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COVID Policies: Minn. House GOP Calls For Lifting Business Restrictions By May 1

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) -- A proposal from Minnesota House Republicans would chart a course for the state to reopen all businesses at full capacity by May 1, as some restaurants and hotels say they could go under in a few months under current economic conditions.

The proposal — put forward by Rep. Dave Baker, R-Willmar — would establish a timeline for opening and establish criteria to determine future closings if necessary. He suggested looking at test positivity rates, hospitalization rates or the capacity of ICU beds, though he expressed openness to suggestions.

Baker said during a Monday news conference the bill would be a "road map" giving businesses needed time to plan for the busy summer months.

It would phase in loosening restrictions and culminate with fully reopening by May 1 "if everything stays as it is" in terms of downward trends for infection and hospitalization rates, as vaccinations are underway.

The state in recent days has seen some of the lowest test positivity rates in months. The rate was 3.19% Monday.

"We don't know exactly what the future will look like," Baker said. "But we have to get Minnesota businesses back open because I think we can honestly manage better than if we just have one person announcing whenever they do and then we start scrambling."

Liz Rammer, president and CEO of Hospitality MN, said no industry has been hit harder than the hospitality sector. She supported having a timeline for full reopening.

A January survey by the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis found more than half of restaurants say they could go under in three months.

"Hospitality businesses are just not able to turn their businesses on and off on a dime," she said.

Mikael Asp, who owns La Grolla in St. Paul, said short notice of closures and re-openings can be challenging, but he acknowledges the difficulties an evolving infectious disease brings with it. He would welcome even one to two weeks' notice.

"Ideally I'd love to say, 'Hey, here's certainty of what we're going to do 30 days out,' but I also understand that's not realistic with the ebbs and flows of how this virus has gone," he said. "I feel like it's been unfair to all businesses honestly, not just restaurants, on the opening and closing. Having one to two days' [notice] is really tough."

Overall his business is down 15% to 20% even with the reopening of indoor dining at half capacity. And his current staff is about 30 people when he can hire upwards of 50 in a normal year.

"We all want to do it safely and we all want to get back to normal," Asp said.

Ken Jarka, general manager of the Hilton in Minneapolis — the state's largest hotel — also backed the GOP proposal of a timeline. He said the hotel had to lay off 500 employees and the industry collectively in Minneapolis is down 89% in revenues.

The uncertain future for the fate of reopening is having longer-term effects months and years out, he added.

"We have groups canceling as far out as October and November of this year and taking their business elsewhere because other states have loosened their restrictions and have a next phase plan and Minnesota does not," Jarka said.

Baker told reporters he is looking to work with members of the House DFL to set the parameters and compromise on some of the details of the plan. He also wants Gov. Tim Walz to consider setting such a timeline on his own without legislative approval.

"We know that nothing's going to happen unless we get some DFL support in the House and I think this is a good concept to try get that out in front of us," Baker said. "If it's not this idea, then what is it?"

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