The Duluth City Council voted Monday to postpone for another nine months a fee on plastic bags that was to have kicked in April 1.

Councilor Joel Sipress initially proposed a more modest three-month delay, but Councilors Arik Forsman, Derek Medved and Renee Van Nett successfully offered an amendment Monday to stretch out the timeline even further.

"This one's pretty simple for me," Forsman said. "I think it's become clear to all of us that we're living in sort of an unprecedented historical moment right now.

"It's clear that people are applying for unemployment insurance in record numbers right now. I know we're all aware of small businesses across our city that have been successful for decades that are in crisis," he said.

Forsman noted that local grocery store workers have had their hands full just trying to meet their customers' basic needs in the midst of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Sipress said he was contacted by a representative of the Minnesota Grocers Association who was concerned about the bag fee taking effect at a time when grocery stores already were facing great challenges.

"We need to do everything at this moment to make sure that front-line workers, including grocery store workers, do not face undue stress. And it made sense to me that at this time, we want our grocery store workers to be able to focus 100% on meeting the pressures they are under right now," he said.

Given the seriousness of the times, Forsman said: "Quite frankly, the absolute last issue that Duluthians need to see us spending more time on now is the plastic-bag fee. We have much bigger fish to fry during this pandemic as a council and as a community. So, I would advise councilors, rather than picking this up every couple of months and repeatedly having it come up in the news, that we would put it on the shelf for the rest of the year and be done with it for now."

Medved said he appreciates the good intentions of people who supported the bag fee in an effort to reduce plastic waste and encourage shoppers to opt for reusable bags. But he said the dire economic challenges of the day cannot be ignored.

"Times have changed, and so we really need to take into consideration what is happening here, and we need to move forward," he said.

As a supporter of the plastic-bag fee, Sipress said he had felt well-positioned to offer an amendment to delay implementation of the policy.

"We have now an amendment coming forward that, regardless of the intended motive, could be perceived as reflecting opposition to the plastic-bag fee in it's entirety, because this amendment came forward from opponents of that ordinance. I think that's unfortunate. I wish we could have found a way to work together and bring something forward together that would have addressed this and reached the resolution we need," he said.

"So, I'm disappointed. I think it's too bad. But frankly, the last thing our community needs right now is to see their city councilors bickering over this at a time when we need to be focused on public health and the economic security of our community. So, despite my disappointment in the process that led us to this point, I will be voting for the amendment," Sipress said.

The amended resolution passed by an 8-0 vote with Councilor Barb Russ absent. A companion ordinance amendment also passed by the same margin but will require a second reading before it can be adopted.

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