Duluth joins growing list of Minnesota cities to require masks

Person wearing tie-dye mask.
Tatyana Sanders received some new masks during a free face mask distribution event organized by the local NAACP in May in Duluth.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

The Duluth City Council passed an emergency ordinance Monday night requiring masks in many indoor public spaces, joining a growing list of Minnesota cities that have passed similar measures to try to slow the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Duluth’s requirement, which went into effect immediately, applies to “spaces of public accommodation,” including retail stores, restaurants, churches, government buildings, skywalks and buses. 

It provides several exemptions, including for children under 10, people who are unable to wear face coverings for genuine medical reasons, and for businesses not open to customers that can provide for six feet of public distance between employees. 

Does wearing a mask pose any health risks? No, not for most people

Education, child care and fitness facilities with written plans in compliance with state guidelines are also exempt from the ordinance. 

Council member Arik Forsman, who co-sponsored the measure, acknowledged that there was public opposition to the requirement. 

“There are folks who don’t like that this action is being proposed, to put it politely,” he said, adding that he recognizes that wearing a mask is uncomfortable and hot.

But “the science is pretty clear,” he said. “This can help save lives.”

Forsman and other councilors said the ordinance is intended to not only protect public health, but also to protect local businesses. 

Council member Terese Tomanek, who also co-sponsored the measure, said several businesses pleaded with her to require masks, to help them stay open and lessen the risk of having to endure another shutdown. 

Tomanek and Forsman cited surveys from the Duluth Chamber of Commerce and Greater Downtown Council, which found that about two-thirds of businesses supported the mask requirement. 

Tomanek said wearing a mask is a “kindness” that we do for others. “It is not a political issue, it’s a public health issue. It’s a ‘taking care of each other’ issue. It’s a ‘keeping our businesses open’ issue. It is a ‘safety of our community’ issue.” 

Duluth’s two major health care systems, Essentia Health and St. Luke’s, both supported the mask requirement. So did prominent labor organizations, including the Minnesota Nurses Association and the Duluth Central Labor Body. 

Duluth leaders initially resisted calls to require masks in indoor public spaces. Instead, last month Mayor Emily Larson helped launch an initiative, in partnership with the school district and other organizations, to try to “normalize” mask wearing

At the time, Larson said mandating masks didn’t seem like the best approach for Duluth, in part because it would be tricky to enforce. 

Larson supported the emergency ordinance, and has also asked Gov. Tim Walz to institute a statewide policy requiring masks in indoor public places. 

The new ordinance does include penalties for businesses that don’t comply, including warning letters, fines of up to $1,000, and possible misdemeanor prosecution. 

Minneapolis and St. Paul were the first Minnesota cities to require masks. Other cities have more recently followed suit, including Rochester, Mankato, Edina and Minnetonka. 

In Duluth, council member Joel Sipress said supporting a mask requirement was one of the toughest votes he’s faced in six years of service, acknowledging it was something the city would never do in normal times. 

But it’s important to recognize that these are not normal times, he said.

“We’re facing probably the most serious situation that this country has faced.  And it’s not going to end anytime soon,” Sipress said. “We need to think about how we’re going to prepare and work together to persevere through this situation.”

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