The Minnesota Legislature convened Monday for a fifth special session in the past five months, and the partisan squabbling was at an expected high.
Lawmakers were called back to St. Paul this week because Democratic Gov. Tim Walz issued another 30-day extension to his peacetime emergency in response to the COVID-19 pandemic (more on this below).
During debate on whether to end Walz's emergency powers, Republicans questioned Monday whether restrictions the governor has imposed are needed when some of their districts have few cases and when people do get it, many don't die.
What has seemingly come to symbolize the partisan split on Gov. Walz's COVID-19 restrictions is the wearing of face masks, with many Republicans choosing not to do so on campaign trails and within the Capitol despite public health officials urging people to wear them to help prevent the spread of the virus.
This played out on the House floor Monday, when State Rep. Mary Franson, R-Alexandria, stood up to urge the end of Walz's peacetime emergency. Her face mask was well below her nose (that's not how it's supposed to be worn), and she said, "I have my mask on."
“I was informed that I would not be recognized unless I had switched masks,” Franson said. “I don’t have another mask because it’s the only mask I like to wear.”
She turned her mask inside out. The mask she was wearing had an image of Walz in a red clown nose on the front of it, the Minnesota Reformer says.
After less than a minute, Franson took off her mask and said: "I can't really talk with it on right now. My anxiety is getting to me over this whole situation."
It's a rule to wear a face mask at all times when on the House floor, which House Speaker Melissa Hortman, D-Brooklyn Park, reminded members in a memo on Sunday. The Republican-controlled Senate does not have a face mask rule. Both chambers are limiting the number of people present during sessions.
Hortman offered Franson a clean mask and said House staff could bring her one. Franson continued, without wearing a mask.
Rep. Julie Becker-Finn, D-Roseville, called for a point of order from the Speaker, saying she's concerned about the House staff near Franson because she's not wearing a mask.
Hortman noted that Rep. Jim Nash, R-Waconia, also spoke without a mask, but no one raised that point of order, and said they're bringing Franson a clean mask for her to wear.
Hortman asked members to keep their masks on at all times.
"I know you may not feel like you need it, but I will let you know there are several members and staff who would feel a lot better and do believe that you need it," Hortman said.
An unmasked Franson then continued her speech:
"If I was at a restaurant, I would be able to sit down without a mask on. There is nobody around me. But science says now that at a restaurant that we can have up to 10 people at a table sitting down next to each other not wearing a mask. And if we're in a bar table, science now says that we can now have up to four people together at a table. There's nobody around me at my desk, we can pretend I'm at a restaurant all by myself."
Franson is referencing the state's recent loosening of restrictions at bars and restaurants last week, which allows more people to sit together. It comes after a push from the restaurant industry that has claimed capacity and seating restrictions will put them out of business.
Many Minnesota Republicans have supported bringing an end to the restrictions imposed on businesses, with Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka saying COVID-19 mitigation efforts should be recommended, but still optional, rather than mandated for business.
Franson later addressed this again, saying she hasn't seen the "science" on this that makes it OK to have more than four at the table and she thinks the change in rules is just going on "feelings and control."
Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm has said that the decision was based on public health alone, restrictions on businesses like restaurants would be stepped up rather than loosened, but noted a compromise was being made to help businesses survive the pandemic.
Franson also cited the Minnesota State High School League's switch to allow football and volleyball this fall after a lawsuit was filed, as well as the league's decision to allow some spectators after initially saying that wouldn't be allowed.
"I guess the science changed there, too," Franson said.
Franson continued talking, touching on topics that include the COVID-19 survival rates and death rates, saying focus needs to be put on saving people in long-term care facilities instead of punishing everyone else who has less of a chance of dying from COVID-19.
"Government cannot control a virus – a virus is going to virus," she said.
She questioned the effectiveness of the mask mandate and shared stories of people who are not wearing their masks properly.
After several minutes, House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, D-Golden Valley, called for a point of order, saying Nash spoke "briefly" without a mask when no point of order was raised but said Franson "is abusing that mild discretion that was provided and she should put on a mask if she wants to continue her debate."
Franson then put on her mask, covering her nose this time, and said, "A virus is going to virus."
She continued, saying how strangers are treating each other during the pandemic has changed "due to government psychologically abusing people." She gave the example people screaming at others "for choosing to exercise their liberty" by not wearing a mask.
"If they can force you to quit your job, to stay home, not visit your loved ones in a nursing home and ban family gatherings during the holidays, stay six feet from one another, wear a mask and threaten you with fines and jail time if you don't comply, what else can they do to you?" she asked.
After Franson's speech, Rep. Tina Liebling, D-Rochester, spoke, calling into the session via phone.
"Rep. Franson, none of us like wearing a mask ... but we're doing it because we want to help our fellow citizens. we want to do it because we want to get the economy open as quickly as possible and to allow what's open to stay open," Liebling said. "Folks, I beg you to continue to give – or to start to give a message to your constituents that this is the right thing to do, to help each other by wearing a mask, by complying ..."
The Reformer reported this week that state Sen. Chris Eaton, D-Brooklyn Center, filed an OSHA complaint about her Republican colleagues not wearing masks, noting she has underlying health conditions and avoids Senate floor sessions.
In the Minnesota Senate, there is no mask requirement, and despite reminders from Senate Secretary Cal Ludeman on Monday, the Reformer said few lawmakers wore a mask during the floor debate on whether to end Walz's emergency powers.
Peacetime emergency powers extended
State law requires that if the governor wants to extend a peacetime emergency beyond 30 days, and the legislature isn't in session, the governor must call a special session.
This gives the legislature a chance to remove the governor's emergency powers if both chambers vote to do so.
That's what happened Monday. Walz extended the peacetime emergency, saying it gives the state flexibility in responding to rapidly-evolving issues stemming from the coronavirus.
“My top priority remains the health and safety of Minnesotans,” Walz said in a statement. “As we watch cases rise dramatically in states around us, we must double down in our efforts to protect Minnesota from the spread of COVID-19.”
The DLF-controlled House voted 69-64 to uphold Walz's peacetime emergency powers, while the Republican-controlled Senate voted 36-31 to end it. Because both chambers did not vote to end the peacetime emergency powers, Walz will retain them.
Since the onset of the pandemic and Walz's subsequent state-ordered lockdown and peacetime emergency declarations, Republicans have demanded an end to Walz's peacetime emergency and instead called for him to work with the legislature to respond to the pandemic.
Over the summer, Republicans used Wisconsin as an example of how to respond to the virus without a peacetime emergency.
Wisconsin, though, is now grappling with a surge in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in what's being called the worst coronavirus outbreak in the country. And political science experts say the state's politics are partly to blame – the Republicans control the legislature and have continued to block Democratic Gov. Tony Evers' measures aimed at containing the virus.
Barry Burden, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, told NBC News, “Wisconsin has become the poster child for how things can go wrong.”
If Walz decides to extend the peacetime emergency for another 30 days, he'll have to convene the legislature for another special session.