Sen. Gazelka says GOP could have handled COVID-19 outbreak differently

After days of sustained criticism for the Minnesota Senate GOP’s handling of a COVID-19 outbreak in its ranks, Majority Leader Paul Gazelka released a statement Tuesday saying that he and his colleagues could have handled things differently.

Monday, Minnesota Senate Democrats called for more transparency after at least four Republican senators, including Gazelka, tested positive for the virus. Sen. Jerry Relph, R-St. Cloud, was hospitalized with the virus.

The GOP sent an internal memo to warn their own ranks that multiple senators and staffers had tested positive, but DFL senators said they never got such a warning before a Nov. 12 special session at the state Capitol. The Republicans held a large, in-person GOP victory dinner Nov. 5. 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.

Democrats called for Gazelka’s resignation as majority leader Sunday.

In his Tuesday statement, Gazelka said he and other members of the legislature are “constantly learning from and having to adapt to changes in the course of the pandemic.”

“In hindsight, we could have handled the event and our information sharing differently,” Gazelka said in the statement. “I personally will apply lessons from this episode to inform future decisions as we prepare for the 2021 legislative session.”

He went on to say that the event center did “everything right” as it relates to social distancing, mask use and hospitality and asked that it not be punished for its role in the GOP event.

Gazelka also called the current COVID-19 spike “troubling” and pledged to “push for a state response that protects people’s health without destroying their livelihoods.”

Timeline of Senate GOP outbreak

Nov. 3: Sen. Dave Senjem, R-Rochester, says he likely contracts the virus while campaigning in his district around Election Day.

Nov. 5: Senate Republicans hold an in-person caucus meeting. Later that night, more than 100 senators, staff and guests gather for a dinner party to celebrate their election results. GOP leaders do not disclose the party for nine days.

Nov. 9: Senjem tells fellow GOP senators he's tested positive after developing a cough.

Nov. 9: Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka flies to Florida for a vacation and tests positive after experiencing symptoms.

Nov. 10: The Senate GOP sends an internal memo warning its own ranks that multiple senators and staff have tested positive. No warning goes to the DFL caucus, Democrats say.

Nov. 12: More than 60 percent of senators -- including 24 of 35 Republican members -- vote from home instead of coming to the Capitol for the special session. Senjem tells FOX 9 he tested positive earlier in the week and is isolating at home.

Nov. 13: Minnesota Public Radio reports on the GOP's internal memo, and also reports that Sen. Paul Anderson, R-Plymouth, has also tested positive. A Senate GOP spokeswoman acknowledges the in-person caucus meeting, but does not disclose the dinner party.

Nov. 14: A Senate GOP spokeswoman discloses the dinner party for the first time in response to FOX 9's questions.

Nov. 15: Gazelka acknowledges he tested positive and says he's isolating in Florida. Ten days after the dinner party, Gazelka says he calls the event venue to alert the owner about the outbreak. Senate Democratic Leader Susan Kent calls for Gazelka to resign as majority leader.

Nov. 16: Sen. Jerry Relph, R-St. Cloud, reveals he has tested positive.