As state pleaded for people to stay home, courts kept ordering evictions in Minnesota

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At a time when state health officials were begging people to stay home to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, Jenni Bruce answered her door to find two sheriff’s deputies from Hennepin County who told her she was being evicted.

"He hands me a paper, it’s [said] you have to leave in 24 hours and I’m like, ‘what?’" she said.

Bruce’s eviction notice on March 15 was one of 243 filed in Hennepin and Ramsey counties after the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus a pandemic, according to court records reviewed by 5 INVESTIGATES.

On Monday, Gov. Tim Walz signed an executive order suspending all evictions.

He was lobbied to take such action by housing attorneys and tenant advocates because eviction hearings continued even as courtrooms across the state started shutting down earlier this month.

"You can’t have evictions going on while also telling people it would be a good idea to stay home," said Luke Grundman, managing attorney at Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid.

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As state officials took drastic measures to mitigate the viral outbreak, including an advertising campaign called "Stay Home Minnesota," sheriff’s deputies continued to show up on doorsteps, ordering people from their homes, according to an internal document from the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office.

Rob Allen, the sheriff’s chief of staff, said in an email that the office was challenged by state law, "which requires the sheriff to comply with all writs issued by the court," and that they notified the court if a family was being displaced.

"If evictions had continued, there would have been people who would have died unnecessarily because of this virus," Grundman said.

The governor’s executive order puts all eviction proceedings on hold. On Tuesday, Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison said his office will prosecute landlords under the order if need be.

"I hope all landlords rise to this moment and do right by people," Ellison said in a statement. "But my office will use our full powers to enforce it and protect Minnesotans if any tenants are wrongly evicted during the emergency."

Bruce and her two children are still in their Minneapolis apartment. But she said she is worried about what comes next.

"It’s still a panic," she said. "Got some weight still left on the shoulders about how far this is going to go."

Walz and Ellison both reiterated that tenants are still required to pay rent under the executive order. Walz is asking the legislature for an additional $10 million in rental assistance.

Bruce’s property manager didn’t return requests for comment.