The Duluth City Council is expected to take up an ordinance for the first time Monday that would require people age 10 and older to wear masks or other face coverings when inside publicly accessible common areas of buildings.
Normally, councilors can't adopt an ordinance until it is read into the record twice at two separate public meetings. But Councilor Arik Forsman explained that due to the urgency of the situation and the need to address public health concerns related to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Council can and will exercise special emergency powers Monday night.
The mask requirement would apply to all public-facing businesses, such as retail operations, but would not require private buildings that are not open to the public to comply, so long as workers there are able to maintain at least 6 feet of distance from one another.
Exemptions also will be provided for people who are unable to wear face covering because of medical conditions and for patrons of eating and drinking establishments.
Forsman noted that the proposed mask ordinance has garnered broad support from Essentia Health, St. Luke's, the United Food and Commercial Workers, the Greater Downtown Council and the Duluth Area Chamber of Commerce. He also cited surveys the latter two organizations sent to their members.
"Considering that we're requiring something of them, it's pretty telling that 67 to 73% of the business representatives surveyed agreed that this was a good idea," Forsman said.
But Councilor Derek Medved, who owns and operated a chain of convenience stores, expressed some concerns about customer pushback.
"The last thing any business wants is to be put in the line of fire or have their employees be put in the line of fire or harm," he said.
While Councilor Terese Tomanek said she was sympathetic to Medved's concerns, she suggested the risks of inaction are too great.
"It has been estimated that with mask-wearing, we will save 200 lives alone in the city of Duluth," she said, asking: "How are we going to justify if we don't do this ordinance?"
Tomanek expressed optimism that most people will comply but said the Duluth Police Department stands ready to back up the law, should cases of misbehavior arise.
"If there is a patron who is excessively belligerent, the police can be called and that person can be trespassed. I realize that's something we want to do as a last resort, but we have to be able to enforce this or it's a meaningless ordinance," she said.
The proposed ordinance also allows for the city to levy escalating fines for people who fail to comply with the mask requirement, charging $100 for a first violation, $250 for a second and $1,000 for any additional transgressions.
Calling for Council unanimity on Monday, 2nd District Councilor Joel Sipress said: "I'm hoping we have as broad a vote in favor of this as possible Monday night, because the broader the vote, the more it sends a message to the whole community that no, this is not political. This is something where we have nine very diverse people, who all come together from our different perspectives and we all agree this is the right thing to do, and this is the community standard we set. I think that would send a very positive message to the community that would encourage voluntary compliance."
Medved spoke in support of stepping up to protect the public health, yet continued to voice his misgivings.
"As a business owner, I mean we're hurting. We're hurting financially. And I never want it to seem like wealth is put over health ... But we're all dying for business and trying to survive through this pandemic," he said.
Medved suggested that asking businesses to enforce the mask requirement could alienate customers. "It's putting the business owner in a bad spot."
Council President Gary Anderson said that he and fellow councilors can actually provide cover for business owners by taking a stand on the issue. "We, the nine of us, acknowledge that we are accepting the political responsibility for this decision, and we're taking that political responsibility away from business owners like Councilor Medved."
Anderson acknowledged masks remain a hot-button topic and said he has responded to more emails on the issue than on any other in his 4 1/2-year Council tenure.