Without emergency powers, local leaders respond to latest COVID wave

man wearing blue suit gestures with hands
Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey at the Minneapolis Convention Center testing site in November. Minneapolis, along with St. Paul and Duluth, is requiring masks in city buildings.
Kathryn Styer Martinez | MPR News 2020

Updated: 11:05 a.m.

COVID-19 cases are on the rise again in Minnesota and across the country, but with most restrictions lifted and Gov. Tim Walz’s emergency powers gone, the response to this latest spike is in the hands of local leaders and businesses.

The number of COVID-19 cases reported Tuesday was up 61 percent over the previous Tuesday’s report from the state. 

Minnesota Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said that’s largely because of the highly transmissible delta variant rapid spread through unvaccinated Minnesotans.

"We're concerned that we're going to see cases rise further, and they have been going up very quickly,” Malcolm said. “Our absolute numbers are still a little bit lower than our neighbors, but we're on a trajectory to just keep growing, unfortunately. So we're happy to see, you know, renewed focus on not only vaccination, but those other mitigation measures too."

Malcolm said vaccinations are still the key in fighting the pandemic. She said instances of vaccinated people contracting the virus — known as breakthrough cases — make up less than 1 percent of all recent COVID-19 infections. But given the spread of the virus, she said masking indoors is a good idea.

"Local jurisdictions and employers are free to set the policies that make sense for them,” she said. “We don't have a state mandate, as you know, that ability to do that went away with a peacetime emergency. But we are really supportive when locals want to take that action."

Walz’s emergency powers ended at the beginning of July, meaning he can’t declare a statewide mask mandate. But several local governments are following the Health Department’s advice.

St. Paul, Minneapolis and Duluth are requiring people to wear masks in all city buildings and urge masking in all indoor public spaces. 

Hennepin County Administrator David Hough said that starting Wednesday, anyone who enters a county building must mask up.

"Our goal is to protect our employees and members of the public who visit our buildings and who we conduct business with,” he said.

Mask mandates also took effect this week at University of Minnesota and Minnesota State systems. For the U, that's on all campuses, and for Minnesota State, that's all campuses located in high or substantial transmission areas of the state, as defined by the CDC. 

In Olmsted County, where the CDC says there is substantial spread of COVID-19, officials are imposing similar mask mandates in government buildings, and they're also encouraging masks in all public indoor spaces.

“We understand and respect that the public isn't going to be excited about this. The local data is showing us again that it's time to act,” said Graham Briggs, the director of public health for Olmsted County. “This delta variant spreads very easily. It's becoming clear that in some cases, even vaccinated people can transmit the virus even if they don't have any symptoms. With the delta variant, getting vaccinated is more urgent than ever before during this pandemic.”

Many businesses are requiring customers to wear masks, and some are even asking for proof of vaccination.

For now, local governments are steering clear of vaccine mandates, but city leaders in Minneapolis and St. Paul say they’re exploring such requirements for public employees. 

The University of St. Thomas — a private Catholic school with campuses in both St. Paul and Minneapolis — is requiring all students, faculty and staff to get COVID-19 shots before classes resume this fall, joining a number of other small private colleges.

And First Avenue says concertgoers at all of its music venues must show proof of vaccination or a recent negative COVID test before going inside.

A growing number of health care companies are also requiring their employees to be vaccinated as the delta variant spreads.

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