A proposal to postpone a 5-cent fee on nearly every plastic shopping bag distributed in Duluth has reopened debate on the wisdom of the charge.

At a Thursday night Duluth City Council agenda session, 2nd District Councilor Joel Sipress introduced a resolution to delay the April 1 date that a city ordinance mandating the fee is slated to go into effect. Sipress now proposes pushing back implementation of the fee requirement until July 1 due to concerns he said were raised by the Minnesota Grocers Association "in light of the current public health emergency and the incredible stress and strain on grocery store workers."

"I agreed immediately that the concerns were very valid," said. Sipress, who nevertheless remains an advocate of the fee, designed to encourage people to opt for reusable fabric totes instead of single-use disposable bags.

Other councilors also expressed support for the idea of a delay, given the challenges grocery stores face in the midst of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. But newly elected at large Councilor Derek Medved questioned the very notion of charging Duluth shoppers a nickel for every plastic shopping bag they receive during a time of economic upheaval.

As the owner of a chain of convenience stores, Medved said he stands to profit from the bag fee, which retailers will be allowed to pocket. But he spoke out strongly against the policy, saying: "The unfortunate thing is we have people in our community who are filing for unemployment. We have people who count pennies every day to afford ramen noodles or a bar of soap."

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Medved went on to recount how a father of three shoplifted an 89-cent bar of soap from one of his stores the previous day because he couldn't afford to buy it.

"If we think that we're going to implement this, I'm so far against, and I'm very passionate about it," Medved said. "I will fight this until the end of time. Charging 5 cents, a penny, a dollar, whatever it may be, is not the solution. We are facing a huge issue, a pandemic. People are losing their jobs, and it hits home for me, because my mother raised my sister and I on pennies. Every penny counted. We don't know the individual impact this has on families, residents, neighbors. That's not fair."

Medved suggested the fee should be pushed back far further than 90 days.

"We should push it back two years and return to the conversation when we're through this pandemic and people are affording ramen noodles and can afford a bar of soap and the essentials for life," he said.

At large Councilor Barb Russ told Medved he was free to do as he sees fit but noted the bag ordinance was the product of considerable work. The ordinance calls for the fee to be waived for anyone enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or receiving Women Infants and Children benefits.

"We spent many, many, many, many hours in discussions with full chambers of people out there wanting us to do this," she said.

But pointing to the sharp economic downturn brought on by the COVID-19 outbreak, Medved said: "The thing is, times have changed."

Councilor Renee Van Nett weighed in against the fee, too, saying: "Poor people take the brunt."

"Actually, this is who the COVID virus thing is affecting most, people of color, my people and poor people. So, I'm at odds with it, but I realize we're not talking about the 5-cent fee. We've already traveled that , and we're moving forward," she said.

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