The city of Duluth won't be mandating face masks be worn during the COVID-19 pandemic, Mayor Emily Larson said in an emailed response to violinist and disability rights advocate Gaelynn Lea.

"Currently, I do not believe requiring them in public gets people to wear them in public," Larson wrote. "We don’t have an enforcement mechanism besides basic human connection to motivate people to be good to one another. They have to choose it. They have to mean it. And they have to believe it."

Lea, who was born with the genetic condition osteogenesis imperfecta (brittle bone disease), made a plea to mandate face masks earlier this month in an open letter to Larson.

Duluth musician Gaelynn Lea. (File / News Tribune)
Duluth musician Gaelynn Lea. (File / News Tribune)

"I am asking you to consider this measure, because I am really upset with the apathy I’m seeing around me about the impact of COVID-19 on disabled and older people," Lea wrote. "It’s as though we are expendable."

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The issue of mask wearing has grown contentious in recent weeks as communities roll back COVID-19 restrictions that began in March.

Kelley Minor, of Duluth, was asked to put her mask back on by a store clerk at Menards in Duluth earlier this week. The home improvement chain requires that masks be worn, but Minor said she has decreased lung function, which makes mask-wearing difficult.

“If I wear a mask, even a cloth mask, within 10 minutes I am increasingly winded,” Minor said. “It really illuminated the fact that there are a whole host of us out there — people with cystic fibrosis, asthma, even allergies."

Minor said people with liberty and health issues related to mask-wearing deserve a voice in the conversation. She fears the mask debate is something that is “just another distraction and point of division rather than unity.”

To that point, Lea has couched her advocacy by saying masks should be worn "if medically tolerated."

In the mayor's replies, shared with the News Tribune by Lea, Larson apologized, saying she had the authority "in theory" to mandate masks, while acknowledging "that my not doing so is deeply disappointing to you."

Larson asked Lea if she'd tried speaking with city councilors. Lea told the News Tribune she believed it was a deflective tactic by the mayor.

"I am not surprised by her response," Lea said. "But I strongly disagree and do not intend to leave our discussion at that if she doesn't choose to take concrete steps to protect people."

Lea noted that Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey mandated masks in late May, and she cited examples and science throughout her letter. She noted that staff at one congregate care facility in Duluth began to require masks only after the death of a resident.

"A more comprehensive mask-wearing policy from the city of Duluth may have prevented this death," Lea wrote.

Minor has worked with Lea in the past, and admires her as “a fierce advocate for what she believes in.”

“But if I was required to wear a mask everywhere I went, we wouldn’t go places,” Minor, a mother of four, said.

Minor said she and her children didn’t leave the house from March 15 to May 27.

“I take this so seriously,” she said. “And there is this additional issue of not only isolation, but also the immunity issue. With somebody who has bad lungs, it is good to be out in the environment.”

Lea lamented the political debate about public mask wearing, and described the issue as one of human rights. In her open letter, she cited multiple examples of how public mask wearing can reduce the spread of the disease.

"(I)f people just won't do their absolute best to make sure this tragic number doesn't go any higher, I have to ask: How much do you value the older people, the disabled people, the black and brown people, in your community?" Lea said. "Because those are the ones dying at the highest rates. And if you don't value these community members enough to make concrete, systematic changes, like the proposed mask ordinance, then it's pretty clear to me that ableism, ageism and racism are at play."

Duluth Mayor Emily Larson
Duluth Mayor Emily Larson

Larson said in her response that the city mandates masks in its buildings and is doing its best to keep city staff healthy. She also said she chooses to support businesses that require masks as a display of her "values without a mandate."

"I understand that won’t be enough for you, and I’m sorry about that," Larson wrote, finishing with a note about people making the personal choice to wear masks.

"I don’t know if I am a carrier. I don’t know if you are a carrier," Larson wrote. "I only know that masks can help all of us."

Lea has been conducting livestreaming performances every Sunday throughout the pandemic, and includes the hashtag #WearAMask in all of her social media announcements.

"It should be a cause for outrage," Lea said. "Why aren't we doing more to protect members of our own community? Are we really that selfish as a society, or just that uneducated about the issues? Either way, it's unacceptable."

But Minor wondered about the viability of one-size-fits-all policy.

"Nobody could make policy that fits every single human being," she said. "Any time you make sweeping, end-of-the-pendulum policies, even if from an advantageous, goodhearted position, it doesn't really work out the way it's intended. There is always unintended harm."