Minnesota governor: Let's start reopening on Monday

Interesting timing on this call in more ways than one. Minnesota governor Tim Walz announced last night that he would allow one of two emergency orders in the COVID-19 pandemic to expire, which will allow most retail businesses to reopen. Some of the more occupant-density businesses will remain sidelined for now, but the salons and restaurants also now can see some light at the end of the tunnel:

The policy changes, delivered in a livestreamed address, means many small businesses and retailers can open their doors to customers Monday, as long as they have a plan to safeguard employees and customers through social distancing.

Bars, restaurants, barbershops and salons could open as early as June 1 if they meet safe opening plans that will be devised later this month by state health officials.

“The stay-at-home order is expiring and the dials are turning, but that doesn’t mean we are carefree and can return to the way things were,” Walz said. “It means we have to stay safe, take care, care for our own health and care for our neighbor.”

It’s a significant step in the governor’s response to the virus, loosening a stay-at-home order after nearly two months of restrictions meant to slow the spread of the coronavirus. But it’s not a wholesale reopening of the state.

Schools are already closed for the rest of the academic year, and a separate order closing events and businesses where people are in close contact will continue, as will restrictions on other public spaces and large religious services. Anyone who can work from home must, and gatherings — including those at churches, mosques and synagogues — must not exceed 10 people.

That June 1 target date even includes the world-famous Mall of America, the largest indoor mall in North America and a popular tourist-shopping destination. Or perhaps better put, parts of what we here call the MegaMall will reopen:

So what prompted this decision? Have we flattened the curve and seen a 14-day trend of fewer cases? Actually, just the opposite:

The toll of COVID-19 on Minnesota continued to rise on Thursday, with another 25 deaths being linked to the infectious disease, even as the state prepared for the reopening of more businesses and retail shops next week.

The total COVID-19 deaths in Minnesota is now 663, according to the Minnesota Department of Health, with another nine deaths being probable but not verified with diagnostic tests. Total confirmed cases in the state reached 13,435, with another 523 being reported Thursday.

If so, then this seems to be a curious time to pull back restrictions — if one goes on the basis that the shutdown was intended to last until the virus went away. Walz explicitly rejected that argument, however, reminding WCCO listeners this morning that the point was only to flatten the curve long enough to get adequate health-care resources in place. At least here in Minnesota, that has been a success:

“The whole purpose of this was just to push this thing out, flatten it and slow down. You’re not going to prevent it,” Walz said on WCCO radio Thursday morning. “I think it’s hard for people to wrap their head around [that] folks are still going to get this. The fear was, you saw this in other places, they weren’t ready and it overwhelmed the system.”

Hospitals have dramatically increased their capacities over the past two months, though. As of Thursday, the state reported a supply of 1,443 ventilators in hospitals — with only 529 in use by patients with COVID-19 or other unrelated medical problems. The state also has a surge supply of 1,401 more ventilators and another 858 on back order for delivery, for a total of 3,702.

That’s actually … astonishingly refreshing in the midst of this crisis, in which goalpost-moving has become our new national pastime. Walz wants density restrictions on businesses and plans for social-distancing mitigation, but he also wants to get Minnesota back to work and people back on the job rather than on the dole. It’s his attempt to keep threading the needle and hitting a good middle ground, which thus far has kept grumbling down to an undercurrent rather than a dominant issue the way it has become in other states.

His announcement and new timetable quelled a nascent partisan battle over Walz’ extension of the emergency order. Republicans in the legislature took some credit for keeping Walz from engaging in mission creep, and said that they would work with him on rolling out the new COVID-19 normal now:

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, expressed support for the governor’s announcement, suggesting Walz had listened to GOP lawmakers and other critics pressing him to reopen more businesses,

“We’re moving in the right direction,” Gazelka said in a video released during Walz’s address. “This is really good news. I’m glad that he listened to us and I feel like we led the way. Now it’s up to us, you and me, that we practice safe distancing. I have every confidence we’re going to be able to do it. Minnesota is back on track.”

One other issue might have prompted the rollback, which was yesterday’s decision by the Wisconsin Supreme Court to throw out Tony Evers’ emergency extension. The partisan bitterness of the 2011 Fleebaggers and recall election has not dissipated at all, and Evers and the GOP-led legislature have been at odds almost since the start of this pandemic. Evers’ attempts to bypass the legislature and govern by emergency decree forced the state into an all-or-nothing position, and the court’s ruling has created more chaos than would have happened had Evers bothered to work with Republicans. Legislators here had also become exasperated with Walz’ go-it-alone instincts, and Walz had to see a Wisconsin-style legal battle as a fiasco he’d much prefer to avoid, if for no other reason than to unfold the reopening as rationally as possible over the next few weeks.

Thus some measure of common sense will return to Minnesota starting on Monday. Thus far, Minnesotans have been fairly compliant with social-distancing and face-covering recommendations. There’s no reason to think that treating us like adults in the near future will produce any worse results.