The ongoing spat between Republicans in the Minnesota House and Gov. Tim Walz over his handling of the coronavirus crisis escalated after more than 50 GOP lawmakers co-signed a letter Monday, Aug. 31, urging the DFL administration to change its approach to health mandate compliance checks.

The letter came after the Minnesota Department of Health and the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry notified business owners of increasing compliance checks in the coming weeks. Inspectors conduct compliance checks to ensure restaurants are enforcing social distancing between tables, room capacity limits, mask wearing, proper hygiene and disinfection regimens, health screenings for employees, and other measures to stop COVID-19.

In turn, businesses that fail to comply with these measures are subject to forced closures, fines, workplace investigations, and other citations — particularly if it’s determined a venue has multiple confirmed COVID-19 cases traced to it, in which case it is subject to closure and designated a COVID-19 hotspot by the state.

In the letter — which was signed by Republican leaders, including House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, as well as local state Reps. Dale Lueck, R-Aitkin; John Poston, R-Lake Shore; and Josh Heintzeman, R-Nisswa — Republicans state it’s a moral and economic imperative for the state to soften its heavy-handed approach to enforcing health guidelines amid the pandemic.

While the Walz administration signals it will be ramping up compliance checks and cracking down on bad actors across the state to stop the spread of COVID-19, lawmakers wrote, state agencies are doing so in a way that’s counterintuitive, even vindictive and abusive in some cases, during a time when the hospitality industry is particularly vulnerable. The letter warns that hundreds of small businesses may not survive state-manded closures that box stores and other larger venues are not subject to.

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“We are troubled by the threatening tone of the letter when considering the administration's previous stated goal, the compliance checks would be ‘educational’ in nature and not punitive,” the letter states, in part. “Instead, you are weaponizing state agencies and threatening businesses with fines, closures, and investigations at a time when so many are struggling just to keep their doors open.”

“Furthermore, latest estimates indicate that the number of cases confirmed at a restaurant or bar makes up only 2.3% of the total state cases. And there are only about two dozen restaurants or bars that have been identified as sources for outbreaks,” the letter also stated. “Clearly restaurants and bars are not major drivers for COVID transmission. And it's unfair that they are being targeted and treated as such, especially when restaurants remain subject to strict capacity limits and regulations that are not applied to big box stores.”

As reported by Forum News Service, Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said Monday, Aug. 31, the reviews were part of a more targeted approach to compliance oversight and were based on patron complaints as well as random selection.

“I’m happy to say that the significant majority of business establishments, bars and restaurants in particular, that were visited were found to have only very minor violations or really no violations,” Malcolm said. “But a significant enough minority of establishments had significant enough violations that require a follow-up visit from a regulatory agency to just work with them on the specifics of the executive orders and where they are not in compliance.”

The current spat between the GOP House and the Walz administration echoes prior partisan debates over state agencies and how they should operate — a vitriolic discussion where these same agencies have been previously described as “abusive,” “bullies” and “autocratic” by some Republicans long before the advent of the coronavirus.

The subject of the Aug. 31 letter, Walz, is certainly no stranger to this kind of dialogue. His GOP opponent in 2018, Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson, often decried an environment oppressive to businesses across the state, alleging that toxic power structures within state agencies are the culprit.

“Many state agencies right now — their leadership at least — believe it’s their job to control and direct and, unfortunately in some cases, bully,” Johnson said during an interview in July 2018. “That requires a fundamental, generational change. … If we don’t change that attitude, we can’t change those smaller policy issues.”

During the campaign, Walz responded to Johnson’s criticisms by stating he was in favor of "regulatory humility" — or, assuming the businesses and corporate entities are compliant, so as to carefully dictate when government gets involved in commercial affairs. He advocated an even-handed approach to work with businesses in a cooperative partnership and has since emphasized that most businesses do their part, but are hampered by a small minority of bad actors.

In discussions with the Dispatch, Poston, Lueck and Heintzeman said constituents were calling their offices, urging them to speak out against the administration’s heavy-handed compliance measures. All three lawmakers have been vocally critical of Walz’s continuing hold on emergency executive powers. Heintzeman has repeatedly declined to comment other than by email, citing a discomfort with face-to-face or phone interviews and expressed sensitivity with how prior statements were presented in the Dispatch.

Heintzeman — who’s described Walz as a monarch and dictator in prior correspondences — took aim at Walz’s executive orders.

"Governor Walz’s emergency orders have changed all the rules businesses are required to abide by. He has completely departed from his initial statements indicating that spot checks and enforcement efforts would be ‘educational’ to now taking a much more threatening tone indicating fines, loss of licenses, and numerous other punitive steps will be taken to shut down businesses that don’t fully comply with every detail of his orders,” Heintzeman stated in an email. “First the governor indicated his commissioners would be working with businesses to help them through this difficult time, now he’s completely backtracked on those statements weaponizing his agencies against hard working Minnesotans just trying to pay their bills.”

Poston said the vast majority of businesses are doing their best to keep up with health mandates, but standards are becoming unrealistic and the aggressive approach by state agencies means some businesses may buckle under the pressure.

“They're getting kind of aggressive with threatening fines and threatening to close up businesses. It's not really a tone that we need. It's not helpful when these business owners are struggling to stay on,” Poston said. “Now, they're struggling to do everything that's been asked of them.”

Lueck said state agencies in Minnesota are increasingly constructed in an organizational and legal framework that facilitates and even encourages the persecution of small businesses, particularly in Greater Minnesota. Neighbors are turning on neighbors, ratting them out to state agencies, Lueck added, and the state is only too willing to jab its nose in.

“Talking to business owners and their employees — my God, they’re scared to death. The sneaking around, the intimidation, the bullying … we can’t have that coming from the governor,” Lueck said. “That’s ridiculous. That’s happening right in our backyard. That's their way of doing things, bullying and intimidating from the government. I don't like it. We don't need it. We turn these people loose like a bunch of vigilantes.”

In an email statement to the Dispatch, Minnesota Department of Health spokeswoman Julie Bartkey said descriptions of state health agencies as “intimidating” or “bullies” are inaccurate, noting the health department actively works with small businesses to foster a collaborative relationship when honoring health mandates.

GABRIEL LAGARDE may be reached at gabe.lagarde@brainerddispatch.com or 218-855-5859. Follow at www.twitter.com/glbrddispatch.