MANKATO — As Gov. Tim Walz and legislative leaders grapple with how to codify the state’s approach to dealing with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, lawmakers have a more fundamental question to answer: What rules are they going to follow?
Not all state senators are wearing masks on the Senate floor. Some Republicans are pushing to end the state’s mask mandate. And a local lawmaker found herself in trouble after remarking at a rally she was glad people didn’t have their masks on.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle say basic differences and mistrust on how the state should respond to the pandemic are hurting chances for cooperation as Walz looks to codify some of the state’s COVID regulations through the Legislature.
Both DFL and GOP lawmakers say they’re making decisions based on data and science, but each side finds fault in the other’s conclusions. Republicans say Democrats and Walz have continually overreached in response to the pandemic, while Democrats say they’re wary of cooperating with Republicans who haven’t followed basic guidelines.
“When you see that difference on something so basic and so fundamental about protecting human beings lives as these different approaches on masking policy, it starts to explain to you the difficulty that we’ll have in governing the state together with regard to COVID-19,” Democratic House Speaker Melissa Hortman said.
Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka said the Senate strongly encourages lawmakers to use masks but doesn’t mandate the practice.
“We don’t believe that mandating masks is the right way to go,” he said. “We think strongly encouraging it is.”
Gazelka said he was unaware of anyone who was infected as a result of the Senate’s procedures, but COVID rates in other states without mask mandates have been lower than in Minnesota in the past. While he acknowledged Democrats and Republicans are drawing different conclusions from publicly available pandemic data, Gazelka said more needs to be done to make negotiating Minnesota’s pandemic regulations easier.
“There are so many things right now where we have to figure out how to lower the tone,” Gazelka said.
Rep. Susan Akland, R-St. Peter, is a retired registered nurse who has publicly stated she supports wearing masks during the pandemic and believes they have worked to stop the spread of COVID-19. Yet Akland came under fire after media reported on her words during the “Storm the Capitol” rally Jan. 6 at the state Capitol: “I had my mask on because it’s keeping my face warm, but I’m glad you don’t have yours.”
Akland said Saturday she didn’t mean to imply she was criticizing the state’s mask mandate or was anti-mask, but that her statement was taken out of context.
“I’ve worn masks in situations for years,” she said. “They do help stop the spread of viruses; they do help stop the spread of certain diseases.”
Akland said she went to the rally while wearing a mask, took it off to speak and to take photos afterward, then put it back on as she left the rally about a half-hour after she arrived.
House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt said Republican representatives are going “above and beyond” the House’s rules to wear a mask at all times while on the floor of the House chambers.
“We do it because we have respect for other people’s safety,” Daudt said.
Senate Assistant Minority Leader Nick Frentz, of North Mankato, said he was disappointed the Senate didn’t take up stronger rules on mask-wearing when Sen. Melissa Wicklund brought a proposal to the floor last week. Even as some lawmakers take issue with mandating masks, Frentz said it was important to ensure as many Minnesotans wear them as possible.
“Masks have been shown to reduce the transmission of this virus,” Frentz said. “After losing 5,500 Minnesotans to the virus, we’d like to reduce, not increase, the risk of losing any more.”
House DFLers have announced they intend to hold hearings as soon as next week on Walz’s emergency orders and whether the Legislature should change the scope of a governor’s peacetime emergency authority. The Senate GOP is expected to follow suit with similar hearings.
Reaction toward Walz’s offer has been mixed. Gazelka said the public letter Walz sent last week about the process “wasn’t helpful” while Daudt called Walz’s tentative plans to end emergency powers “tone-deaf” as Walz set out a list of requirements for the Legislature to approve before he consider ending his executive orders.
Those requirements included continuing the mask mandate and some of the state’s current protections for workers and people in public spaces. Both GOP leaders said Monday they planned to offer their own plans soon.
Rep. Paul Torkelson, R-Hanska, said Walz’s letter was an encouraging sign, though he cautioned that previous negotiations over the governor’s powers went nowhere last year. Still, Torkelson said the state’s leaders needed to start discussing how to work its way out of the pandemic.
“This can’t go on forever,” he said. “We have to have some kind of an exit plan. And even the exit plan hasn’t been talked about in any kind of solid direction.”