Despite being only a few weeks into her new role as a Duluth city councilor, Terese Tomanek has shown she's not afraid to take a stand. She has co-authored a proposed ordinance that, if adopted, would require people to cover their faces when inside publicly accessible spaces.
Tomanek knew she would encounter some pushback from folks who consider the use of masks to be a matter of personal choice, but she didn't hesitate when presented with the opportunity to join three other councilors — Arik Forsman, Janet Kennedy and Joel Sipress — in bringing the proposed mask ordinance forward. On Monday, the prospective ordinance will go to a vote, with the Council exercising its emergency powers.
"I knew it was the right thing to do," Tomanek said, noting that as a health care professional now serving as a chaplain for Essentia Health-St. Mary's Medical Center, she has honed her abilities to critically examine scientific information and appreciate its value.
"Also, I have a lot of friends who are in vulnerable groups, whether it's because of their age or a certain physical condition, and we need to be concerned about those people," she said.
Tomanek also expressed concern about the welfare of the city's economy.
"If we have to close again, if we have to shutter our businesses again, it's going to be really detrimental to our business community," she said.
"And my faith background is part of it, too. I just really care about people," Tomanek said.
Duluth City Council President Gary Anderson praised Tomanek for taking on such a charged issue so early, comparing her experience to a "baptism by fire."
"I think she stepped forward with courage and stood on the foundation of her values," he said.
"As council president, I think it's my role to support each one of these other eight councilors in doing their best work for the common good, and I see Councilor Tomanek doing that right from the beginning," Anderson said.
For the time being, Essentia has furloughed all on-call chaplains, but Tomanek said the COVID-19 pandemic remains top of mind for her, as she has been part of an effort to put together an emotional-support line for health workers caring for people hospitalized with the coronavirus.
"Since we haven't seen the surge yet here in Duluth, we haven't had a lot of calls yet, but that's not to say that we won't in the future," she said of the help line.
While sheltering at home with her husband, Tomanek also has put her sewing talents to work producing masks.
She knows a thing or two about dealing with adverse health outcomes from her work.
"As chaplains, especially chaplains in a hospital setting, we're dealing with people who are making near-death decisions or who are actively dying. So, that's our role: to be with people at that time in their life, to hear their life stories, to hear their regrets, hear their joys and get some closure before their death," Tomanek said.
She noted that asymptomatic people infected by COVID-19 often don’t even realize they pose a risk to those around them.
Tomanek said masks offer a degree of protection to the wearers, but stressed: “It is what we do in an altruistic manner to keep other people healthy.”
While Tomanek is unsurprised that there’s division over the use of masks because of how the debate has played out in other jurisdictions around the nation, she said: “Am I disappointed? Yes.”
Tomanek noted that her own age puts her in a higher-risk category for contracting COVID-19, and could very well impact her work attending to people afflicted with the disease, if she is called to do so.
“Studies have shown that if even 50% of people would consistently wear a mask that we could bring the coronavirus under control," she said. "So, it’s absolutely a way to keep our businesses open, to be able to send our kids back to school safely. I don’t know how we’re going to do those things if people don’t do the three things they need to do without having a vaccine yet. And that is social distancing and hand-washing and a mask is a big part of that issue."
The Duluth City Council unanimously voted to select Tomanek from a field of 19 people who applied to serve out the remainder of at large Councilor Barb Russ' term. Russ stepped down due to health concerns associated with a cancer diagnosis.
Anderson described Tomanek as a "middle-of-the-road progressive" and said he was impressed by her deep connections throughout the community.
Reflecting on her appointment, Anderson said: "It's an interview process, and it's also a political process. And I think Councilor Tomanek was very thoughtful in that she did reach out to a broad section of the community. She was in touch with people from the social justice areas but also from the business community and the faith community."
Tomanek, a native of St. Paul, earned her undergraduate degree from the University of Minnesota Duluth before going on to study chiropractic medicine. But she knew Duluth was where she wanted to make her home and returned in 1981 to open her own chiropractic practice.
"Those were difficult economic times, but I had the opportunity of being the first woman chiropractor in the city, and so my business was successful from the start. I was able to meet a lot of people and help a lot of people," she said.
After 16 years of running the chiropractic business, Tomanek sold her practice to Superior Health, continuing to work there for another decade.
Called by her faith, Tomanek then enrolled in the seminary at St. John's University, receiving her master's degree in divinity in 2014. The following year she was ordained a United Church of Christ minister.
"It has been a lifetime of service," Tomanek said. "And that idea of service has carried over to my desire to serve on the City Council."