MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — Gov. Tim Walz on Friday said he will relinquish pandemic powers by Aug. 1, ending the peacetime emergency that’s been in effect since last March.

“That’s when the toolbox will close,” Walz said of ending the COVID emergency. “Basically at this point in time it’s turning off the lights and sweeping the floor.”

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But Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, told reporters soon after Walz spoke that Republicans would be amending a budget bill funding state government to end the state of emergency on July 1. The GOP for months has sought to limit Walz’s special emergency authority during the COVID-19 response.

“It is time,” he said of the powers, citing other states that are doing the same.

An additional provision would reduce fines against businesses that flouted COVID-19 restrictions outlined in the governor’s executive orders. Those businesses would effectively receive a refund if the fines levied by the court exceeded $1,000. Republicans had previously pushed to waive all penalties.

The Senate approved the changes Friday, though Gazelka said they are not a part of the broader budget agreement with the DFL House and the governor.

“This is not something that we have to or need to negotiate with the governor,” Gazelka said. “This is a legislative prerogative and so we’re moving forward with that.”

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The Director of Homeland Security & Emergency Management Joe Kelly wrote a letter to Gazelka dated Thursday detailing why the governor should hold onto the emergency powers through next month. He said the executive order allows the Department of Employment and Economic Development to process unemployment insurance claims more quickly, and maintains Minnesota’s ability to tap into federal emergency SNAP benefits.

“Extending the peacetime emergency into August would provide certainty that Minnesotans will continue to receive benefits in August and September,” the letter says. “This amounts to $90 million in emergency SNAP benefits for the neediest Minnesotans.”

Walz also said it takes time to move 500 state employees back to their traditional roles after they were reassigned to help respond to the pandemic. Kelly in his letter said the Minnesota Department of Health estimates it will take all of July to make that transition.

“An earlier termination would hamstring MDH’s COVID-19 response, removing staff members from critical vaccination, testing, data reporting, and other functions,” the letter says.

Many parts of the original executive order are no longer effective, like the mask mandate or capacity or distancing restrictions on businesses and large gatherings. Those were among the most contentious requirements for the last year and a half.

Walz first declared the peacetime emergency last March and has since sought to renew the powers every 30 days.

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The legislature has agreed to a plan to phase-out the state’s eviction ban, another hotly contested provision. The proposal would create an “off-ramp” allowing evictions to resume 105 days after it’s signed into law.

Caroline Cummings