MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — In his third State of the State address Sunday night, Gov. Tim Walz urged Minnesotans to get vaccinated to beat the pandemic, and pleaded for calm ahead of Derek Chauvin’s trial for George Floyd’s death.

The governor spoke from his former social studies classroom at Mankato West High School, after his speech was postponed following a 10-day quarantine because of a COVID-19 exposure two weeks ago.

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The space served as a symbol, Walz said, of the progress Minnesota has made over the course of the last year of the pandemic, which has upended everything about daily life. Vaccinations are on the rise, some restrictions are lifting, and many of Minnesota’s children are back in the classroom in some way.

“When I have been asked what I am most looking forward to when the pandemic is over, I’ve answered: hearing the laughter of students in a lively school hallway,” Walz said. “That day is here, Minnesota. Brighter days are here and even more are coming.”

The governor asked Minnesotans to get their shot as soon as they can. On Tuesday, anyone 16 or older will become eligible several weeks ahead of schedule. More than 1.5 million people have at least one dose, according to state data.

“This is our goal line stand,” Walz said, a nod to his former football coaching days. “Get vaccinated. We’re coming back.”

(credit: CBS)

But Walz still remains cautious, as his administration monitors the COVID variants circulating the state. He said it’s not the time to let up on precautions like masking, social distancing and testing.

“We must remain vigilant,” he said.

Just last year during the same annual address to Minnesotans, the governor warned the pandemic would be like weathering a long winter, the likes of which the state had never seen.

On Sunday, he acknowledged the immense suffering COVID-19 has wrought: people in isolation, businesses shuttered, more than 500,000 Minnesotans sickened and nearly 7,000 lives lost.

But this year, a new sense of optimism that the end is near.

“Normalcy is on the horizon, and Minnesotans are eager to embrace the simple pleasures of life,” Walz said. “You took actions, large and small, to protect and support your neighbors.”

Ahead of Chauvin trial, a plea for nonviolent protest

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Walz delivered his 20-minute address on the eve of opening statements in the trial of Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer facing murder charges for George Floyd’s death, which sparked protests across the nation.

The governor invoked the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. — who spoke at Mankato West High School in 1961 — in his plea for calm ahead of the high-profile court case proceedings. Protestors gathered Sunday afternoon outside of the Hennepin County Government Center, where the trial will take place, and there was a rally and prayer vigil Sunday night.

“Please, Minnesotans, make your voices heard. Practice your First Amendment right — but please heed Dr. King’s advice that nonviolence is the only way to truly move hearts and create change,” Walz said.

He touted the police accountability bill approved last summer by the legislature and vowed it was a just first step to combatting racial inequalities in Minnesota.

Walz boasts budget that ‘levels the playing field;’ GOP pushes back on tax hikes

The governor also highlighted his sweeping two-year budget plan, which includes cash payments for struggling families, some tax relief for small businesses that received PPP loans and a boost in education dollars.

His $53.3 billion revised proposal still calls for tax increases, which tees up a battle in the divided legislature over the details of the next state spending plan.

Republicans say they have drawn a line in the sand: no tax hikes. Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, doubled down on that message during his rebuttal to the governor’s remarks. He also called on the governor to relinquish his emergency powers, which allow him to close businesses, schools and make other orders during the pandemic.

“We’re asking the governor for clear guidance of when he will lift the emergency powers,” Gazelka said in a video. “We think they should have lifted long ago. But when will he do it? We will pass this budget we will do it without raising taxes. I think that’s the clear benchmark that we put down.”

Gazelka said he is hopeful about the pace of vaccinations across Minnesota, especially among seniors, who have been some of the most vulnerable to COVID-19.

Meanwhile, DFL leaders in a statement praised Walz for his decisions while steering the state through the challenging year.

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“Minnesotans have been through a challenging year filled with sadness and loss, but we remain resilient and hopeful for the future,” said Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park. “I’m grateful to Governor Walz and his administration for their leadership throughout this pandemic.”

Caroline Cummings