Senate GOP seeks free pass for COVID violators, wiping away fines

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka

Minnesota Senate Republicans say business owners who were fined for flaunting the state's COVID-19 public health orders should get a free pass.

The GOP proposal, made during state budget negotiations, would wipe away all penalties against businesses. It is unlikely to go anywhere because Democrats control the House, where one DFL lawmaker referred to the plan as "a bunch of garbage." 

Republicans are also calling on Gov. Tim Walz to end his statewide indoor mask mandate and allow businesses to fully reopen. Walz is planning a Thursday announcement to ease some restrictions.

At least two dozen businesses were fined and 144 received citations for violating the state's orders, according to data provided by Attorney General Keith Ellison's office earlier this year. Most of the fines range from $5,000 to $10,000.

"Just finding a way to forego those fines...would mean a lot to some of these small businesses that have suffered a lot," Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, said at a news conference.

Ellison slammed the GOP's proposal. 

"It's disappointing that the Senate would consider letting down the vast majority of Minnesota businesses who complied with the law and met their responsibility to their communities to bail out the small handful who flouted the law and their responsibility to keep Minnesotans safe," Ellison said in an email.

Senate Republicans once proposed to cut Ellison's budget by a corresponding amount to the fines levied against businesses.

The Senate proposal is almost certain not to advance. Budget negotiations typically start with both sides far apart and trading offers publicly; serious negotiations only start once legislative leaders retreat behind closed doors.

A spokesman for Walz did not respond to a request for comment. House Speaker Melissa Hortman declined comment through a spokesman.

Walz, speaking at Alice Smith Elementary School in Hopkins before the Republicans released their proposal, said he would announce a relaxing of his COVID restrictions on Thursday.

"Minnesotans should start assuming they’re going to have a very normal summer," Walz said, declining to outline specifics of his announcement. 

Asked about the GOP's demand to end his emergency powers, Walz said he would not "negotiate away safety and protocols that are dictated by science." He has long said that a mask mandate would be among the last restrictions to lapse.

But the governor, a first term Democrat, said he will ease capacity limits as Minnesota's vaccination rate approaches 60 percent of the adult population.

"Thursday’s announcement should go a long way I think to moving things forward," Walz told reporters. "We’re coming close to the end. But I ask Minnesotans, we’ve got just a little ways to go here."