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Duluth declares mask mandate

A city-wide masking requirement will remain in place for 30 days.

Mask signs Duluth
Signs at the Whole Foods Co-Op Hillside location Monday, Aug. 2, 2021, in Duluth, alert customers of mask requirements at the store.
Clint Austin / File / Duluth News Tribune

DULUTH — Mayor Emily Larson announced Thursday afternoon that the city will require people to wear masks when inside public spaces starting at 5 p.m. Friday. The mandate will remain in place for 30 days, after which time it could lapse or be renewed, if deemed necessary.

“I understand that it will bump into the choices that you would like to make and the freedoms that you have, but we are still being implored upon by public health and safety experts who are asking us to do this for them and for us,” Larson said.

Larson pointed to a recent surge in COVID-19 cases as the omicron variant of the coronavirus spreads.

Emily Larson
Duluth Mayor Emily Larson

Local health care providers have struggled to keep pace, especially as many of their own staff have been infected by breakthrough cases of the disease.

Dr. Nick Van Deelen, co-president, CEO and chief medical officer at St. Luke's, said that 162 staff members are out of work due to illness and more than half of those employees tested positive for COVID.

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“Masking is one of the most effective tools that we have when it comes to preventing the spread of omicron. It’s especially important right now given the prevalence of disease in our community,” Van Deelen said. “And it’s really not that much to ask.”

As of Thursday, St. Luke’s had 26 patients with COVID infections, including nine in intensive care; Van Deelen said the vast majority of those hospitalized had not been vaccinated. He stressed the importance of vaccinating and receiving booster shots in order to slow the spread of COVID and to guard against the worst health outcomes.

Nick Van Deelen
St. Luke’s co-president, CEO and chief medical officer Dr. Nick Van Deelen talks during news conference in March 2020.
News Tribune File

Mike Casey, chief medical officer for Essentia Health, thanked Larson for declaring the mask mandate.

“So many of our caregivers and employees who have been on the front line of this pandemic for almost two years are just physically and emotionally exhausted,” he said, warning that care will suffer if hospitals are forced to continually operate beyond capacity.

“I recognize many people are tired of wearing masks. We all are. But it’s a small simple step we can take right now to avoid the misery, pain and suffering that I as an emergency medicine physician and all our caregivers have seen,” Casey said.

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The court acted after hearing arguments last Friday in the legal fight over temporary mandates issued in November by two federal agencies aimed at increasing U.S. vaccination rates and making workplaces and healthcare settings safer. The cases tested presidential powers to address a swelling public health crisis that already has killed more than 845,000 Americans.

The number of COVID cases now being reported locally appears on pace to eclipse the previous pandemic high set in November 2020, before a vaccine became available, said Amy Westbrook, director of St. Louis County’s public health division.

“The omicron variant is very contagious. It’s spreading really quickly, and we’re seeing that in our case rates,” she said.

Amy Westbrook file
Amy Westbrook, St. Louis County Public Health Division director, talks during a March 2020 news conference at the St. Louis County Government Services Building in Duluth.
Clint Austin / File / Duluth News Tribune

“Vaccine is the biggest tool in our toolbox — the most effective tool — but vaccines, as you know, don’t prevent community transmission. Layered strategies are the best form of protection,” Westbrook said, pointing to the added benefits of masking.

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Larson urged people to act responsibly to keep hospitals from being overrun.

“We are seeing staff and health care professionals who have spent two full years managing the workload of this pandemic, despite the fact that people are making choices to not protect themselves. This is the very least we can do,” she said.

Duluth is the third city in Minnesota to declare a mask mandate, following on the heels of Minneapolis and St. Paul, which did so last week.

The masking requirement applies to people 5 years of age and older.

Larson asked people not to misdirect their frustration about the mask mandate toward front-line workers or businesses attempting to comply with the emergency order.

“If you want to be mad, be mad at me. I’ll take the heat. That’s my job,” she said.

The mayor’s announcement came three days after the Duluth City Council chose not to enact a mask mandate on its own. Instead, the council unanimously approved an emergency resolution Monday “requesting that the mayor exercise her executive powers to safeguard the community, as needed, during the COVID-19 community health crisis and issue public health mandates, as needed.”

Prior to voting on the emergency resolution, Council President Arik Forsman said: “I will plan on supporting this tonight, recognizing it does not actually ask the mayor to take any specific action. But I will also be supporting this tonight recognizing that if I am asking Mayor Larson to take action broadly, as she sees fit, that I will own that. And I would support her should there be a need to do so.”

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“We want swift movement,” said an expectant 2nd District Councilor Roz Randorf on Wednesday, noting that local health care providers are being overwhelmed by the sheer number of people infected by the coronavirus.

“All these data points confirm over and over to me, the leadership of the city and county need to step up and work with health officials to tell us what to do,” she said.

Randorf maintained that the council itself was poorly equipped to handle an evolving emergency situation and could hardly have sent a clearer message to city administration.

“Unanimously, we said: Mayor, get on this. Make this your No. 1 priority to manage this health crisis,” she said.

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