Critics of Minnesota's COVID sports restrictions raise new concerns

High school athletes wear masks amid the COVID-19 pandemic. (FOX 9)

Critics of Minnesota's COVID-19 restrictions on youth and school sports are raising new concerns about last fall's shutdown.

The activist group Let Them Play Minnesota released a series of pandemic-related emails during a Senate Education committee hearing Monday. The emails show officials in Gov. Tim Walz's administration tried to justify a sports shutdown by tying outbreaks from games and practices to deaths in long-term care facilities. 

"(Gov. Tim Walz) made an ask this morning on the daily call about what data we could provide to help articulate the need to hit a pause on youth sports," assistant health commissioner Margaret Kelly wrote in a Nov. 18 email. "Sounds like he is starting to get a lot of pushback. Specifically, he is wondering if we can help connect the dots between attending a youth sporting event and then showing up for work at a LTC (long-term care facility) or going to the bar and then to work at LTC."

Minnesota health officials and Democratic lawmakers said the stoppage of play was necessary to control the spread during the state's worst outbreak of the pandemic. But parents and Republicans said the emails indicated a political motivation.

In one email after the November 2020 election, a Health Department staffer linked Walz administration's COVID-19 restrictions to losses in the state House.

"The election, particularly the loss of six DFL seats in the House, was in part a referendum on our guidance and sports was part of that," wrote Laura Oliven, a COVID-19 response manager. Democrats ultimately lost five seats after all votes were counted. 

Senate Health committee chairwoman Michelle Benson criticized the process.

"This is not the way it's supposed to work at all," said Benson, R-Ham Lake. "We are in the middle of recovering from a pandemic and now we're finding out that in November it was, 'There are deaths in long-term care, let's find somebody to blame and get the data to support it.'"

Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said her agency and Walz had slowed transmission by shutting down sports in November, when Minnesota's case growth exploded and hospitals were overwhelmed.

This month, health officials lifted their mask requirement for athletes playing outdoor spring sports. Health Department guidance is that athletes, coaches and referees get tested for COVID-19 weekly.

"We do appreciate the important role of these activities and are doing everything we can to keep these activities safe," Malcolm told senators.

Some Democrats urged lawmakers to put the sports suspension in perspective. More than 7,000 Minnesotans have died of the virus since the start of the pandemic. 

"It's ridiculous that having these kids in a spot where they're healthy isn't as important as letting them play," said state Sen. Jason Isaacson, DFL-Shoreview. "The argument I'm hearing today is disgusting, and I'm very disappointed."

Bob Kaufman, whose son plays on the Hill-Murray boys hockey team, blasted the state's quarantine requirements. The team unsuccessfully sued when the Minnesota State High School League canceled its state tournament game after a player on Hill-Murray's previous opponent tested positive.

"This has been my son and many other players' lifelong dream since they were 2 years old, and to have it ripped from him is unacceptable," Kaufman said. "Someone needs to be held accountable."