Penalties rare for ignoring COVID-19 precautions

Demonstrators rally on the steps in front of the Minnesota Capitol
Demonstrators rally on the steps in front of the Minnesota Capitol on Sept. 12.
Ben Hovland for MPR News file

Frank Donohoe says he’s been doing his best to comply with COVID-19 restrictions, even though he wishes he didn’t have to.

“My mask looks like a jock strap,” Donohoe said. “It’s very embarrassing to wear. It’s humiliating.”

What bothers Donohoe even more are all of the people ignoring the rules.

“People won’t even so much as wear a paper mask.”

A man wears a white face mask while in a car.
Frank Donohoe, 60, who lives in Woodbury, Minn., is upset so many people are ignoring COVID-19 safety rules.
Courtesy photo

The 60-year-old Woodbury resident says he avoids bars and restaurants, but there are some places he has to go — like the muffler repair shop he recently visited. He says none of the employees were masked. He’s run into similar situations at other business — even a pharmacy.

“The manager of the pharmacy wearing a neck gaiter around his chin, you know stuff like that,” Donohoe said. “It’s just unbelievable.”

Minnesota's penalty for refusing to wear a face covering, when required, is a $100 fine. Businesses face much steeper penalties for skirting COVID-19 safety measures. There have been a few high-profile interventions; the shutdown of a rodeo in northern Minnesota in September and, more recently, the court-ordered shutdown of a fitness center outside of Rochester that defied the latest executive order to close.

Two months ago, MPR News requested detailed information from the Minnesota departments of Health, Public Safety, and Labor and Industry about noncompliance complaints and actions taken. There has, so far, been no response.

Gov. Tim Walz, who’s been making the mandate decisions, is also frustrated with noncompliance but is not intending to clamp down.

“My job certainly, as I said early on, wasn’t to arrest people and issue fines,” the governor said.

Walz says he’s just trying to keep people safe.

“This one has been a tricky one. I’ve got to be very honest with you,” Walz said at a recent briefing. “Because you got folks saying, ‘Well what about these folks — nothing happens to them, they don’t do anything.’ ”

Some Walz critics, angry about COVID-19 restrictions, regularly gather outside the governor’s residence to openly defy his orders.

The Minnesota Medical Association has pushed for tighter regulations throughout the pandemic, saying health care providers in Minnesota could become overwhelmed.

The association president, Dr. Marilyn Peitso, a St. Cloud physician, said those who think they can disobey COVID-19 safety measures without consequence are wrong.

“It’s a false choice to say that if I choose not to wear a mask I can get away with that because – no,” Peitso said. “It’s affecting us as a state and it’s affecting our economy it has affected the families of over 3,500 people that have died in Minnesota.”

A man stands outside while wearing a black face mask.
Kyle Payne is concerned about a lack of COVID-19 safety compliance.
Courtesy photo

Kyle Payne, who lives in Minneapolis, is also frustrated with others who choose not to following public health protocols. He agrees with the governor that it’s not time to start fining people. He has another idea.

“You know, I think the penalty should be you have to watch a video about a person being put on sedation or you have to  do community service at a food pantry that’s trying to feed the people,” Payne said.

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