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Minnesota lawmakers retool service amid pandemic

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Here are some of the options for communicating with officials. 

 

The state and federal Capitols are effectively closed to the public. Town halls are off the table. Public hearings and meetings with lawmakers are curtailed. With corona­virus restrictions sweeping the nation, some Minnesotans may wonder how to stay in touch with elected officials working to address the crisis.

Lawmakers say offices remain open — at least virtually — to all Minnesotans. Many are turning to conference calls, video streams and social media to share updates and answer questions about a rapidly changing situation. Here’s a look at options for communicating with officials

Use the phone (or laptop)

Lawmakers and their staff may not be at the office, but they are still responding to constituent concerns. U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s office saw an uptick in calls, leading staff to help “navigate health care, unemployment and any housing needs that may arise.”

State lawmakers are taking a similar approach: “Technology makes me available to the public without putting anyone at risk,” said Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake. “Our phones are still available, voice mails will be answered. You can send us e-mail, you can text me. I’ll be on Facebook and I’ll be on Twitter and I think that’s what you’ll find from all the legislators.”

Watch for tele-town halls.

Tele-town halls, which allow thousands of people to listen in via a conference line, were already a popular tool for lawmakers looking to communicate with constituents when they were stuck in Washington. Now, some lawmakers are using the technology to share information about the pandemic.

U.S. Rep. Dean Phillips partnered with U.S. Sen. Tina Smith, both Democrats, to host a coronavirus briefing call with more than 8,000 Minnesotans. U.S. Rep. Angie Craig held a call of her own.

Some are hosting conference calls targeting specific groups hit by the crisis. Republican Rep. Pete Stauber held a call with veteran service officers from across his northern Minnesota district. GOP Rep. Jim Hagedorn attended virtual meetings with farmers and small business owners.

Get social (media)

Virtually all lawmakers are using social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, to provide fast updates to the public. Rep. Ilhan Omar has hosted live video updates on Facebook and Instagram. She’s also tweeting in Somali to reach a range of residents in her Minneapolis district. State senators have hosted Facebook town halls as well.

Sign up for e-mail updates

Many elected officials send occasional e-mail newsletters to constituents, providing status updates on key legislation, recaps of meetings and notices of upcoming events. Amid the crisis, those messages are now largely focused on the coronavirus. Check lawmakers’ websites for a sign-up link.

Watch the mailbox

Even with the technology, it can prove difficult to reach high-risk groups such as elderly Minnesotans or those living in rural areas. GOP Rep. Tom Emmer is sending print mail and running radio ads across his district, in addition to e-mails and social posts.