St. Louis County commissioners spar over masks
In its return to conducting meetings in person, the County Board is split over how to face the threat of COVID-19.
CRANE LAKE — The return of live St. Louis County Board meetings found commissioners mostly agreeing on business at hand and the splendor of their resort location.
But the board split into argument at the end of a morning-long meeting Tuesday over the issue of wearing masks to protect against the spread of coronavirus.
“I’m not willing to be around as you spew your germs,” Duluth’s Frank Jewell said, responding to a lengthy address by fellow commissioner Keith Nelson, of Virginia. “I’m not willing to put my family at risk by hanging out with a majority of people not having masks on.”
The meeting at the Voyagaire Lodge and Houseboats was the first live meeting in three months for the board, which plans to convene together again in Duluth for its next meetings July 7 and 14.
Jewell wore a mask and said he won’t attend another live meeting until “we are actually practicing the tools we know have been researched and shown that we will be safe.”
Nelson and Board Chair Mike Jugovich, of Chisholm, commended the board’s return to normalcy, saying it was necessary in order to restore efficiency in county business.
“It feels good to be back with all of you having a normal meeting,” Jugovich said. “This feels a lot more normal than it has. Obviously, we want to make sure we follow all the rules and regulations.”
The debate over masks comes a week after Duluth Mayor Emily Larson told disability rights activist Gaelynn Lea that the city would not mandate masks .
County administration ended months of recommending online meetings by allowing the will of the board majority to win out in favor of a return to live meetings.
Jugovich, Nelson, Keith Musolf (representing Hermantown and areas surrounding Duluth), and Paul McDonald (Ely) did not wear masks, which were strongly recommended by administration, but not required.
The meeting took place in the lodge's restaurant. Attempts at social distancing were made, but the events of the day still featured handshakes and some close conversations with the handful of meeting attendees, none of whom were masked.
During the meeting, Nelson held up a mask he pulled from his pocket, saying he carries it with him all the time. He earlier told the News Tribune he wears one in places where it’s required.
“Our people need to get back to work,” Nelson said, referring to county workers who are working from home. “We have got to try to get back to normal, so our community can get back to normal as best as they can.”
The ideological split comes at a time when county offices within courthouses in Duluth, Virginia and Hibbing are closed, and only court services have been reopened. Masks are required to be worn by Sixth District Court employees and people seeking court services. Court hearings continue to be held remotely. District Court and the county share the courthouse.
Nelson said he’s heard from constituents experiencing slowdowns with planning, zoning and permitting due to remote processing. He cited permits for septic installation specifically.
“Summer is short up here, so we better get our acts together and move forward,” Nelson said, implying that construction business was being held up by county delays.
Jewell defended county workers as doing good work during “a time of great struggle.”
McDonald and Musolf remained silent on the issue. Fellow commissioner Beth Olson, of Duluth, did not attend the meeting.
Commissioner Patrick Boyle, of Duluth, wore a mask and supported Jewell.
“This county has done an admirable job of dealing with the first pandemic it’s had in 102 years,” Boyle said. “What we want to continue to do is keep employees and constituents safe. This is the most contagious virus we’ve seen in our lifetimes.”
Boyle said the county shouldn’t turn mask-wearing or COVID-19 into political issues, but that seemed to come too late. One side seemed to see it as their duty to safeguard against the virus, the other to restore normalcy. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends the use of cloth masks, especially "in areas of significant community-based transmission."
“I’m not going to come back until we have some kind of agreement on how we’re going to protect each other and the public who wants to show up,” Jewell said.
"Maybe we have to find a happy medium," Jugovich said. "Masks, no masks — I think that's a call by the individuals. We'll see how it plays out. I do think meeting together is important."