Minnesota restaurant, bar coronavirus compliance checks fuel latest spar between GOP, Walz

Republican state lawmakers on Monday, Aug. 31, wrote to Gov. Tim Walz urging him to end compliance checks on businesses, saying the additional inspections amounted to unnecessary harassment of business owners.

GOP officials for months have been critical of the state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic and Walz’s efforts to repeatedly extend the peacetime emergency to combat the disease.

The emergency expands the governor’s authority to issue executive orders. And since the emergency took effect in March, Walz has issued dozens that have waived evictions, allowed for scaled-up production of COVID-19 tests, temporarily shuttered schools, businesses and churches and set in place a mandate to wear masks in public spaces.

The Departments of Health, Labor and Industry and Public Safety in announcing the additional compliance checks last week said regulators wanted to pinpoint establishments that weren’t following state guidance because they created an unsafe environment for workers and customers and a potentially unfair advantage compared to businesses that followed the rules. Those in violation could face fines, liquor license suspensions or closures.

But dozens of GOP lawmakers pushed back, saying business owners in the hospitality industry had adapted to meet the new standards and only a small number of COVID-19 cases had stemmed from those establishments.

“So many of the restaurants we all love are still struggling to stay afloat, and instead of being a partner in our efforts to keep Minnesotans safe the Walz administration is sending threatening letters,” Rep. Dave Baker, R-Willmar, said in a news release. “There’s no data to suggest that restaurants are major drivers of outbreaks, so there’s no reason for them to be treated like this by state agencies.”

Department of Health Director of Infectious Disease and Epidemiology Kris Ehresmann on Monday said 55 bars and restaurants have been cited as locations where COVID-19 had been transmitted, contributing 1,286 unique cases. Thirty-one of those have been named publicly due to the threshold of cases believed to have started there.

“The number that we’re seeing is concerning to us from a public health standpoint but it’s really a small number of the total establishments,” Ehresmann said. “The majority are definitely following the guidance that we have laid out.”

Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm on Monday said the reviews were part of a more targeted approach to compliance oversight and were based on patron complaints as well as random selection.

“I’m happy to say that the significant majority of business establishments, bars and restaurants in particular, that were visited were found to have only very minor violations or really no violations,” Malcolm said. “But a significant enough minority of establishments had significant enough violations that require a follow-up visit from a regulatory agency to just work with them on the specifics of the executive orders and where they are not in compliance.”

Lawmakers are expected to be called back to St. Paul again next week to weigh a fourth 30-day extension of the state’s peacetime emergency to manage COVID-19. Walz has maintained that the pandemic remains a crisis that requires a flexible and rapid response from the state.

And state health officials Monday said the state was “walking on the edge of a cliff” in terms of its COVID-19 cases. Cases had plateaued at a high rate in recent weeks and they worried increased social interactions without adequate precautions could allow the illness to further spread.

Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, said the emergency posed by the pandemic had ended and the state ought to provide clear criteria for when the peacetime emergency would be rescinded.

“We have flattened the curve, no Minnesotan has been denied necessary medical treatment, and, thankfully, our hospitals have not needed to use their surge capacity,” Gazelka said in a letter to the governor. “There is no longer an emergency.”

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