House Democrats unveil coronavirus plans as Capitol prepares

House Democrats unveil their coronavirus plans as the Capitol prepares for the virus.

Minnesota House Democrats released plans to deal with the coronavirus Wednesday as top elected officials prepare to make changes to how the state Capitol operates.

Democrats’ proposals include easing requirements to get unemployment benefits, forcing schools to pay workers if classes are canceled, and mandating that health plans fully cover coronavirus testing. Democrats said they did not want people whose employers shut down because of a quarantine to be out looking for work, and did not want people to forgo prescription drug treatment because of the high cost.

Republicans who control the Senate did not comment on the specific proposals but said they would support “bipartisan ideas.” An emergency spending bill sailed through the House and Senate earlier this week, freeing up $21 million in funding for the public health response.

“I would say everybody is working as quickly as they can to make sure we get the things done we absolutely need to get done this session and then if we need to adjourn early, we would be ready to do that,” House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, told reporters at a news conference.

Among the House Democrats’ proposals:

  • Waiving the requirement that unemployed Minnesotans look for work to receive unemployment benefits, if the coronavirus caused the person to be out of work
  • Requiring that Minnesota school districts pay hourly employees, such as bus drivers, for all days when classes are canceled because of the coronavirus
  • Requiring that health plans fully cover coronavirus testing and treatment without co-pays
  • Creating a revolving loan fund for hospitals, clinics, nursing homes and ambulance services who incur unforeseen costs
  • Granting the governor additional power under a peacetime emergency caused by an outbreak
  • Placing a 10 percent limit on the price increase for certain products and services – including consumer food items and medical supplies

Senate Republicans are opposed to broader paid sick leave proposals and have expressed skepticism about providing public assistance for people forced to miss work because of the virus.

“This is more about public safety to ensure that individuals can continue to receive income,” said state Rep. Mohamud Noor, DFL-Minneapolis.

An emailed statement from Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka late Wednesday afternoon did not directly address the Democrats’ proposals.

“As we monitor our situation in Minnesota, we will take appropriate action on bipartisan ideas,” said Gazelka, R-Nisswa. “The best thing now is for people to follow the advice of the experts: Cover your cough, stay home if you are sick, and wash your hands frequently.”

Lawmakers scrambled this week to make changes in response to the coronavirus.

House and Senate staffers placed Clorox hand wipes on the tables where members of the public and lobbyists give testimony on pieces of legislation.

State Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, postponed a March 31 listening session on mining “out of an abundance of caution.” The event has not been rescheduled.

State Sen. Matt Klein, DFL-Mendota Heights, said he was replacing constituent visits at the Capitol with telephone calls to combat coronavirus. Klein is a physician.

Hortman said legislative leaders, Gov. Tim Walz and the state Health Department have been consulting over restricting public access to the state Capitol.

There is no public health justification for such a move yet because there hasn’t been person-to-person spread of coronavirus in Minnesota, Hortman said. Minnesota has five confirmed cases of coronavirus, including one person hospitalized in critical condition.

“We absolutely are considering all the scenarios,” she told reporters. “When you’re looking at emergency planning, you look at things you hope you don’t have to do.”