One Minnesota: Thousands reported on neighbors using tattle-tale hotline during pandemic

The hotline was launched in March 2020 and law enforcement continued to monitor it until November, well after the stay-at-home order ended.

Gov. Tim Walz receives his flu shot in October 2021. (Office of Governor Tim Walz/Flickr)

A hotline set up by Gov. Tim Walz’s administration to monitor compliance with his 2020 stay-at-home order generated thousands of reports from Minnesotans who snitched on their neighbors for things like playing basketball in a park, walking their dogs, and throwing small parties.

The hotline was launched in March 2020 and law enforcement continued to monitor it until November, well after the stay-at-home order ended. In October 2020, it was used to alert authorities to a church service that didn’t fit with the governor’s “legal requirements.” This type of complaint was not uncommon.

People often would send in lists of “non-essential” businesses that remained open or weren’t strictly following masking requirements, according to files from the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA).

BCA said it was tasked with triaging and reporting suspected violations to local authorities.

The “snitch line” quickly came under fire from Republican lawmakers following its launch but Gov. Walz said it was needed to free up 911 lines.

Criticism of the hotline resurfaced last month after the BCA released redacted emails following a data request made by Twin Cities attorney Nathan Hansen.

Matt Birk, a Republican candidate for lieutenant governor, then criticized the hotline on Twitter, claiming it would only continue to divide the state. Three days after his original tweet, Birk reported that “Tim Walz’s ‘snitch line’ has just now been shut down.”

Although the hotline was operational until last month, Kevin Gutknecht with the Minnesota Department of Public Safety (DPS) said the agency had stopped monitoring it in November 2020.

Gutknecht said DPS does not have exact numbers yet, but BCA shared files with Alpha News indicating that approximately 10,000 COVID-related emails passed through the hotline.

“I think we would need to clarify types of emails as well. I suspect a lot of the emails are spam emails, which we know were not generated because of the purpose of the phone line,” Gutknecht said.

The emails

In one email to the hotline, a person reported on “a very large gathering of a pick up basketball game with a lot of observers that easily totaled 30+.” The person also expressed concern that large gatherings could result in a COVID outbreak in the area.

An email to the hotline about a pick-up basketball game.

Someone else reported seeing a Facebook photo of a group of people working out at a local park in Shorewood. “I have a real problem with this and they are inviting more people to join,” the person said.

A Facebook post of a group working out at a local park in Shorewood during the stay-at-home order.

Another complaint reported on people for purchasing non-essential items at a convenience store in White Bear Lake. “Customers are coming and saying, ‘I’m bored and needed to get out of the house.’ They buy lottery tickets, a candy bar, a soda … those items are not ‘essential.'”

An email to the Stay at Home Hotline regarding a convenience store in White Bear Lake.

One email said there were “too many people in Walgreens at once,” a “dental call center [was] still operating,” and “people from Cities [were] going to their cabins.”

In another case, a person reported on a neighbor who had a birthday party at his house and included his name and address.

“12 cars were there. He is a St. Paul police officer and should know better! How dare he put his neighbors at risk?!?!” the person said.

Other people were mad that no one was telling construction workers to “maintain social distancing” and that an insurance agency had three employees in the office who “could be working remotely.”

One person even used the hotline to report on an employee who was “not practicing social distancing and [was] displaying risky behaviors during this crisis.”

One woman complained about her ex-husband for dismissing the pandemic as a “government hoax” and putting their daughter at risk with his “careless actions.”

Not all emails to the hotline were complaints. One resident expressed concerns about how “completely juvenile and unnecessary” the hotline was.

“We are now reporting other adults like tattling little children?” the person emailed. “We don’t need to be policing our peers right now and making things even more divisive towards one another.”

Alpha News contacted the governor’s office but did not receive a response.