Duluth to consider requiring masks indoors

Person standing outside wearing a blue face mask.
Duluth Mayor Emily Larson, who has promoted a campaign to normalize mask-wearing in the city, is backing a proposed ordinance to require masks in indoor public spaces in Duluth.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News file

The Duluth City Council is expected to vote July 13 on an emergency ordinance to require masks in indoor public spaces including businesses, government buildings and churches. 

If passed, Duluth would join Minneapolis and St. Paul as the only cities in the state to require masking in most public indoor spaces. Rochester and Edina are also moving toward similar requirements.

“We stand at a crossroads,” said council member Arik Forsman, one of four council members co-sponsoring the ordinance. 

“We can choose to roll the dice and risk the potential for a surge in cases and turning the dials back down on our economy once again, as we're seeing in other parts of the U.S.,” he said. “Or we can choose a simple, proactive action that prioritizes Duluthians, prioritizes our public health and safety, and prioritizes our local businesses,” 

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There would be exemptions, including for those who have difficulty wearing masks for medical reasons; for customers of bars and restaurants who are eating or drinking; and for children under age 10.

Schools, child care and fitness facilities that have plans in place in compliance with state guidelines would also not be covered by the proposed ordinance. 

Forsman said the ordinance would be enforced with warning letters, escalating fines and possibly misdemeanor prosecution.

“Let me be very, very clear that our goal is compliance,” he said. 

Council member Terese Tomanek, another co-sponsor, said store owners and restaurant managers in Duluth have asked for a citywide mandate, saying it would make it easier to keep customers and employees safe.

"The purpose of wearing a mask is somewhat to protect yourself, but really more to protect others,” she said. “It is a simple way to show our support for the people in our community. And it's a simple thing to ask the tourists ... to do for us and for each other.

Mayor Emily Larson had previously rejected calls for a citywide mask requirement, including from well-known musician and disability rights activist Gaelynn Lea.

Instead, Larson promoted a campaign to "normalize" mask wearing, arguing in part that enforcing a mask requirement would be difficult. 

But now she's backing the proposed ordinance. She also sent a letter to Gov. Tim Walz this week urging him to implement a statewide mask requirement in indoor public spaces.  

Larson said people are now moving around the state much more frequently — hotels in Duluth reached 70 percent capacity last weekend, she said —but that many of them did not wear masks in shops and restaurants. 

“We cannot wait for state action, and we'll proceed in a way we think is best for our community,” she told Walz. “We are seeing throngs of people visiting our beautiful city of Duluth and doing so without wearing a mask or following social distancing guidelines. We need to keep our workers supporting this industry safe.” 

At a news conference Wednesday Walz said “we are still talking about” the possibility of a statewide mask mandate, but didn’t give a timeline for making a decision. 

Many private businesses in Duluth and around the state, including Menards and Costco, are requiring customers and employees wear masks. The University of Minnesota campuses also began requiring masks this week. 

If the Duluth City Council passes the ordinance on July 13, it would go into effect immediately, and would last for the duration of local and state emergency declarations.