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Emergency mask mandate fails in Duluth

A unanimous vote would have been required.

face mask and hand sanitizer
A woman cleans her hands with antiseptic hand gel.
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DULUTH — After much public debate, the Duluth City Council declined Monday night to enact an emergency ordinance that would have required people to mask up inside public spaces.

The measure needed a unanimous vote to pass, and it could not muster that level of support, with at large Councilor Derek Medved and 3rd District Councilor Roz Randorf opposed to the proposed mask mandate.

Medved suggested that any mask mandate would be better coming from the state or county level.

Derek Medved mug.jpg
Derek Medved

“It would make a lot more sense for this to come from the top down rather than the bottom up,” he said, questioning the appropriateness of the council taking such a lead role in shaping public health policy.

Since at large Councilor Terese Tomanek announced her intention to introduce the emergency mask ordinance last Thursday, the council has been inundated with about 200 letters both in support and opposed to the mask mandate, as the omicron variant of COVID-19 sweeps across the nation.

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Tomanek called on fellow councilors to take swift action.

“We need to move quickly to protect the public,” she said. “If we lose time, we’re going to have more illness, we’re going to have more hospitalizations, and this can possibly save lives.”

Terese Tomanek
Terese Tomanek

Duluth’s two largest health organizations stood united in their support of a renewed public masking requirement.

“Doctors and nurses who have been on the front lines of this pandemic for almost two years are exhausted, and they need your help,” said Dr. Jon Pryor, president of Essentia Health’s east market in a letter to councilors. “Nobody wants to see small businesses close or schools revert to distance learning, and the simple act of wearing a face covering in public is one way for us to avoid those outcomes. We again need the help of our community, which has stepped up for us time and time again during this public health crisis.”

In the same letter, Dr. Nick Van Deelen, co-president, CEO and chief medical officer at St. Luke’s wrote: “We understand that people are tired of wearing masks.

“We are all tired of wearing masks, yet they are an important tool in minimizing the spread of COVID-19. For the sake of all residents, as well as all industries that are severely struggling with high employee infections, including health care systems, please support the mask mandate,” he said.

But others expressed frustration over what they considered a potential intrusion on their rights.

Andrea Babinski questioned the effectiveness of masks in slowing the spread of COVID-19 and wrote: “Please, let people make their own decisions and don’t force this mask mandate upon us.”

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Some raised concerns that local businesses would be harmed by a return to mandatory masking and saddled with the difficult task of enforcing the policy.

Randorf and Medved put forth a different emergency ordinance, acknowledging Mayor Emily Larson’s authority to implement a mandate and spelling that out explicitly in a revised city code.

“The powers we’re talking about in this resolution, she already has. It’s already in the charter. So, really what this does is it affirms our knowledge and our belief in that fact that these powers exist, because what’s happening currently is the community is looking at us to make decisions. And what this resolution really clearly defines is: We know that the powers rest within the mayor. They always have. She has the staff. She has the resources,” Randorf said.

While at large councilor and newly appointed Council President Arik Forsman said he thought he understood Randorf’s intent, he voiced his reservations, saying: “I have concern about actually changing our city code when the powers that exist currently are already there if they need to be exercised.”

“I want to make it really clear that this council matters, and we exist for a reason,” he said.

Tomanek chimed in with her agreement, saying: “The mayor already has these powers, and changing our city code is a drastic measure to convince her to do something she already has the power to do. And this is no guarantee that it will result in what we all want, and that’s people taking the responsibility to mask.”

Randorf’s and Medved’s ordinance failed to receive unanimous approval by a 5-4 vote, with Forsman, Tomanek, Gary Anderson and Mike Mayou voting against it.

Peter Passi covers city government for the Duluth News Tribune. He joined the paper in April 2000, initially as a business reporter but has worked a number of beats through the years.
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