None of Duluth’s three commissioners will attend Tuesday’s live St. Louis County Board meeting in Hibbing, citing concerns about COVID-19 and the rising number of cases in the county.
The meeting, at the Hibbing courthouse’s jury lounge, will also not be carried live on any viewable platform.
“I’m not trying to make a statement about this at all,” Commissioner Patrick Boyle, representing eastern Duluth, said. “On the public health side of this, as a nurse practitioner, the worst-case scenario for me would be to pass it on to other commissioners or the general public. It’s not what I want to do.”
There were 17 new cases of COVID-19 reported in the county Monday as it closed in on 600 since the pandemic arrived in March.
Boyle said he struggled with his decision. He’ll be joined by Frank Jewell and Beth Olson, representing downtown and western Duluth, respectively, on the telephone — the only technological capability available in the jury lounge.
At the last meeting, Olson and Jewell tried to persuade the four rural-most commissioners to hold the meeting at either the Virginia or Duluth government services centers, where there are online Webex capabilities, but the rural-most majority voted 4-3 Aug. 4 to conduct the meeting in Hibbing.
Jewell was angered by the board decision, he said, and wrote Board President Mike Jugovich afterward, requesting better online access in Hibbing. Citizen guests to the board Tuesday will be required to be ushered in one by one, Boyle said.
"By meeting in person, the County Board is putting its staff and any members of the public who wish to attend at risk of catching the virus and passing it on to others," Jewell said in a news release Monday, citing the county as a public health authority. "Instead of role modeling preventative behaviors, we are doing the opposite."
Jewell said he had a hard time deciding not to attend in person, because the board is planning to vote on federal COVID-19 relief funding that figures to disperse $24.5 million through a series of programs created by county staff.
“It’s so important that I actually had a hard time deciding not to go,” Jewell said. “I feel like staff has worked incredibly hard putting this together.”
Jugovich told the News Tribune he felt Duluth commissioners kept moving the bar — wanting masks and social distancing earlier during the pandemic and now a return to remote meetings. He said he implemented the move to the jury lounge after an earlier Hibbing location was deemed too small.
"I don't know exactly what it is they want," Jugovich said. "I worry about health and welfare, too, but we have taken precautions. We are going to have staff limit the number of people. We're social distancing and wearing masks. We’re doing whatever we can short of doing everything by telecommunications. I don't have issue as long as we're following guidelines set forth (by the state and governor)."
Boyle, the previous board president who has developed a kinship with Jugovich, further elaborated on his decision, saying he struggled out of respect for Jugovich.
“At the same point, the chambers are going to be tight and we’d be sitting across from each other instead of shoulder to shoulder,” Boyle said. “We just had 31 cases (Sunday) in St. Louis County and I’m just not there. … I just think that until we build up our technological capabilities, which we’re planning to do, we need to hold meetings in the government service centers in Duluth and Virginia.”
Most jurisdictions haven’t met live since March, Boyle said.
“Live meetings are better for dialogue between commissioners,” he said. “But at the same time, we’re at the tip of the iceberg of the pandemic. My fear is it’s going to get worse.”
On Aug. 4, commissioners Jugovich, of Chisolm, Paul McDonald, of Ely, Keith Musolf, of Hermantown, and Keith Nelson, of Virginia, opposed the move to government service centers.
Nelson said at the time there were never going to be enough precautions for some people.
In a bit of irony, the board is scheduled to vote to spend $580,000 to install ionization equipment to the heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems at county facilities in Duluth, Virginia and Hibbing.
“This technology is being implemented specifically in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and efforts to ensure the safety of our staff and the public we serve,” the board letter recommending the expenditure said.
County staff confirmed on Monday that the Hibbing courthouse where the meeting will take place Tuesday does not yet have the updated installation.
The county said it has done everything the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Minnesota Department of Health has recommended: good filters, more outside air and more air exchanges in occupied spaces.
“The ionization project takes it to the next step above and beyond those recommendations,” Jerry Hall, property management director, told the News Tribune.
Following Tuesday's meeting, the board won't meet again until Sept. 1 in Duluth at the Government Services Center.
This story was updated at 4:17 p.m. Aug. 10 to include comment from Board President Mike Jugovich and further comment from Commissioner Frank Jewell. It was originally posted at noon Aug. 10.
This story originally listed an incorrect date for the board's return to meetings on Sept. 1. It was updated at 11:05 a.m. Aug. 12, 2020 with the proper meeting date. The News Tribune regrets the error.