Minnesota hunkers down at home while COVID-19 deaths hit 4

By STEVE KARNOWSKI Associated Press
MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — A stay-at-home order takes effect at midnight Friday as Minnesota tries to prevent the COVID-19 pandemic, which is expected to peak in the coming weeks, from overloading the state’s health care system.
Where things stand as Minnesota hunkers down to fight the disease:
The Minnesota Department of Health reported two more deaths Friday for a total of four. One was a resident of Hennepin County while the other lived in Martin County. Both of them were in senior living facilities. The department’s confirmed case count rose to 398, up 52 from Thursday, with 34 patients hospitalized, including 14 in intensive care. But 180 patients have recovered and no longer need to be isolated.
The confirmed case totals are just the “tip of the iceberg,” Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said on a conference call with reporters and Gov, Tim Walz. The department warns that although many counties have yet to report any cases, the coronavirus should be presumed to be everywhere.
Walz’s stay-at-home order calls on Minnesotans who work in nonessential jobs to stay home for two weeks, though they may go out for essential needs such as trips to the supermarket and pharmacy, doctor visits and for outdoor recreation if they practice social distancing. Restaurants that closed under an earlier order may continue to offer takeout and delivery service. Liquor stores, hardware stores and many other businesses can also stay open.
With 78% of Minnesota jobs classified as essential positions, there’s a long list of exceptions. Authorities are counting on voluntary compliance. While violations are punishable by up to 90 days in jail and up to $1,000 in fines, Walz says they’re focusing on education, not enforcement, and nobody needs to carry papers or show a note to explain where they’re going.
The purpose of the order is to buy time to ramp up the response. The big fear of Walz and health officials is that as the cases rise, the state’s hospitals won’t have enough intensive care beds to handle the needs of all the seriously ill patients. The state currently has 235 adult ICU beds, but is working to expand that number, and it hopes to build makeshift facilities for patients who aren’t seriously sick but still need hospital care.
Some Republicans have expressed qualms about the order, including Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka who said he has “grave concerns” about the consequences for families that lose jobs and businesses.
Applications for unemployment insurance since last Tuesday are expected to top 220,000 by the end of the day Friday, Department of Employment and Economic Development Commissioner Steve Grove said. That’s more than all of last year combined, he added.
The Legislature has approved $330 million in relief on top of the $200 million it approved earlier this month to bolster the health care system. The new package includes $200 million to cover state agency costs, plus money for small businesses; child care providers that stay open to care for the children of health care and emergency workers; aid to local governments and tribes; money for food banks; aid to veterans and surviving spouses; and shelter for the homeless.
But lawmakers couldn’t agree on everything that was proposed in the private conference calls that shaped the bill. Some ideas could find a home in a future aid package.
In an interview, Democratic House Speaker Melissa Hortman listed guarantees that hourly school workers would get paid while schools are closed, help for affected renters on top of the governor’s freeze on evictions, a presumption that first responders who catch COVID-19 got it on the job and should qualify for workers compensation, and flexibility for the courts on statutes of limitations and rights to speedy trials.
Republicans, and some Democrats, said they want to see more aid to help small businesses stay alive. This bill was Phase 2 and there needs to be a Phase 3, Gazelka told reporters. Business property tax relief, delays in sales tax payments and fee waivers should be part of that, he said.