Republican Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka's sudden change in tone with regards to COVID-19 has been greeted with skepticism among Minnesota's Democrats.
"I’ve always said COVID is serious. The surge we prepared for is now happening in spite of restrictions, and I’m glad we helped prepare for it," he tweeted on Thursday. "The Senate can move quickly again to address a covid crisis but continued emergency powers leave the decision making to one man only."
The tweet came on the same day the Legislature returned for a special session, with Gazelka saying the GOP would not hold a vote to end Walz's peacetime emergency, despite having done during the past several special sessions (only to be blocked by the DFL-led House).
Sen. Matt Little accused Gazelka of dropping his opposition to the emergency powers because there was no longer an election to fight, rather than because of the spiraling COVID-19 crisis.
And Gazelka's subsequent tweet prompted no shortage of Minnesotans to look back at other comments he has made over the past several months, with some claiming that both he and the wider Minnesota GOP have not taken the virus seriously, and have undermined the state's public health efforts.
Among those reacting with skepticism to Gazelka's tweet was Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan.
In the literal sense, Gazelka has several times described COVID-19 as "serious" (more on this below), but many of those responding to his latest tweet argue that this is not always borne out in his past public statements or actions.
On Apr. 9, after Gov. Walz announced the extension of Minnesota's Stay at Home order, Gazelka tweeted: "I do not approve of the Governor’s unilateral decision to continue the order to shelter at home until May 4th. We have to get on with our lives."
In early May, as Minnesota was approaching its early peak of the virus, MinnPost reported of the partisan divide that had emerged within the Capitol that saw DFLers wearing face masks and many GOPers not, with Gazelka among those not wearing a mask while on the Senate floor.
As Minnesota's cases and deaths started dropping during the summer, calls from Gazelka and GOPers for Walz to lift the restrictions began to grow. Walz did end his "Stay at Home" order in early June, but kept limits on maximum capacity for bars and restaurants, and followed it up with a face mask mandate in July.
"Only 6 Covid deaths in all of Minnesota, hospitalizations down," Gazelka tweeted on June 15. "I know what the next step is, what do you think we should do?"
While cases did drop during the summer, health experts were warning that the virus would likely become more widespread over the fall and winter, a prediction that has sadly proven to be correct.
Since then, the Senate held several special session votes to overturn Gov. Walz's peacetime emergency, which was blocked every time by the DFL-controlled House.
In late August, Gazelka wrote a letter to Walz urging him to provide a signal as to when he would end his emergency powers, commenting: "We have flattened the curve, no Minnesotan has been denied necessary medical treatment, and, thankfully, our hospitals have not needed to use their surge capacity. There is no longer an emergency."
On Oct. 19, just weeks before the election and on the same day more than 2,300 COVID-19 cases were reported, Gazelka joined House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt to launch the Minnesota GOP's "Contract to Open Up Minnesota."
This pledge to Minnesota voters argued that COVID-19 rules such as capacity restrictions and mask-wearing should be voluntary, and not mandated, while also calling for schools to return to in-person tuition – since when many have returned to full distance-learning due to the escalating growth in COVID cases.
On the same day, Gazelka tweeted a link to a New York Post article that accused the media of "misreporting" the COVID-19 death toll and which compares the pandemic to flu and pneumonia deaths in 2017-18.
And less than two weeks ago, on Oct. 30 as Minnesota posted its fifth consecutive day of more than 3,400 cases, Gazelka complained that President Donald Trump's rally in Rochester was limited to 250 people, as per the state's restrictions on gathering size.
As mentioned earlier, Gazelka has made several references to the virus being "serious," including this July 17 tweet, albeit one in which he said it's not sufficiently serious as to "close down schools."
He once again referred to it as a "serious virus" on Sept. 5 as he called once again for the governor to relinquish his emergency powers and have the Legislature in charge of the state's COVID-19 response.
BMTN has reached out to the Minnesota GOP for comment.