ST. PAUL — The state of Minnesota is strong and on the verge of a comeback following a year of grappling with the COVID-19 pandemic, Gov. Tim Walz said Sunday, March 28, during his State of the State address.

During a live broadcast from his former social studies classroom in Mankato, the first-term DFL governor said the state was making strides to return to normalcy following COVID-19 but Minnesotans needed to remain diligent a little longer as variants of the illness continue to spread in Minnesota.

The governor touted the state's efforts to roll out COVID-19 vaccines, noting that 1.5 million had received a dose so far and 80% of Minnesota seniors and two-thirds of school and child care staff had gotten a shot. And he said sectors that had been shut down due to COVID-19 like schools, restaurants and other places of public amusement had moved closer to fully reopening.

"Brighter days are here, and even more are coming. We are winning the fight against COVID-19," he said. "Normalcy is on the horizon, and Minnesotans are eager to embrace the simple pleasures of life."

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The comments came days after Walz announced that all Minnesotans 16 and older would become eligible for a COVID-19 vaccination starting Tuesday, though the wait to get one might take weeks. The governor noted that his speech had to be delayed a week after he went into a 10-day quarantine following a news conference where Walz was in a room with a staff member who later tested positive for COVID-19.

GOP leaders on Sunday said they too were hopeful about the state's path out of the pandemic and again issued calls to drop the state's peacetime emergency to combat COVID-19.

"The good news is that we have a lot of hope and Minnesotans should know that we are moving in the right direction. We have focused on the things we need to get done, and now we're asking the governor for clear guidance on when he will lift the emergency powers," Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, said. "We think they should have been lifted long ago, but when will he do it?"

Legislative efforts to end the state's peacetime emergency and, by extension, the governor's emergency powers, fell short on several occasions over the last year. And the courts have so far upheld the governor's authority to call the peacetime emergency and to enact policy without legislative approval.

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Walz and health officials said the administration's emergency orders helped prevent broader infections, hospitalizations and deaths from the illness. House Speaker Melissa Hortman, D-Brooklyn Park, on Sunday said the administration's work and "the work of Minnesotans to protect each other saved countless lives and put us in a position to quickly rebuild from COVID."

The governor thanked Minnesotans on Sunday for enduring the hardships of the pandemic and the state's efforts to curb it over the last year and credited them with making sacrifices that limited COVID-19 cases and deaths.

"In my State of the State speech last year, I said that Minnesota wouldn’t just survive this crisis, we would lead through it. And with championship-worthy grit, resilience, and teamwork, that’s exactly what we’ve done," Walz said.

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Walz also called for peaceful demonstrations in the Twin Cities ahead of the start of the trial of a former Minneapolis police officer and urged lawmakers to make broader changes to make Minnesota more equitable for people of color and those living in Greater Minnesota communities.

George Floyd's death under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer turned the international spotlight to the state, Walz said, and "our deep racial inequities were exposed for the world to see."

"As many Minnesotans welcome getting back to normal, we must acknowledge this and recognize that for too many getting back to normal isn’t good enough," he said. "Minnesota can and will emerge stronger from this crisis than ever before. The state of our state is strong, Minnesota. This is our goal-line stand."

Follow Dana Ferguson on Twitter @bydanaferguson, call 651-290-0707 or email dferguson@forumcomm.com