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Duluth Council questions plan to drop mask mandate

Six days after the city announced it would cease enforcement of a local ordinance requiring people to wear face coverings inside public spaces, councilors ask: Why?

NAACP mask drive file
Dr. Verna Thornton hands out free face masks in Superior during a Duluth NAACP mask drive in April. (Jed Carlson / 2020 file / Superior Telegram)

On Monday, the Duluth City Council will consider whether to repeal an ordinance, lifting a requirement that people wear masks inside public buildings and enclosed common areas. But at least to some extent, that ship appears to have sailed already.

On May 14, city administration issued a news release announcing that the mask ordinance would no longer be enforced, in light of Gov. Tim Walz's decision the previous day to stop mandating masks throughout Minnesota.

At an agenda meeting of the Duluth City Council Thursday night, 2nd District Councilor Joel Sipress questioned what went into the decision-making process to drop the local mask requirement.

"Before making the decision to stop enforcing the local mask ordinance and to request its repeal, did the mayor or anyone in administration or staff take a look at our local vaccination and case rates to determine the current risk in Duluth of a significant outbreak among the non-vaccinated and not-yet-vaccinated? Was that analysis done before the decision was made?" he asked.

Noah Schuchman, Duluth's chief administrative officer, said: "I can't speak to that question."

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"Who could speak to these questions?" Sipress responded, noting that Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frye had decided to keep mask requirements in place, despite the governor's lifting of the statewide mandate.

"The basis of that decision is they looked at the demographic breakdowns of vaccination rates and determined that in Minneapolis, while the overall vaccination rate was relatively high, there were relatively low vaccination rates among certain at-risk groups," Sipress said, asking if city administration in Duluth had conducted a similar analysis.

Schuchman said he personally had not consulted with public health officials, adding that in this case, his primary concern was in regard to enforcement.

"What I will tell you is, as someone who has a background as a regulator, enforcement is only as good as the ability to do it. And in this case, with surrounding communities that do not have a similar mandate, and with the confusion that would be caused immediately by the governor's order, that it is not practical to expect that city staff would be able to enforce a mask mandate that would also cause confusion for business and property owners throughout the community," he said.

Heading into last weekend, when tourists from throughout the state were coming to visit Duluth, Schuchman suggested enforcement of local mask requirements could have resulted in "chaos."

SEE ALSO: Duluth no longer enforcing city mask mandate; council to repeal mask ordinance The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced Thursday that fully vaccinated people no longer need to wear masks.

"I had the same questions as Councilor Sipress," said 5th District Councilor Janet Kennedy, one of the co-sponsors of the original masking ordinance.

"We need to be careful when we tell people they don't need to wear masks, because that's based on: If you are vaccinated you don't need to wear a mask. And that part seems to keep getting missed," she said.

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"Are we setting something up where we're saying that we're going beyond that, and no one needs to wear a mask. Or are we able to stress the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and the governor's recommendations are that if you are vaccinated, you do not need to wear a mask?" Kennedy asked.

Duluth City Attorney Rebecca St. George responded that under the governor's order and assuming the local ordinance is repealed: "Nobody is required to wear a mask. But it does nothing, as far as recommendations. So, it doesn't take away from the CDC recommendations or change the recommendations that unvaccinated people should still wear a mask. It just doesn't make it so that they have to, under the law."

At Large Councilor Therese Tomanek, another author of the mask ordinance, said she did consult with the director of the county department of health and human services, who shared her opinion that Duluth was fairly well-positioned, with a vaccination rate of more than 50% and declining rates of hospitalization and death.

"I also spoke to business community members, and it's very very difficult for businesses. As one proprietor said, 'I'm really tired of fighting with people.' And if we decide to enforce this mandate and keep it on the books, I think it's going to be even harder for our businesspeople," she said.

"Now, does that mean we should do that in light of anything else? No. We need to do what's important to keep our people healthy," Tomanek said. "One of the things we stressed is that unvaccinated people have a personal responsibility to continue wearing masks for the health of themselves and to protect other people."

Peter Passi covers city government for the Duluth News Tribune. He joined the paper in April 2000, initially as a business reporter but has worked a number of beats through the years.
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