Minnesota GOP pledges to reopen bars, schools if given control

Top Minnesota Republicans vowed Monday that if voters put them in charge of the state Legislature, they would end Gov. Tim Walz's emergency powers and throw open the doors to bars, restaurants and schools.

Democrats criticized the GOP's pledge as anti-science and called it a politically desperate move amid sagging poll numbers for President Donald Trump.

The Republican proposal, dubbed a "contract to open Minnesota," does not impose any conditions on reopening, such as mask-wearing or social distancing. Instead, it wrestles power from the Minnesota Department of Health and gives control to school boards and bar owners to decide for themselves.

"There’s only one way that we can make sure that these happen, and that is for Republicans to keep the majority in the Senate, and for Republicans to take back the majority in the House," Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, told reporters at a chilly and snowy outdoor news conference at the state Capitol.

Walz, talking to reporters on a farm in August, suggested that the GOP was "running from the science."

"Maybe they found the cure for COVID while I was down here," Walz said dismissively when asked about the Republicans' stance on the virus.

Minnesota coronavirus cases have soared in recent days. Hospitalizations have increased, though not as much as in surrounding states that have set new records for COVID hospitalizations.

Minnesota Republicans have been shut out in the courts and powerless to end Walz's emergency powers in the divided state Legislature this year. Republicans have a slim 35-32 advantage in the Senate, where they are defending a handful of suburban GOP districts while hoping to pick up rural seats. But the party faces a 75-59 disadvantage in the lower chamber, where the GOP got booted from power in 2018.

In GOP strategy messages, some in the party have acknowledged that the coronavirus is not a winning message.

State Rep. Jon Koznick, an assistant majority leader, said in an email during September's legislative special session that "COVID issues are not a winning message for us" and urged his Republican colleagues to stick to law-and-order talking points

Koznick mistakenly sent his email to House Democrats instead of his own caucus.

This summer, a Republican strategy email to the party's Senate candidates read, "The politics of COVID-19 do not provide good messaging opportunities for Republican candidates."

Monday, Republican leaders dismissed the idea that the public wasn't with them on the pandemic.

"If there’s a poll that says it (the Minnesota GOP contract) is good or bad, I’m not sure. But the people I listen to, the parents reaching out to us, are very frustrated that they can’t have their kids in school," said House Republican Leader Kurt Daudt of Crown. 

Daudt and Gazelka both quarantined after a brief interaction with Trump in late September, when the president may have been positive for the virus. Trump tested positive the next day and was hospitalized for three days. Both Minnesota GOP leaders tested negative, they have since said.

Walz said Monday he thought the election would be a referendum on both parties' handling of the pandemic.

"Minnesota’s economy is open about as much as anyone in the nation," the first-term Democratic governor said. "I hope they come up with a plan to help us, but saying you want your schools open, you want things open, and you send people in there and they get sick, that doesn’t do anything."

Republicans have been critical of Walz's extraordinary power and his initial reliance on models that showed tens of thousands of Minnesotans could die from the virus. As of Monday, 2,229 Minnesotans have died.

"We’re just leaping from one thing to another like a game of whack-a-mole. And we’re letting the fear just drive our actions. For our kids it’s not fair," said state Sen. Scott Jensen, R-Chaska, a family physician.