Minneapolis and St. Paul declare states of emergency over COVID-19

Leaders of St. Paul and Minneapolis have declared local states of emergencies to prevent the spread of COVID-19, announcements that will force more Twin Cities employers to close and residents to stay home.

The decisions by St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter and Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey come as the state’s number of COVID-19 cases grow with the Twin Cities metro at the epicenter.

On Monday, Minnesota confirmed 19 new cases of the novel coronavirus, for a statewide total of 54. Of those, Hennepin and Ramsey counties account for 32 of the cases.

By declaring local states of emergencies, the cities’ emergency management departments can request funding from and coordinate with other layers of government, including the counties, state and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

On Monday afternoon, Frey issued a statement that said with the emergency declaration he will force bars, restaurants, nightclubs and coffee shops to close or limit their hours beginning Tuesday at noon. “Operations will be limited to delivery, takeout, and drive thru orders,” the statement said.

No further details on how, exactly, the city will monitor for compliance and enforce the new guidelines were immediately available.

Frey also said he’s coming up with a budget plan for stocking up on protective gear, such as masks and face masks, for city employees who are at risk of catching COVID-19.

“Our team will remain in constant communication with leadership in city hall and partners throughout Minnesota while we work to promote mitigation strategies, deliver core city services, and deploy resources where they are needed most,” Frey’s statement read.

St. Paul closes libraries, parks

About 19 hours before Frey’s announcement, on Sunday, Carter declared a state of emergency and announced the closure of St. Paul public libraries, parks and recreation facilities — including the Como Park Zoo and Conservatory — until Friday, March 27.

St. Paul’s firefighters and medics are in charge of helping people who show signs of COVID-19 — a fever, cough and shortness of breath — and need help getting to the hospital, according to the city. The city is preparing to provide compensation for emergency responders who contract the virus on duty and need to stay home to get better.

“I am grateful for Mayor Carter’s leadership during this challenging and historic moment in our history,” said St. Paul Police Chief Todd Axtell in a statement. “I am even more grateful and proud of our officers and first responders who simply don’t have the option of staying home during moments of crisis.”

St. Paul city staff are developing plans to keep essential services (water, public safety, etc.) in operation, help families during the statewide school closures beginning Wednesday and care for animals at the zoo when it’s not open to the public.

Much of Minneapolis and St. Paul’s emergency declarations have the same guidelines. For instance, both cities said, until further notice, they are no longer issuing new permits for gatherings of 50 or more people in accordance with public health officials’ guidelines for containing the virus.

Additionally, the mayors have suspended water shut-offs so residents can continue washing hands regularly, and they have asked their sheriff’s departments to stop issuing housing evictions until the outbreak subsides. That’s only a request — the respective sheriffs departments hold the discretion on whether or not to pause issuing evictions of residents.

Those moves, the mayors said, would help protect the cities’ most vulnerable residents.

“The impacts of COVID-19 stand to cause sudden and sharp drops in income for many tenants in our community,” Carter wrote in a letter to Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher.

Protections for workers

To protect staff and customers from the virus, many employers in Minneapolis and St. Paul have already closed their doors or come up with new ways to do business.

In Minneapolis, where all employers must offer paid sick leave to employees under a city ordinance, the closures have spurred confusion among workers over what pay they’re guaranteed, according to Brian Walsh, enforcement supervisor of the city’s labor standards division.

Under the city’s sick and safe time law, people who need to take off work to take care of their children because of the upcoming school closures can use accrued sick and safe time hours, according to Walsh.

Similarly, the city’s ordinance covers employees affected by Frey’s decision to close bars, restaurants, clubs and coffee shops, Walsh said.

But the rule does not cover workers unaffected by the emergency declaration, even if their managers told them not to come to work or shut down the business. In those cases, Walsh recommends people check out the state’s guidelines regarding unemployment insurance.

Unless those people seem sick: People who display symptoms of the virus may use any accrued sick and safe time hours to rest up, Walsh said. Also, the city’s ordinance protects workers who have “reason to believe they are probably infected” and feel they need to self-quarantine.

‘An extraordinary time’

In a statement Monday, Minneapolis City Council President Lisa Bender said she supports Frey’s decision to enact a state of emergency to prevent the spread of the novel virus.

She said the council will hold a special meeting on Thursday to vote on Frey’s declaration, which would solidify the city’s emergency status and allow for it to continue for as long as the state’s peacetime state of emergency lasts. Gov. Tim Walz issued that decision on Friday.

Even without the council’s approval, Frey’s emergency declaration remains in effect for three days.

As the situation evolves, Bender said city staff will brief the council regularly on the outbreak and how the latest developments could change what it’s like to live and work in Minneapolis.

“This is an extraordinary time,” she said, emphasizing the need for collaboration across city departments, businesses and neighborhoods. “I am working with my colleagues and Mayor Frey to center our commitments to race and economic equity in our response COVID-19.”

Monday’s announcement by Frey is a departure from his less-dramatic message on Friday, when he spoke publicly about the city’s response to COVID-19 for the first time.

To reporters and viewers of a Facebook Live video, he said the city’s core services would continue without interruption. But should non-essential employees have to work remotely or find other ways to do their jobs, he said departments were shoring up protections against cyber attacks and developing staffing contingency plans for first responders and 911 dispatchers.

“There is temptation to flip a switch, completely shut down, just ride it out for the next 30 to 60 days,” the mayor said Friday. “But public health research and quality emergency operations and planning tells us that it’s best not to take dramatic action without being based on solid rationale; it is better to gradually move up and eventually down a sliding scale or spectrum of actions.”