Editorial Roundup: Minnesota

Minneapolis Star Tribune. September 8, 2021.

Editorial: Consider COVID tests part of your duty to others

Minnesota has prioritized no-cost, convenient options, and regular testing is key to controlling spread.

Those who enjoyed the 2021 Minnesota State Fair now have a responsibility to ensure that they didn’t bring home an unwanted souvenir: COVID-19. That means getting tested soon for the virus.

Yes, the fair’s attractions are mainly enjoyed outdoors. But the crowding and lack of a mask requirement made this a risky setting with the highly transmissible delta variant spreading.

Ideally, all of the 1.3 million in attendance this year would soon seek out a COVID test to prevent their fair visit from fueling a fall surge. The optimal timeframe: three to five days after attending, even if you’ve been vaccinated.

While it’s unrealistic to expect that all fairgoers will do this, it’s important to point out that attending big events like the State Fair, football games or concerts requires responsible follow-up. Getting tested is a critical part of that obligation. Fortunately, COVID testing opportunities are abundant across the state. And just like the sporks, lip balm and other free fair swag, opportunities abound for a no-cost test.

That’s good news because with school, sports and other fall activities getting underway, it’s not just fairgoers who need to act responsibility. All Minnesotans need to ensure that they don’t inadvertently spread COVID. In addition to vaccination, distancing and masking, that includes regular testing of yourself and your family.

The Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) has an excellent online overview of who should get tested and when. In addition to those attending a high-risk activity, it includes anyone with symptoms (even with prior COVID infection) and anyone who has had contact with someone who tested positive, regardless of vaccination status (due to breakthrough infection risk). MDH also has more tailored advice for travelers, the immunocompromised and those who aren’t yet fully vaccinated but are in frequent contact with others.

At-home tests are now available from retailers but often in short supply. They also can be pricey — typically starting at around $15 to $20 per test. Fortunately, there’s a free, at-home alternative in Minnesota.

The state’s pioneering partnership with VAULT Medical Services means that Minnesota residents can order an at-home test online at no-cost. The saliva test kit is sent via expedited shipping and comes with prepaid UPS label to send the sample back to the lab. Results are available 24-48 hours after its arrival there. Children and adults can use the test, and there’s no limit on how many you can order over time.

There’s another “low-barrier, no-cost” COVID test option for those who don’t want to wait for a test to be delivered — Minnesota’s Community Testing Program sites. Locations include the Twin Cities airport, the Minneapolis Convention Center, Roy Wilkins auditorium in St. Paul, the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center, a former elementary school in Moorhead, the armories in Mankato and St. Cloud, as well as the Winona Mall.

“All costs for this test are covered by your insurance company or the federal or state government,” according to MDH. If you’re uninsured, or “for any reason insurance does not cover some or all of the cost, the state will cover the difference so testing remains available at no cost to everyone.”

Walk-ins are welcome, though scheduling an appointment is recommended. Same-day testing appointments were available at many sites this week.

Of course, testing is still offered by hospitals, clinics, pharmacies, as well as some private testing firms. Consumers considering these options should check ahead of time with their health insurer to see if these tests are covered.

The state’s COVID response has commendably prioritized making no-cost testing convenient and widely available. Testing options and aid are also available for the state’s K-12 schools. “There’s a much broader testing ecosystem than was available last fall,″ said MDH Assistant Commissioner Dan Huff.

There’s no excuse not to get tested. Doing so regularly will play a vital role in vanquishing the virus.

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St. Cloud Times. September 10, 2021.

Editorial: Without record retention penalties, law enforcement operates without accountability

In June 2020, the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of journalists who were targeted and attacked by police while performing their work in Minneapolis, covering protests after the killing of George Floyd.

The lawsuit was filed against the city of Minneapolis, the Minnesota State Patrol and Minneapolis police.

According to court records of testimony in the case released earlier this month was this troubling fact: The Minnesota State Patrol promptly purged emails and text messages immediately after protests last year.

Seems a little strange, doesn’t it?

The lawsuit alleges police tear-gassed, pepper-sprayed, shot in the face with rubber bullets, arrested without cause and threatened journalists at gunpoint, all after the journalists identified themselves and were clearly engaged in their reporting duties.

When journalists are prevented from doing their job at the hands of government agencies, the First Amendment right of a free press is in jeopardy.

Under accusations that members of the State Patrol physically attacked journalists during the unrest following Floyd’s murder, purging communications seems a counterintuitive act. Those communications, after all, could presumably have served to demonstrate that members of the patrol acted in accordance with their duties.

