Minnesota Senate GOP held large, in-person dinner party just before COVID outbreak 

Days before a coronavirus outbreak in the Minnesota Senate Republican caucus, the GOP held a large, in-person dinner party to celebrate their election results. 

A GOP spokeswoman confirmed the Nov. 5 victory dinner party this weekend in response to FOX 9’s questions about it. Republicans had not previously disclosed it, even as controversy erupted over the outbreak. The spokeswoman, Rachel Aplikowski, did not say why she had not disclosed the party in earlier public statements about the situation. 

At least three senators, including Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, have now tested positive. Gazelka revealed his positive diagnosis on Sunday and said he was quarantining while on an out-of-state trip. Sen. Dave Senjem told FOX 9 he had tested positive last weekend. Sen. Paul Anderson has also tested positive, Aplikowski said. 

On Tuesday, Republicans sent an internal memo to warn staffers about the outbreak. Multiple senators and staff had tested positive, the memo said.  

But Democrats said the GOP never notified them about the COVID-19 outbreak before Thursday’s special session at the Capitol. Senate Democratic Leader Susan Kent said it was a ‘blatant disregard” of the health of other senators and Senate staff, and called for Gazelka's resignation as majority leader on Sunday evening.

The GOP’s Nov. 5 dinner party was held at a Twin Cities event center with between 100 and 150 attendees, including most Republican senators, a source told FOX 9 on the condition of anonymity.

Few attendees wore masks, and the party lasted for hours, the person said. People were happy because the GOP had retained the Senate with a slim 34-33 majority in the Nov. 3 election, the person said. 

In response to FOX 9’s questions, Aplikowski did not dispute the person’s account of the event. She did not say how many senators who attended the party then attended the special session in person seven days later, but said no one who tested positive went to the special session. 

“I can tell you the event was held under the guidelines allowed by the executive orders at the time,” Aplikowski said. “Were there guidelines that limited celebrations to household members or required an event to be limited to a certain number of hours at the time? I am not aware of any of those kinds of restrictions at the time of the event.”

In an email Sunday evening, Gazelka said he had just called the event venue -- 10 days after the event -- about the outbreak.

"Based on your questioning, we realized we had not notified the event site. I just got off the phone with the owner and apologized for our oversight," Gazelka said.

Until now, Republicans hadn’t disclosed the dinner party, despite revealing that they’d held an in-person caucus leadership election the same day. Senjem said he was likely infected before attending that meeting, but was not having symptoms. He said he got tested last weekend after developing a slight cough. 

Gazelka is in Florida and is not traveling while under quarantine. He did not have symptoms and was unaware of his exposure when he flew to Florida, Aplikowski said. In an emailed statement, Gazelka called for an end to “blaming and shaming” of Senate Republicans for the outbreak. 

Saturday, Democratic Gov. Tim Walz and Gazelka sparred on Twitter about the GOP’s outbreak. 

“I do not understand why Senate Republicans chose to share positive cases only with members of their own party, putting staff and other senators at risk,” Walz tweeted. 

Gazelka responded, “No DFL member was at our caucus meeting, and we followed (Minnesota Department of Health) and CDC recommendations for social distancing, masks, and limiting time together during session so no one was put at risk. It’s time to stop blaming us and politicizing this.” 

In his tweet, Gazelka did not mention the dinner party. 

“Senate operations are an essential service and precautions were taken to prevent spreading covid; no one was put at any more risk than any other special session. The deliberate choice to use a covid diagnosis as a political tool to blame just Republicans when community spread is uncontrolled is indicative of failed leadership looking for a scapegoat. Minnesotans deserve better."

Sunday morning, Minnesota health officials reported 7,559 new cases of COVID-19 and 31 more deaths. So far, the state has seen a total of 223,581 cases and 2,905 deaths.