ST. PAUL — Minneapolis Federal Reserve Bank President Neel Kashkari on Tuesday, Feb. 2, told lawmakers that widespread vaccination will help bring the state's economy closer to pre-pandemic levels, though permanent changes are likely to take hold after nearly one year of combating the virus in Minnesota.
Kashkari said that the rollout of vaccinations against COVID-19 should be viewed as a constructive step in combating the disease but business owners and lawmakers need to accept that "the virus is still in charge of the economy" for now.
“We just need as many Americans and as many Minnesotans as possible to be vaccinated so that we can have confidence and so we can restore much of the economy back to the way it was,” Kashkari said. ”The sooner we can get the vast majority of Minnesotans and the vast majority of Americans vaccinated, the sooner we’ll be able to get back to normal.”
So far, 447,610 Minnesotans have received one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine and 116, 928 have had two vaccines, completing the vaccine series. And on Monday, the Minnesota Department of Health announced that it would set aside 35,000 doses for adults aged 65 and older and open new clinics to administer the shots.
In Minnesota and beyond, the prioritization and rollout of the vaccines have spurred debates about who should be first to get an inoculation against the illness and how best to get shots into the arms of residents. And as the state and country gradually press closer to herd immunity, Kashkari said Congress should approve another bill to aid Americans struggling from the impacts of COVID-19 and efforts to slow its spread.
He pointed back to the 2008 economic recession and said federal lawmakers and fiscal policymakers at the time failed to administer enough aid to Americans, slowing the economy's return to normal.
"We cannot have another 10-year recovery, that is far too long. The cost to society and the cost to families is far too steep," Kashkari said. "Right now, this is like a war and I believe we have the capacity to do what we need to win the war."
President Joe Biden and Republicans in Congress on Monday night met to discuss a compromise COVID-19 response package but didn't agree on terms of a negotiated plan. Biden and Congressional Democrats have put forth a $1.9 trillion package, while Republicans have put up a $618 billion plan.
Kashkari also offered key areas where state legislators could provide the biggest leg-up to businesses and to workers coming out of the pandemic: boosting spending for child care and broadband infrastructure, and encouraging business owners to put more money into prospective worker salaries and training.
"I’ve lost my sympathy when businesses say they can’t find workers," Kashkari told the legislative panel. "Usually it’s because they’re not trying very hard."
He said that while state data shows the federal unemployment rate at around 6.7%, that figure is likely closer to 10% as workers have opted out of the workforce entirely.
Sen. Michelle Benson, R-Ham Lake, raised questions though about how much responsibility should fall to business owners when prospective employees come to them unprepared to meet expectations of their jobs. She suggested that lawmakers take a broader look at education and better preparing students to join the economy.
“Exactly how much are employers supposed to do?” Benson said. “Exactly how much are they supposed to be willing to invest in people who didn’t graduate, didn’t learn to read, don’t show up on time? There’s part of an employment gap that has some more fundamental things than training and willingness for an employer to do their part.”