ST. PAUL — Minnesota's unemployment rate in April was more than two-and-a-half-times what it was in April 2019, according to data released by the state's Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) on Thursday, May 21.
The newly released data paints a grim picture of the coronavirus pandemic's toll on the economy, with April being the first full month of data available since Minnesotans' worlds turned upside down in March. The state's April 2020 seasonally adjusted unemployment rate was 8.1%, compared to 3.1% in 2019, showing a five percentage-point change.
"While the COVID-19 pandemic has challenged our state in many ways, we continue to work closely with our state agency partners and health, business and labor leaders to reopen Minnesota businesses, safely return more people to work, and stem the tide of COVID-19 on our economy," DEED Commissioner Steve Grove said in a Thursday statement.
Although the spike is dramatic from last year's numbers, Thursday's data does show that Minnesota's workforce has braved the storm better compared to much of the country: Nationwide, the United States' unemployment rate was 14.7% in April 2020, compared to 3.3% in April 2019.
Minnesota is also faring better than neighboring states. North Dakota's unemployment rate in April 2020 was 8.5%, compared to 2.3% the same month last year — a more than six percentage-point difference. And South Dakota, despite Gov. Kristi Noem never ordering businesses to close or residents to stay at home for the pandemic, had the highest unemployment rate in April of the three states: 10.2%, compared to 3.2% in April 2019, a difference of seven percentage points.
Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz first declared a peacetime emergency in March, and subsequently ordered non-essential businesses to shut their doors to in-person patrons and Minnesotans to stay home except for essential work and travel. As of Thursday, DEED reports that over 695,000 Minnesotans applied for unemployment benefits from March 16 to May 20.
Thursday's numbers come out as church leaders and restaurant owners have increased pressure on Walz to hasten the reopening process in the state. Catholic and Missouri Synod Lutheran leaders in Minnesota this week vowed to resume church services despite Walz's orders to the contrary, and restaurants have voiced frustration and confusion over Walz's orders to remain shuttered except for takeout until June 1, and even then, to only serve patrons in outdoor dining settings. The back-and-forth has ultimately resulted in lawsuits and threats to sue, and a spar between Republican state legislators and the executive branch.
At a Thursday news conference in St. Paul, Rep. Dave Baker, R-Willmar, a restaurant operator himself, said he gives Walz credit for acting early and "set(ting) the stage for Minnesotans to be safe, to know what social distancing means, and to help us understand as business owners what we can do to be helpful, but to also be very safe."
But weeks of reduced profits in an already volatile business can drive many restaurants under, he said, and "the goal posts keep moving a little bit ... the rules seem to be getting more confusing."
Joining Baker was Michael Asp, the owner of La Grolla restaurant in St. Paul. He said Walz's newly announced rules are simply too restrictive, and for some restaurants arbitrary. He said "winners and losers have been chosen" thanks to restrictions like outdoor-only seating, as many restaurants don't have the accommodations. And ultimately, he said restaurants will take the right precautions for their establishments because customers won't come if they don't feel safe.