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Meridian Manor, a 50-bed assisted-living facility in Wayzata, shut its doors Monday after COVID-19 swept through the home.

The Minnesota Department of Health has proposed delaying for one year implementation of new rules designed to protect thousands of seniors who live in lightly regulated assisted-living facilities — citing an urgent need to focus on fighting the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Since early 2018, the main state regulator of senior care has supported a plan to establish licensing and minimum standards of care for the state’s 1,700 assisted-living facilities, which are home to more than 50,000 Minnesota seniors.

The push to regulate these facilities was set in motion last spring, following years of grassroots organizing by senior advocacy groups, who called attention to alarming conditions in many of these homes and numerous incidents of abuse and preventable deaths from neglect.

Now, state Health Department officials say their priority has shifted toward responding to COVID-19, the respiratory disease that has killed 233 Minnesotans in long-term care facilities since early March. As of Tuesday, 77% of the deaths from the virus have been in such facilities.

The agency has recommended pushing back licensing of assisted-living facilities until August 2022. “By extending the implementation date of the assisted living licensure, we can help ensure that care facilities stay focused on prevention and response rather than shifting resources to adopt and comply with new regulatory requirements,” the agency said in a statement.

The proposed delay, which still must be approved by the Legislature, was immediately assailed by one of the senior advocacy groups that played a pivotal role last year in crafting landmark protections for seniors.

Leaders of Elder Voice Family Advocates, a volunteer organization, said the decision was dangerous and would delay regulations, such as new infection control and safety measures, that would protect vulnerable seniors during a pandemic.