sure that we are taking steps to limit the risk of community spread of the virus," Reps. Alice Mann, D-Lakeville, and Kelly Morrison, D-Deephaven, and Sen. Matt Klein, D-Mendota Heights, said. "There is evidence that 'flattening the curve' of this infection by slowing viral spread through social isolation will allow the health care system to catch up and not become overwhelmed."
The Minnesota Nurses Association and the Service Employees International Union announced Thursday that they would cancel their rally days at the Capitol.
Lawmakers bypass partisan priorities
With the likelihood of reported community transmission of COVID-19 imminent, Walz on Thursday called on lawmakers to leave politics at home and hammer out key legislation before going on a hiatus.
"This is not the time to posture on issues that we’re not going to reach consensus around, not things that aren’t going to get done," Walz told reporters Thursday morning. "It would be best just to focus."
Legislative leaders said they were prepared to heed that advice Thursday, prioritizing a bonding bill to fund public projects and legislation aimed at addressing COVID-19 response and treatment.
"This session it’s becoming clear that the sort of titanic partisan struggles don’t really have a place in the conversation and as we complete our business on a need-to-complete priority basis," Hortman said. "There may not be a place and a time for that kind of conversation this year."
Gazelka said he was open to quickly advancing a bonding bill as well as other priorities like an emergency insulin proposal.
“The things that we can get done we should get done," Gazelka told reporters.
He noted that Walz and House Democrats would have to be willing bend on granting tax relief this year if they hope to pass a bonding bill with the price tag they've proposed.
At least two top items for leaders and the governor on Thursday moved forward to Walz's desk for approval: a $50 million appropriation for the Rural Finance Authority and $30 million for the state's Disaster Assistance Contingency Account. The Senate also unanimously approved a plan to require insulin manufacturers to provide emergency supplies of the hormone to uninsured people and those who can't afford it.
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