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Walz plans to announce easing of virus rules on Thursday

MINNEAPOLIS  — Gov. Tim Walz said Tuesday that he’ll announce a dialing back of Minnesota’s coronavirus restrictions on Thursday, and that he’s in discussions with legislative leaders about how long he’ll retain the emergency powers that he’s used to manage the state’s response to the pandemic.

The governor described it as an “announcement around where we’re at with COVID.” He gave no details about what changes he might order but indicated that rising vaccination rates are making looser restrictions possible.

“I think Minnesotans should start assuming that they’re going to have a very normal-looking summer,” he said during a visit to an elementary school in Hopkins.

Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said at a briefing for reporters that 59% of Minnesota’s population 16 years and older has now had at least one dose of vaccine, and that the state’s case trends have been “slowly but steadily coming down.” She said Walz was “noting rightly the very significant progress that we’ve made on vaccinations, especially for high-risk people.”

Nearly 2 million Minnesotans had completed their vaccine series as of Sunday, according to Minnesota Department of Health data posted Tuesday, with nearly 2.6 million having had at least their first dose. The department reported 998 new COVID-19 cases Tuesday, which Malcolm noted was the first time the state has been under 1,000 new cases since March 22. Minnesota has now recorded 581,335 cases and 7,174 deaths, including 11 new deaths.

The Democratic governor spoke at Alice Smith Elementary School, where he called on the Republican-controlled Senate to approve his $150 million summer learning proposal to help students catch up on what they missed due to the pandemic. The Democratic-controlled House passed the plan in March.

The Legislature has been in a holding pattern this week as the conference committees negotiating the major budget bills of the 2020 session await final dollar targets that are expected Friday. Among the more contentions issues dividing Republicans and Democrats have been how to unwind the governor’s reliance on emergency powers and how much of a role the Legislature should get in deciding how to spend federal coronavirus aid. The session must adjourn by May 17.

Republican Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, of East Gull Lake, unveiled a “first offer” for a session-ending global deal on Tuesday. Provisions related to the pandemic included lifting Walz’s executive orders that mandate masks in indoor public places; restrict the operations of schools, businesses and youth sports; and impose an eviction moratorium. The Senate GOP also called for waiving penalties against businesses that opened in defiance of the governor’s emergency orders.

“Now it’s time to open up so that we will move back to normal,” Gazelka said at a news conference.

Gazelka released the proposal after Walz already had spoken. The governor indicated a willingness to talk about virus restrictions — within limits.

“We’re not going to negotiate away safety and protocols that are dictated by science, but we’re certainly listening to folks (about) what will help,” Walz said.