ST. PAUL — A long, cold winter awaited Minnesota and the path forward was to hunker down and be patient, Gov. Tim Walz told the state in April.
At the time, 20 Minnesotans had perished from the illness and its complications, and weeks earlier Walz issued an order requiring residents to stay at home unless they were completing essential tasks.
"Long hours of darkness are ahead," Walz said during an April 5 address broadcast from the basement of the governor's residence. "It’s going to be a cold winter. How do we get through a cold winter? We get through it together, as one Minnesota."
In the weeks and months that followed, the governor issued dozens of orders changing the lives of Minnesotans at levels large and small in an effort to prepare the state for the "storm of epic proportions" that rolled in slowly then seemed to bear down with intensity this fall.
His decisions prevented Minnesota hospitals from becoming overrun and lessened the number of fatal cases, physicians, nurses and hospital leaders said. Statewide business groups, too, said that while the hospitality sector bore the brunt of the economic hit from the pandemic, workers and business owners understood their help was needed to limit the virus’ spread.
But Walz's "One Minnesota" message cracked under the pressure of an America more politically divided than ever.
The pandemic response became politicized in a way that it hasn't in other parts of the world, and defiance of lawmakers' mitigation measures morphed into a battle cry against the establishment. And as public health experts remind the public: Mitigation measures are only as strong as their weakest link.
Almost 400,000 Minnesotans have contracted the illness in the last nine months and nearly 5,000 have died from the virus and its complications. The pandemic has killed more Minnesotans to date than World War I and appears on pace to take more lives than World War II.
And the coronavirus, along with state mitigation measures, has pumped the brakes on the state's economy that was booming just months before.
It took a more than $2 billion bite out of the state's revenue compared to prior projections. More than 1 million workers have sought unemployment aid after widespread layoffs in the spring. Dozens of businesses have closed permanently with more at a crisis point following the latest round of restrictions earlier this month.
Walz, a former teacher and soldier, has said public health data has informed his course of action and that he’s tried to balance the economic and personal well-being of Minnesotans against the possible threats of sickness and death posed by COVID-19.
"Each and every one of those decisions is going to impact lives and I have to be responsible for that," Walz told Forum News Service during a Dec. 4 interview.
'Somebody had to be the responsible parent here'
Early on, the state modeled projections that showed the virus could kill 74,000 Minnesotans without mitigation measures and overrun the state’s 235 ICU beds by the end of April without intervention.
In hospitals, doctors and nurses were reusing dirty masks and gowns because there weren't enough.
While Minnesota’s neighboring states took more hands-off mitigation measures, Walz issued a stay-at-home order in April that lasted six weeks, mandated the wearing of face masks following U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance in July, and set in place "pauses" on various sectors of business and social gatherings last month.
The moves drew blowback from business owners, Republican legislators and fed-up Minnesotans but they helped Minnesota build up needed supplies to help those severely sickened by the disease fight it off, state health care groups said. The decisions also relieved pressure on hospitals that had been at or nearing capacity under the weight of the most recent surge in COVID-19 cases.
"If we hadn't been the responsible state among the five-state area and we had just done what everyone else did and didn't pay attention and then closed down, I can't even imagine the total collapse of the health care system," said Mary Turner, a nurse at North Memorial Hospital and president of the Minnesota Nurses Association. "We had a duty to be the one. Somebody had to be the responsible parent here, the responsible adult here."
In Iowa, North Dakota and South Dakota, elected officials said they trusted their constituents to make choices that would limit the virus' spread. And South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem chastised the approach of Walz and others to issue mask mandates or stay-at-home orders.
"In our state, you won't find the restrictions that hold companies back in other places," Noem said in a July video ad aimed at luring Minnesota businesses to move to South Dakota.
Those more laissez-faire plans seemed to pan out in Minnesota's neighboring states late in the spring and over the summer. Daily case counts and fatalities from the virus were relatively low. And then COVID-19 seized, catapulting new daily case counts per capita in North Dakota, South Dakota and Iowa to the top levels in the country this fall.
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Around Minnesota's borders, COVID-19 smoldered and it was just a matter of time before the heat seeped into the state, too.
“Here in Minnesota, certainly we’re not perfect in our response, we continue to try and learn," Walz said in the interview, "but the fact is six weeks ago we were 21st in infection rates while Iowa, South Dakota, North Dakota and Wisconsin were 1, 2, 3 and 5, and now we’re there with them.
"If your neighbor’s house is on fire, and they choose not to put it out, those flames lead to you and that’s what happened.”
New COVID-19 cases nearly doubled in Minnesota between October and early November. Case positivity rates jumped by almost threefold between early October and mid-November. And hospital capacity was stretched to a near breaking point, said Dr. Marilyn Peitso, president of the Minnesota Medical Association.
