In Rochester, a debate over mandatory masks in Med City

A close up of a hand holding a mask.
Gov. Tim Walz gestures with his mask at a press conference inside the Department of Public Safety in April. State officials have been been encouraging Minnesotans to wear masks to help curb the spread of COVID-19 for months, but have stopped short of requiring people to wear them.
Evan Frost | MPR News, Pool file

Last week, Rochester restaurant and bar Forager Brewery held a concert in its courtyard.

Advertisements for the show on social media were clear: Masks must be worn, and everyone is expected to stay 6 feet apart.

But as pictures of the event showed up on social media later, it was clear that those rules weren’t enforced — and people noticed

The event at Forager has in part spurred calls in Rochester for public officials to require masks in businesses. The drumbeat is coming from all corners of the city, but includes members of its massive medical workforce, who point to mounting evidence that wearing masks appears to be an effective way to stop the virus.

“Masks help keep Rochester citizens and the patients and families we care for safe,” Mayo surgeon Dr. Erin O’Brien tweeted. “Time for a city mandate for masks for indoor public spaces.”

Monday afternoon, Rochester’s City Council will consider adding language to the city’s existing COVID-19 executive order to require people to wear masks when they’re inside city facilities. The language also strongly encourages businesses to require people to wear masks — and for people to comply — but stops short of requiring them. 

The debate in Med City is happening as the nation sees a spike in new coronavirus cases, particularly among young people who have been socializing more in warmer weather and as stay-at-home restrictions are easing up. 

Across the nation, masks have increasingly become a politicized symbol of individual freedom, clashing with the advice of public health experts that masks will help everyone avoid getting the virus. 

Person wearing light blue mask with small tan flowers.
Alex Lewis received some new masks during a free face mask distribution event organized by the Duluth NAACP last month. She said she wears the masks because she wants to help protect people in her community as well as those close to her.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

In Minnesota, the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul require people to wear masks inside businesses and other indoor facilities. In Duluth, local officials are hoping to normalize the practice rather than enforce it. 

But officials are under increasing pressure to take a stand on the issue after the Minnesota Medical Association, which represents thousands of practitioners across the state, last week asked for mandatory masking requirements as public health officials track outbreaks in Mankato and in the Twin Cities that have been linked directly to crowded bars

Mask rules in Med City

Since early in the pandemic, Mayo Clinic has required staff and patients to wear masks. The institution has been a leader, too, in the nation’s COVID-19 response, spearheading a convalescent plasma treatment for those fighting the virus, and developing new tests to detect the virus. 

But for some, not mandating masks in the community at large sends the wrong signal to people coming here for treatment. 

“I hope the @CityofRochMN will seriously consider a mask mandate,” wrote emergency physician Dr. Christopher Russi on Twitter. “We need to send a message that the #medcity and its citizens care about visitors and residents that need care. Partner with @MayoClinic and be an example for the nation.”

Mayor Kim Norton said she wants a citywide masking policy, too, but so far only two members of the City Council have signaled they would consider one; she needs four votes. City staff are exploring what a mandate might look like. 

A boy pulls cloth masks out of a bag.
KingDemetrius Pendleton Jr. pulls a mask out of a bag to give to Charmaine Williams in the parking lot of Cub Foods in north Minneapolis in April. Pendleton and other volunteers passed out more than 370 donated masks in under an hour.
Evan Frost | MPR News file

Norton said a strong statement in support of citywide mask requirements from Mayo Clinic and Olmsted County’s public health department might convince some members of the council to favor one. 

“Their support would very likely help convince the majority of the board and public that masks are indeed helpful and necessary to slow the spread and keep people safer,” she said.

So far, neither entity has weighed in.

City Council President Randy Staver is among four members not sold on the idea of making masks mandatory across the city. 

“My reluctance comes from the fact that we don’t have an explicit recommendation from health authorities for the action. I don’t believe we have clearly thought through enforcement, and we haven’t established criteria for when the order would end,” he said.

Regulation and enforcement of mask wearing in local businesses is complicated by the fact that the city doesn’t license them, according to Rochester City Attorney Jason Loos.

It’s also not clear if Norton has enough votes to require masks in city buildings, as the proposed updates to city’s COVID-19 executive order would do. 

Staver and two others have expressed concern, while three of their city council colleagues have suggested they’d support the new language. 

The business case for mandating masks — or not

Meanwhile, Rochester business owners have mixed feelings about whether they’d welcome a mask mandate. 

At Forager Brewery, manager Allyssa Luhmann said Sunday that staff members are wearing masks, but only about a quarter of the restaurant’s customers that afternoon were wearing them.

“It’s hard to tell someone to wear a mask if they don’t come in with one,” she said. 

Luhmann worries business would suffer if masks are required, even though Forager has signed on to a voluntary city pledge that strongly encourages patrons to wear them.

“We don’t want to turn down people if they’re not wearing masks,” she said. 

Not far away at the Gray Duck Theater & Coffeehouse, owner Andy Smith said he’d welcome a citywide masking mandate. He said a universal rule would make things safer for his customers — and, he said, it would be good for business, which has been operating at limited capacity for several weeks. 

“Selfishly, I want to be able to open more and more regularly,” he said “We’re going to be able to do that not by pretending the virus doesn’t exist, but by listening to the advice of the experts.”

A person wearing a face mask stands at a door.
Sales associate Kirsten White stands at the entrance to Altar'd State at Rosedale Center, which reopened May 18, 2020, in Roseville. The store limited the number of customers in the store to 10 shoppers at a time.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News file

But he added it’s easier for him to require masks in his business if there’s something official on the books.

“It’s hard for me as a business to bear the weight of requiring my customers to wear a mask without something official,” he said. “So as much as I personally believe we should mandate, to do it in my establishment is very hard.”

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