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Divided along party lines, subcommittee OK's expanded COVID-19 business reopening plan

House Photography file photo
House Photography file photo

Governors in Mississippi and Texas announced earlier this week they’ll be lifting mask mandates in their states, sparking outrage from many corners, including the White House.

While the numbers continue to get better in Minnesota, both in fewer COVID-19 cases and increased vaccinations, Gov. Tim Walz is not expected to do the same anytime soon.

In the meantime, the House Subcommittee on Legislative Reform approved a bill Friday with a proposal to ease the continued pain for many businesses. Following the party-line 7-4 vote, the bill is on its way to the House Rules and Legislative Administration Committee.

Sponsored by Rep. Julie Sandstede (DFL-Hibbing), HF1514, as amended, would create an operating system based on one of five statewide COVID-19 risk levels. Affected businesses include: bars and restaurants, wedding reception venues, fitness centers, salons, pools and water parks. It would expire when the peacetime emergency ends.

“The impetus for this bill came from my constituents that were asking for a restart plan that would put them on the path to economic recovery from the impact COVID-19 had had on the businesses,” she said.

Every two weeks, the Health Department would need to utilize the Covid Act Now framework to certify the risk level. According to its website, the nonprofit, that is not a government or health care organization, has “worked with more than 100 federal, state, and county officials to develop data-driven COVID responses.”

“Data for this site comes from official sources including the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state and county dashboards,” Sandstede said.

Rep. Pat Garofalo (R-Farmington) and House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt (R-Crown) indicated the bill could tie the governor’s hands and slow down a potential reopening.

“Things are happening right now in Minnesota faster than every two weeks,” Daudt said.

“The crisis of fighting COVID is over with, we are now in a state of caution,” Garofalo said while citing improvements for those most at risk. “We’re at the point where the majority of those 65 years of age and older are vaccinated or have natural immunity. … I don’t know what people are waiting for other than for Tim Walz to say it’s OK to do things.”

Opening plan example

For bars and restaurants, a low-risk level would permit normal occupancy and activity provided they “ensure that menus and drink coasters are single-use or of a material that can be sanitized after each use; and remain closed at least four hours each day for cleaning.”

In a medium-risk level, bars and restaurants would be limited to 90% normal occupancy for in-person dining; 70% at high risk; and 50% for critical risk status. In each instance, physical barriers or at least 6 feet of spacing would be required.

When the state’s COVID-19 risk status increases to severe, bars and restaurants must remain closed.

The bill would also provide $20 million to bars and restaurants that had food and beverages spoil or expire due to enacted COVID-19 business restrictions. Payments would approximate the average amount small businesses lost.

An amendment unsuccessfully offered by Daudt — and based on the Sandstede-sponsored HF1515 — that would terminate executive orders lasting more than 30 days unless ratified by the Legislature was defeated along party lines.

A companion is sponsored by Sen. David Tomassoni (I-Chisholm). SF1425 awaits action by the Senate State Government Finance and Policy and Elections Committee.

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