Johann Hauser paints the storefront window of Broders' Pasta Bar on 50th Street in Minneapolis on Tuesday to advertise that the restaurant will remain open for takeout. Bars, restaurants and other venues that serve dine-in guests are closing in an effort to curb the spread of COVID-19. Credit: Judy Griesedieck for MPR News

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March 21: Minnesota reports first death; Walz forbids price gouging

A Ramsey County woman in her 80s who recently tested positive for COVID-19 died Friday, the first death in Minnesota linked to the disease, health officials said Saturday as they announced the number of COVID-19 cases in the state rose to 138, up from 115 on Friday.

The state Health Department’s daily update confirmed the disease is in northeastern Minnesota, with a positive test in St. Louis County.

As more cases surface, Gov. Tim Walz is moving to rein in skyrocketing prices on hand sanitizer and other key products.

Walz on Friday unveiled an order banning price gouging — the selling of essential items at unusually high prices during the pandemic. The move was needed because Minnesota has no law on the books banning the practice, and the state was seeing evidence of some sellers preying on people “especially the vulnerable, during a time of crisis,” Walz explained during a press conference Friday afternoon. 

“We were seeing hand sanitizer average for $60 a bottle. Others were hawking $1 a squirt for hand sanitizer,” Walz said. “That’s not who we are.” 

Walz also briefed the public over other actions the state was taking, including activating a medical reserve corps of retired nurses, doctors and health technicians to come back to fill gaps in hospitals and clinics during the pandemic. 

These latest moves follow orders from Walz on Thursday that included deferring sales tax bills on restaurants for 30 days while they’re forced to close dining rooms in the meantime to stop the spread of the virus. 

The governor also ordered all clinics to temporarily suspend elective health surgeries as hospitals and clinics industry prepare to be overwhelmed with patients infected with COVID-19. 

Walz also said his administration was considering a more stringent “shelter in place” order like what California enacted, but that he wasn’t ready to enact it yet. Such an order would ask all state residents to stay home except for essential services, like grocery shopping. Businesses deemed essential, like hospitals, health clinics, grocery stores and banks, would stay open. 

On Friday, the Trump administration announced it would move this year’s individual federal income tax deadline from April 15 to July 15. Walz said on Friday that he expected Minnesota to follow suit for state sales taxes, though he encouraged taxpayers expecting refunds to file before then. 

Similarly, Walz announced a special enrollment period for MNsure, the state’s health insurance program, that will last from March 23 to April 21 for people who currently don’t have health insurance. 

People filing for unemployment jumped significantly since the crisis began, according to Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development Commissioner Steve Grove. He said the department received more than 95,000 applications since Walz ordered the program open to anyone affected by the epidemic. 

The previous record in any given week was about 18,000 applications, Grove said, “so these are pretty historic numbers.” One-third of those who applied this week, Grove said, came from the restaurant and entertainment sector. 

March 19: Wondering where to get assistance now that your workplace has been closed by the state? These resources will help.

The state’s closure of non-essential businesses in Minnesota —including restaurants, coffee shops, bars, hair salons, nail salons, and spas — to slow the spread of COVID-19 has left thousands of people out of work and created financial challenges for small business owners.

But, officials in Minnesota are working to ease the pain by making it easier to obtain unemployment insurance benefits. They have expanded the program to aid those affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and shortened the waiting period to receive payments. A recent executive order from Minnesota Governor Tim Walz also waives the five-week benefit limitation for business owners who have been thrown out of work due to COVID-19.

Unemployment will pay about half of a worker’s former wages, topping out at $740 per week. To apply, start here: https://www.uimn.org/

First, you will have to answer some questions to determine your eligibility. You can obtain benefits if a healthcare professional has recommended that you avoid contact with others, if you have been ordered not to come to your workplace, if your work hours have been reduced, or if you have children whose classes have been canceled and childcare is not available. Besides English, the Unemployment Insurance Program site offers instructions in Spanish, Hmong, and Somali.

The state also may offer benefits for owners of businesses that have closed due to COVID-19, though the details are still being worked out. Check for updates here: https://mn.gov/deed/ In addition, federal lawmakers are debating a rescue plan that would aid small businesses and even send stimulus checks directly to U.S. citizens.

March 18: Governor Walz orders all bars, restaurants, coffee shops in the state closed to the public.

Minnesota Governor Tim Walz has announced that, starting Tuesday at 5:00 p.m., bars, restaurants, coffee shops, breweries, and other dine-in venues will be temporarily closed to help curb the spread of the novel coronavirus, COVID-19.

Venues with the capacity to serve to-go meals and beverages or to deliver their products will be able to do so. The closure runs until 5:00 pm on March 27, but is likely to be extended. Walz said at a press conference related to the executive emergency order, “Most of us understand there will probably be a further extension.”

The order does not include grocery stores, convenience stores, or pharmacies, said the governor, who is working to bolster the state’s unemployment insurance program to assist affected workers and employers.

Strategies for containment are evolving, with new suggestions and orders arising almost daily. The Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) recommends postponing or canceling events where 50 or more people would gather and events that would involve those who are at a heightened risk for severe illness from COVID-19, such as older people with underlying health conditions.

The MDH recommends that people engage in social distancing when out in public, which means maintaining a distance of at least six feet from others.

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