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Critics say Gov. Walz’s fall youth sports restrictions driven by politics, pointing to emails

(The Center Square) – Critics of Minnesota’s COVID-19 youth sports restrictions are questioning whether politics or actual science spurred tighter restrictions last fall after the advocacy group Let Them Play Minnesota released a series of internal emails.

“(Gov. Tim Walz) made an ask this morning on the daily call about what data we could provide to help articulate the need to hit a pause on youth sports,” assistant health commissioner Margaret Kelly wrote in a Nov. 18 email. “Sounds like he is starting to get a lot of pushback. Specifically, he is wondering if we can help connect the dots between attending a youth sporting event and then showing up for work at a LTC (long-term care facility) or going to the bar and then to work at LTC.”

Minnesota health officials say the pause in play was necessary to control COVID-19 outbreaks. But in a post-election email, government officials also linked COVID-19 restrictions to losses in the state DFL-controlled House.

“The election, particularly the loss of six DFL seats in the House, was in part a referendum on our guidance and sports was part of that,” Laura Oliven, a COVID-19 response manager, wrote.

Another spokesperson emphasized the need to tie youth sports directly to LTC COVID-19 outbreaks.

“As [people] push back on youth sports and whether they really need to be ended … we need to more explicitly tie youth sports to LTC. People are going to youth sports, sitting in bleachers, eating popcorn and talking with people around them, cheering, then maybe stopping at a restaurant or bar on the way home, then going to jobs in LTC the following day,” Kate Brickman said in an email to other spokespeople. 

Senate Health committee chairwoman Michelle Benson, R-Ham Lake, criticized the email’s plan.

“This is not the way it’s supposed to work at all,” Benson said. “We are in the middle of recovering from a pandemic and now we’re finding out that in November it was, ‘There are deaths in long-term care, let’s find somebody to blame and get the data to support it.'”

The Minnesota Department of Health didn’t respond to a request for comment by publication.

Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said her agency had slowed COVID-19 spread by shutting down sports in November when Minnesota’s case rapidly increased.

“There’s always a problem with prevention,” Malcolm said. “You can never prove that because something didn’t happen, it was because of the prevention actions that were taken.”

This month, health officials lifted their mask requirement for athletes playing outdoor spring sports.

More than 6,700 Minnesotans have died from COVID-19 as a sole or contributing factor.

DFL lawmakers defended the safety precautions.

“It’s ridiculous that having these kids in a spot where they’re healthy isn’t as important as letting them play,” said state Sen. Jason Isaacson, DFL-Shoreview. “The argument I’m hearing today is disgusting, and I’m very disappointed.”


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