Gov. Tim Walz on Wednesday ordered Minnesotans to stay home except for essential needs like food and health care for two weeks beginning Friday, March 27, to buy time to prepare for a wave of COVID-19 cases likely on the way.
Walz also extended the order closing restaurants, theaters and similar businesses until May 1 and authorized the state education commissioner to implement at-home learning for the state’s students until May 4.
“We’re in this together. I’m asking you to buckle it up for a few more weeks here,” Walz said in a public address, telling reporters later, “We will save lives if we do this.
“This does not mean that you don’t step out of your house,” Walz added. “But it does mean that we’re getting more restrictive.”
The governor said University of Minnesota and Minnesota Department of Health modeling showed the cost of doing nothing amid the coronavirus pandemic could be more than 70,000 Minnesotan deaths, more than three times the nationwide influenza toll so far this season.
But a stay-home order lasting months while waiting for a vaccine would likely only delay the inevitable while doing too much economic damage to respond to the crisis, Walz said.
So the plan is to start with Friday’s order and gradually ratchet down, first to the past week’s restrictions, then to social distancing specifically for the elderly and other vulnerable people.
During that time, the state government, health care providers and local manufacturers such as Medtronic and 3M will work together to increase testing capacity and prepare makeshift hospital beds, ventilators and other equipment for the 15% or so of COVID-19 sufferers who will likely require medical care.
Without those preparations, thousands of Minnesotans at a time could require one of around 200 intensive care unit beds in the state within a few months, Walz said, leading to the potential death toll.
“We can’t allow that to happen,” he said. “We’re not going to stop this, the infections are going to come. But what we are going to stop is a situation where we get overwhelmed.”
Cases will likely continue for months regardless, Walz added, so it also wouldn’t help to shut down longer.
Those working in health and child care, law enforcement, food services, agriculture, some manufacturing and other industries are exempt from the stay-home order, though the state urged everyone who can work from home to do so.
Around three-fourths of the state’s workforce will be able to stay employed under the governor’s orders, Department of Employment and Economic Development Commissioner Steve Grove said Wednesday afternoon.
Unemployment benefits are open to the people who can’t; Grove said the state had received more than 160,000 unemployment applications in recent days.
“Balance is essential in how government responds to safeguard public health and protect the economy for the long-term,” Minnesota Chamber President Doug Loon said in a written statement after the announcement.
“We appreciate Governor Walz’s leadership and share his goal to limit the spread of the COVID-19 virus in Minnesota, and to keep the private sector in position to return to full productivity and full employment as soon as possible.”
The order’s allowed actions outside of the home include outdoor activities like walking and fishing, travel for health care or to get food and gas, caring for others and relocation for safety reasons.
“Don’t congregate together, but if you can get out and social distance and walk, that’s good things,” Walz said.
The state counted almost 300 confirmed COVID-19 cases and one known death related to the disease as of Wednesday, Department of Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm told reporters; that rose to two deaths Thursday. Twenty-six were hospitalized on Wednesday while many more had recovered.
That’s an incomplete picture of the virus’s scope, though, because higher-risk patients are the priority for testing while the needed supplies remain limited.
“We know there are more cases in Minnesota and that the virus is circulating in our communities,” Malcolm said.
The virus typically spreads by coughing and touching related surfaces, according to state and federal health officials. Its symptoms can include fever and difficulty breathing, and most people with it recover. But the disease’s course can range from hardly noticeable to organ failure and death, especially for older people or those with other health conditions.
To slow the virus’s movement, Walz previously restricted public gatherings in a variety of settings, such as by restricting restaurants to take-out and delivery services.
People should avoid crowds of all kinds and stay at least 6 feet apart in public, essentially to separate the virus’s human islands with too much seawater for viral particles to cross, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Violating the stay-home order can be a misdemeanor with a fine and jail time, but Walz said he favors education over a ticket and that the order will rely on voluntary compliance.
“I think Minnesotans understand what’s at stake here,” he said.
State governments have shut down public activity to varying degrees around the country, drawing some controversy over whether the steps are necessary.
As Walz explained his decisions Wednesday afternoon, Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, a Republican, in a statement said he had “grave concerns” about the order’s consequences on families losing their livelihoods.
President Donald Trump at the same time wrote on Twitter that news media are the main force trying to keep the country closed to hurt his election chances.
Walz, a Democrat, noted most people are still working and that the state is working to help those who aren’t, adding he hoped public health steps didn’t become a political party issue.
“This is a false choice between the economy and protecting people,” he said.