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Coronavirus Outbreak Among Minnesota GOP Deepens Tensions About State's Case Surge

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

An outbreak of coronavirus infections among Republican state lawmakers in Minnesota is deepening tensions about the state's recent case spike. And frustrations are bubbling up as lawmakers debate what to do about those surging COVID-19 cases. Brian Bakst of Minnesota Public Radio reports on the fallout.

BRIAN BAKST, BYLINE: Since November 1, Minnesota has reported almost 89,000 new cases. That's more than a third of the state's confirmed cases for the entire pandemic. At least several are Republicans in the Legislature whose cases might be linked to a post-election celebratory dinner. When those infections began popping up among senators and their staff, only Republicans got a memo warning of the spread. That enraged Senate Minority Leader Susan Kent, who says Minnesota Democrats deserved a heads-up, too.

SUSAN KENT: It leaves us in the dark and not able to make informed decisions on behalf of ourselves and our families.

BAKST: Kent says the episode sets a bad example in a state already on edge as hospitals fill, schools move to remote learning and more activities get halted.

KENT: Everybody works in a workplace - right? - and they can put themselves in the position of, what if only one group of people got information that would affect all of us? That's not cool, you know?

BAKST: After initially lashing out at people he says were blaming and shaming lawmakers with COVID, Republican Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka changed his tune today. He now acknowledges the dinner event and the information about positive cases could have been handled differently. He committed to doing more to protect Capitol colleagues going forward.

His tone toward the virus has softened after months of confrontations with Democratic Governor Tim Walz over restrictions imposed. Prior to the announcement of his own COVID diagnosis, Gazelka spoke with urgency ahead of a special session last week notable for its lack of acrimony.

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PAUL GAZELKA: And we made sure that we were prepared with beds and for an eventual surge. And, well, the surge is here. And so it's absolutely serious. People need to pay attention to it.

BAKST: For his part, Walz says he hopes to lower the political temperature around the virus and measures to combat it. High on that list is adherence to his mask mandate.

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TIM WALZ: Wear your mask and stay healthy if for no other reason that'll keep you healthy to vote against me in two years, if that's what it takes. Just keep yourself healthy.

BAKST: Minnesota Democratic lawmakers have had a few isolated cases over the months. But some who were at the Capitol last week plan to get tested in light of the Republican outbreak.

For NPR News, I'm Brian Bakst in St. Paul.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE OCTOPUS PROJECT'S "BALTIMORE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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