Duluth has announced that as of Wednesday morning it will go back to requiring people to wear masks in all city buildings, including City Hall and public libraries. The decision came down one day after St. Louis County public health officials advised residents to resume wearing masks in all indoor public spaces due to the growing rate of COVID-19 infections.
"We're going to take that step out of an abundance of caution and care for the safety of staff and the public," said Noah Schuchman, chief administrative officer for the city of Duluth.
The city won't be closing buildings to public access altogether, as it did earlier in the pandemic, with the exception of its firehalls, which had just begun to resume offering tours when the local spike in cases came to light.
While the mask mandate applies only to municipal facilities, Mayor Emily Larson said she hopes people will take heed and mask up in other indoor settings, as well, to slow the transmission of COVID-19.
Larson stressed the need to get the virus under control to ensure students are able to return to their classrooms in the fall and businesses suffer no repeat economic disruption.
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"We don't need to go back into the big lockdown mode that we did 1½ years ago, at this point. We intend to avoid that at all cost," she said. "So, part of that is doing the small things we can now, because we know a lot more about what mask-wearing does. This is one thing we can do now to keep our community up and operational."
But Larson said she understands the public fatigue with a return to masks and acknowledged personally feeling frustrated with the situation.
"I would really like this to go away, but that's not where we're at right now," she said. "This is a small inconvenience that is possible. And I think we can all do our part."
The city had been holding public meetings remotely via an online platform during the pandemic. But in-person meetings just resumed in late July. Schuchman said that plan remains in place, but staff continue to monitor and evaluate the situation, based on public health data and guidance.
While no jurisdiction in Minnesota has yet done so, some government entities elsewhere have begun to require their employees to be vaccinated, notably New York City, the state of New York, California and the federal government.
Schuchman said there has been no discussion about the city of Duluth following suit.
A self-reporting survey of city staff indicates that 76% of city employees are fully vaccinated, according to Kate Van Daele, a public information officer.
Larson expressed appreciation.
"I'm so grateful that so many of our staff have voluntarily chosen to get vaccinated. So, we're certainly going to continue to encourage that," she said.
As for St. Louis County, its communications manager, Dana Kazel, said administration is not considering an employee vaccine mandate. She could not speak to the employee vaccination rate, as the county has not attempted to assess that.
Schuchman said city workers in public safety roles continue to take additional precautions.
“For our firefighters, who are the bulk of people on the public safety side going into people’s homes, they all still wear masks. So, they are masking for their protection and for the protection of the public,” he said.
If and when the city might consider requiring employees to be vaccinated, Schuchman said it would do so only after consulting with other communities that have gone that route and with additional guidance from the League of Minnesota Cities.
“We’re just not at that point. Our focus now is getting the mask requirement out there for city facilities, making sure people understand that," Schuchman said. "Then, we’re just going to continue to evaluate and make decisions as things change. It’s obviously disappointing that we’re even having to do this and have this discussion. I certainly hope people will get vaccinated, so we can move toward normalcy."
This story was updated at 5 p.m. Aug. 3. with details about the city staff vaccination rate and discussion of a possible future employee vaccine mandate. It was originally posted at 3:07 p.m. Aug. 3.