If they did not act within the scope of their jobs, getting rid of the communications will hamper efforts to hold them to account.

During a July 28 hearing, State Patrol Maj. Joseph Dwyer testified that he and a “vast majority of the agency” deleted messages after the protests and riots.

Minnesota’s Data Practices Act regulates “the collection, creation, storage, maintenance, dissemination and access to government data in government entities.” The law establishes a presumption that government data are public and are accessible by the public for both inspection and copying unless there is federal law, a state statute, or a temporary classification of data that provides that certain data are not public.

That law’s presumption of public access is rooted in the very simplest of concepts: Government works on behalf of the people, so its records belong to the people. Those records must be created, retained and made available for the public’s use unless there is a very compelling reason to withhold, under Minnesota law.

Why, then, did the patrol’s records disappear?

State Patrol spokesman Bruce Gordon told the Star Tribune that officers follow all requirements for retaining data, but that he couldn’t comment further due to the pending lawsuit.

Lawyers for the ACLU argued to a judge that “the purge was neither accidental, automated, nor routine. The purge did not happen because of a file destruction or retention policy. No one reviewed the purged communications before they were deleted to determine whether the materials were relevant to this litigation.”

Under Minnesota law, law enforcement text messages and emails are considered records of official activity, according to Don Gemberling, spokesman for the nonprofit Minnesota Coalition on Government Information. Such messages can only legally be deleted under a schedule approved by a state records retention panel, he said.

During a hearing on the lawsuit, however, a patrol major testified that it is “standard practice” for such messages to be deleted after a major event. He also testified that individual officers decide when to delete such messages.

“What they’ve done raises a whole lot of questions,” Gemberling said.

If the patrol followed the agency’s and the state’s data retention rules — and it looks as if a court will referee that debate — then stronger, more specific rules are needed and lawmakers need to create them. And tough penalties for violation, up to and including loss of a peace officer’s license, need to be imposed for violations.

Members of law enforcement do hard jobs that subject them to scrutiny. They do those jobs on behalf of the people. Transparency is how the people come to trust that they’re doing those jobs as fairly, conservatively and as well as possible.

Lack of transparency — professional insularity — breeds suspicion even where there is no wrongdoing. And it creates a divide between the public employees and the very public those employees serve.

That divide has proven deadly to both officers and civilians across America in the recent past. Why would we not do everything possible to close it?

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Mankato Free Press. September 13, 2021.

Editorial: Climbing rate of hate crimes affects all of us

Hate crimes across the country and much of Minnesota are climbing and all of us — no matter where we live, our skin color, ethnicity, religion or gender identity — need to be aware and work to keep the statistics from escalating.

The FBI’s recently released annual hate crime report reflected a 6% increase in hate crimes in 2020 compared to the previous year. That adds up to nearly 7,800 criminal incidents known to have been motivated at least in part by bias and is the highest number reported since 2018.

Fortunately, south-central Minnesota saw a dip in reported hate crimes. Last year 11 bias crimes were reported in the area compared to 17 in 2019. (The region includes the counties of Blue Earth, Nicollet, Le Sueur, Waseca, Brown, Sibley, Watonwan and Faribault.)

However, that doesn’t mean area residents should pretend that hate crimes don’t happen in their backyard. Any such crime is one too many. As Mankato Public Safety Deputy Director Matt DuRose said: “Our community can do much better than the seven that were reported. I would like to see our number as zero, and I think we could get there in the future.”

And sometimes low numbers may be too good to be true. The FBI reports have long drawn concern that they significantly underreport hate crimes. Law enforcement agencies are not required to participate and nearly 3,500 departments didn’t last year. The fact more than 60 jurisdictions with populations over 100,000 affirmatively reported zero hate crimes is simply not credible, says the Anti-Defamation League.

Minnesota’s hate crime reporting system varies from the FBI protocol a bit so that it had 223 incidents in 2020, which is 29 more than in the federal report. So varying reporting requirements, uneven participation and subjective interpretation by those taking reports can make the reports more unreliable than ideal. But they do, at least, offer a glimpse of what is going on in parts of the country — and in some cases indicate what isn’t being acknowledged when no reports are filed year after year.

The country has a long way to go when it comes to eliminating hate crimes. An attack on a Hmong Cultural Center in St. Paul last week was visible proof of that. The words “Life, Liberty, Victory,” a phrase associated with a white nationalist hate group, was written on the paint that the vandals applied to cover up Black artwork. And on Friday a threat of violence closed a St. Louis Park synagogue.

Communities need to keep reporting such crimes and set high expectations that law enforcement will take them seriously and report the incidents at both the state and federal levels.

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