Governor Walz, health leaders say Minnesota is at COVID-19 'tipping point' ahead of Labor Day weekend

Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz and public health officials warned that the upcoming Labor Day weekend is a tipping point for the state in the coronavirus pandemic.

Minnesota's percentage of positive tests has increased to 5.5 percent, up from 4.3 percent on July 1. Social gatherings like weddings, funerals and backyard barbecues are to blame for an increase in community spread, health officials said.

"We’re in a more precarious situation today than we were heading into the last major holiday weekend," Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm told reporters at a Thursday afternoon news conference. "We just want Minnesotans to be aware there is risk."

Outbreaks have roiled different parts of the U.S. this summer, with Arizona, California, Florida and Texas the first to see outbreaks. In recent weeks, the virus has started hammering parts of the Midwest. Iowa and South Dakota are experiencing spikes that are among the nation's worst.

Minnesota's pandemic response has become a hyperpolitical issue, with Republicans calling on Walz to fully reopen the economy and end his emergency powers. Acknowledging the partisan tensions, Walz leaned heavily on the warnings he got from White House coronavirus advisor Dr. Deborah Birx in meetings last weekend.

Birx told Minnesota officials that the state is showing signs similar to Arizona before an outbreak there, Walz said.

"This isn’t me saying it. It’s not my appointees saying it. This is the White House advisor saying that we should do these things," the governor said.

The state's infectious disease director, Kris Ehresmann, said the nature of transmission has changed in recent months. This spring, outbreaks were traced to long-term care facilities or food processing plants. Now, social gatherings are often to blame.

One such outbreak happened after a wedding reception in southwestern Minnesota, held indoors with 275 guests. Masks weren't widely worn at the event, resulting in 56 cases spread across nine counties. There are more cases but some people are avoiding tests so the case numbers in their local area don't increase, which could force the closure of schools, Ehresmann said.

"During a pandemic, one person's actions don't just affect themselves. They affect those around them, at work, at home and everywhere they go," she said. "The bottom line is, none of us are an island."

Walz has near-complete control over the state's response efforts through his emergency powers, angering Senate Republicans who have struck back by firing Walz's labor commissioner and threatening the jobs of other commissioners. Senate Republican Leader Paul Gazelka met with Walz on Thursday after the two traded accusations in letters released publicly. 

The meeting appeared to have cooled the tensions from their accusatory pen pal exchange over the previous 24 hours, but no agreement was reached on Walz's emergency powers, the fate of commissioners, or a long-stalled bonding bill. The Legislature will likely return for a special session on Sept. 11, when the Senate could vote to fire additional commissioners.

"Governor, you don’t need the emergency powers," Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, told reporters after his meeting with Walz. "It’s going to be almost a half a year—a half a year of emergency powers – with no end in sight."

Walz has not turned the economic reopening dials since June, and said Thursday that his goal was to keep everything open that's currently open.

This update comes as schools across the state are preparing to begin the school year. While for some districts it means returning back to school, for many it means some combination of remote learning to allow for social distancing.

Since the pandemic began, there have been more than 78,000 confirmed cases and 1,837 deaths in Minnesota.