The state implemented another round of "pauses" to indoor businesses and social gatherings last month that bent the curve in new cases and hospital admissions came down.
“There were times when care was delayed in finding the right ICU, about finding the right hospital bed,” Peitso said, "but the preparations that the state of Minnesota has put in place have really, really served us well. Minnesotans should be proud of the science-informed procedures that have been in place in our state."
Emergency powers stir anger among opponents
Like governors around the country, Walz declared a peacetime emergency in March to combat COVID-19. The emergency allowed him to make decisions on the fly without legislative approval, which can take days or weeks to solidify.
But unlike his peers, the governor faced a divided Legislature and a provision of the state Constitution that gives lawmakers a chance to veto extensions of his expanded authority.
Senate GOP lawmakers, along with some Democrats and Independents, voted to end the peacetime emergency seven times this year. And Republican leaders said they still oppose the governor's emergency powers, powers he still has today.
“Once he had emergency powers, that’s where everything fell apart because he was making all the decisions and we could not stop or stand against those decisions," Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, told reporters on Thursday, Dec. 18. "That’s been incredibly frustrating."
Throughout the 2020 campaign season, GOP lawmakers and candidates held in-person events without requirements for masking or social distancing. President Donald Trump, in his effort to snap the state's longest-in-the-nation track record of supporting a Democratic presidential candidate, held several rallies in the state that violated state orders around gatherings.
And just after an October rally in the state, Trump reported that he'd tested positive for the illness. Congressmen Tom Emmer, Jim Hagedorn and Pete Stauber flew on Air Force One with the president just before he became ill. They, along with several other Minnesota Republicans, met or were near Trump as he rallied in Minnesota. The trio tested negative for COVID-19 after their exposure but several who attended the Bemidji event were infected with some requiring hospitalization.
Gazelka was among a handful of GOP state senators who reported that they'd contracted COVID-19 following a November post-election party with more than 100 guests and an in-person caucus meeting. They came under fire last month after some Republican lawmakers who'd been at the events attended a special legislative session and didn't notify their colleagues about potential exposure.
Sen. Jerry Relph, a Republican from St. Cloud, tested positive for COVID-19 after the event. He died from complications of COVID-19 on Friday, Dec. 18.
Walz said he's been unwilling to work on certain COVID-19 issues with GOP lawmakers since they've bucked health guidance and state orders on face masks, social distancing and gathering.
“Working together is one thing but I was never going to accept their premise that this is not a real thing and that we should just let everything go back to normal. So their complaint is, ‘the governor doesn’t listen to us,'" Walz said. "And no, I’m not going to listen to you on something that goes against all the data, goes against all of the best practices."
Walz said he laments the political polarization that took hold over the issue of pandemic response. From Trump's initial comments likening the disease to the flu and offering little guidance on a federal response to state lawmakers who pressed the governor as recently as last week to reopen businesses.
“This thing got blown apart because it got ideological," Walz said.
More darkness, then spring on the horizon
Perched at a familiar podium in the State Emergency Operations Center, Walz on Wednesday, Dec. 16, told Minnesotans that COVID-19 vaccines had started rolling out around the state.
Health care workers and long-term care residents would get the first batch. And more were on the way.
The spring following the pandemic's winter lay ahead.
But before the sun could rise on the longer, brighter days, Minnesotans would have to hunker down a bit longer.
"We are not out of the woods yet," he said.
Indoor entertainment venues would remain closed through at least early January, Walz said, and bars and restaurants could offer outdoor service along with to-go orders, but indoor dining would have to wait. The governor also announced that elementary school students could be back in classrooms in January.
Restaurant owners that had been prepared to open Friday, Dec. 18, said they were struggling before and another three weeks without indoor dining would be the nail in the coffin for some. A handful opened in defiance of state orders, saying they weren't willing to stay closed any longer.
Sure there was hope on the horizon, but that wouldn't help them pay staff or past due bills, they said.
While the state's business community had been patient as the state weathered the pandemic's storm, leaders warned that their patience and viability could run out without a path to reopening.
"We're all in it together to not just protect us against the virus, but we're all in it together also — and I want to put an emphasis on this for the governor — that we're all in this also to protect the private sector economy," Minnesota Chamber of Commerce President Doug Loon said. "Without it, we don't have jobs, we don't have a tax base."
As aid payments made their way to hardest-hit business owners and those out of work, Walz asked the fractured state to hold on a little longer.
"We're going to get through this. We're moving to that new phase," Walz said. “That sun is rising, this will be the week with the longest, darkest nights. But next week starts moving toward spring and that's just where we're at."
This story is part of a 13-day series that looks at all the ways 2020 has changed us. From now until 2021, expect stories on workplace and education, sports, economics, politics and everything in between. Follow Dana Ferguson on Twitter @bydanaferguson, call 651-290-0707 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.