As economy continues to reopen, Duluth moves to 'normalize' masks

Person wearing mask holds sign that reads "free face masks"
Ivy Vainio holds up a sign advertising free face masks in the parking lot of the Holy Family Catholic Church in Duluth during a free face mask distribution event organized by the Duluth NAACP. Vainio is the organization's communications co-chair and an executive committee member.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

For Duluth Mayor Emily Larson, wearing a mask is not something that comes easily. 

“It's really uncomfortable to wear a mask. I don't like it,” she admitted.

“Everything about my job is a really human interaction. Seeing people's faces, understanding where people are at, that's a huge part of what I do. And I don't like the barrier it sets up." 

Still, the second-term mayor believes it's really important to wear one. Duluth still hasn't felt the full impact of the coronavirus, she said. 

"It is literally devastating to think about what is going to come, and I do believe that we will lose hundreds of Duluthians,” she said. “Maybe wearing my mask won't prevent all of that. But if I can help people get more comfortable with it, collectively we can have an impact." 

Person sitting in car with window open talks to person offering masks.
Grace Kirk (right) talks to Andrea Gelb (left), a Duluth NAACP executive committee member, during a free face mask distribution event organized by the Duluth NAACP May 20, 2020, near the parking lot of the Holy Family Catholic Church in Duluth.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

On Wednesday, Minnesota will reopen several sectors of the economy that had been shuttered in the early weeks of the coronavirus pandemic. This week, residents will once again be able to eat inside a restaurant, go to a movie and visit the gym, as the state moves to further open up the economy.

Gov. Tim Walz said that reopening comes with increased personal responsibility — to maintain social distancing and to wear masks — to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

But, unlike the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, Duluth is not requiring people to wear masks in public places other than Duluth City Hall, which reopened on a limited basis this week. 

Instead, Larson is at the forefront of a citywide campaign to normalize mask-wearing. For example, the city has partnered with the school district and other community organizations to challenge kids to design masks they’d like to wear. 

Mandating mask-wearing, she explained, didn't seem like the best approach for Duluth, in part because it would be tricky to enforce. 

But Jane Jenkins, who owns a shop that sells kitchen and housewares, wishes the city would just require them. 

People at a table picking up small bags of face masks.
Ivy Vainio (left), communications co-chair of the Duluth NAACP and executive committee member, hands free face masks to Keith Harris (right) and Derrick Tyler (center) during a free distribution event in May.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

"So it wouldn’t be me stopping people at my door or hoping other small businesses do the same when I’m out,” she said. “I think it will be safer for all of us to be wearing them right now."

Jenkins is telling shoppers they need to put on a mask before entering her store. But down the hall of the Dewitt-Seitz Building in Duluth’s Canal Park district, Sandra Rothman is taking a different approach at her small gift shop.

"It's kind of everyone’s own decision. I prefer somebody wears a mask, but I don’t want to say you have to wear it,” said Rothman, who at 75 knows she’s at higher risk if she gets COVID-19. 

She said the first weekend she opened she gave away about 100 masks to shoppers. 

"I've had a couple people just say, ‘Oh, it doesn’t say I have to wear a mask,’” she said. “And I say, ‘But I have one here, why don’t you put this on while you’re in here, and it would just be protecting everybody.’”

Person reflected in a car sideview mirror as another person stands nearby.
Lynn Goerdt (left) talks to Angie Ramirez (right, reflected in mirror) during a free face mask distribution event organized by the Duluth NAACP.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

She said most people were happy to put on a mask. But some have turned around and walked away. 

“They didn’t want to do it,” she said. 

For some, wearing a mask has become a political statement. Larson said some see it as a sign of weakness. 

But around Duluth, it's businesses that seem to set the standard.

Some chain stores require masks, including Menard’s, the big home improvement retailer. 

Last month a mask-less shopper in Mankato reportedly slapped a Menards employee for asking her to leave. Spokesperson Jeff Abbott said that while “a few people just don’t get it, the response has been overwhelmingly positive and thankful.”

Most grocery stores require employees to wear masks, and many shoppers follow suit. But it's much more up in the air in a lot of smaller stores. 

That's frustrating for Dr. Andrea Boehland, an emergency room physician with Essentia Health in Duluth. While scientists are still learning a lot about COVID-19, she said, the science around mask-wearing has become clear: They do help slow the spread of the virus. 

Person hands a brown bag to someone in a car.
Andrea Gelb, Duluth NAACP executive committee member, hands out face masks to a driver in May.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

"A tricky thing about COVID is that you can be contagious and give the disease to someone else before you even know you're sick,” she explained. “Or you might even never feel sick yourself and still be contagious."

Masks, she said, prevent spit or air or germs from your mouth from getting out in the room, where other people could inhale them. 

"So really, it's very much a kindness to the people around you to wear a mask,” she said. “And I wish that we could get that message out." 

Some organizations around Duluth are trying to promote the message. 

Essentia Health and St. Luke's collected over 10,000 masks for patients, staff and visitors to their hospitals. And the Duluth chapter of the NAACP has handed out thousands of free masks at weekly events in different neighborhoods. 

A mask made fabric printed with Black Panther logo.
One of the free face masks being handed out by the Duluth chapter of the NAACP features the Black Panther logo.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

On a recent evening at a parking lot on the city’s west side, volunteers handed out hand-sewn masks in individual plastic bags to a steady stream of people. Some drove through in their cars, others walked over, including Angie Johnson, who stopped by to pick up masks for her six kids. 

“I want to make sure that when we go out in public, my children don’t get sick — and if they are sick, they don’t pass it on,” she said. 

The NAACP has held these events every week for more than two months. And the community demand hasn’t subsided, said volunteer Lynn Goerdt, who teaches social work at the University of Wisconsin-Superior. 

“Every week we give away hundreds of masks,” she said. “That kind of blows my mind, but it is very true. The need is still there.”

Goerdt and Abbey DeLisle, who’s studying to be a physician’s assistant at the College of St. Scholastica, hold up signs on the side of the street, flagging down drivers to pick up free masks. 

DeLisle said she’s volunteering her time handing out masks not to make some kind of political statement, or because of any city mandates — but to keep her community safe.

"It’s important to not live in fear but to empower the community,” she said. “And I think we’re doing that with the masks, and by normalizing it, more people will feel like they can wear the masks in public.” 

Person holding up a bag of masks while standing near a road.
Andrea Gelb (foreground) and Ivy Vainio hand out free face masks in Duluth in May.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

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